Designed to Dine

Student dining facilities are changing—and university officials need to be flexible and prepared.

Student dining facilities on college campuses look very different today than they did five or 10 years ago. Gone are the days of the buffet-style, assembly-line cafeteria environment. Students are looking for more specialized, enticing, and engaging environments and experiences for their meals. From more appealing, accessible, and transparent food options and dining hall designs to dining options meant to better accommodate allergies and other special dietary needs for vegetarian, vegan, kosher, and halal diners, there is a pressing need for new and redesigned dining facilities on campuses across the country.

As the on-campus dining landscape evolves with continued input from students and their needs, the approach to design and construction of these spaces must change as well. From ground-up construction on new dining halls with more than a dozen stations to modest redesigns and reconfigurations to make dated spaces feel, look, and work differently, there are a wide range of opportunities for inventive and innovative university dining design.

What follows are best practices university officials should familiarize themselves with before making changes to their current dining landscape. These concepts can help any university dining program looking to refresh and reformat their current offerings for students make those changes efficiently and on a budget. These best practices also minimize disruption and use innovative redesign and retrofitting ideas to maximize space, creating a dynamic and engaging dining environment.

Break It Up

Moving away from an outdated cafeteria-style layout gives you newfound flexibility to create fresh new spaces far from the stereotype of university dining. Innovative design and construction professionals with eyes on dining trends are moving food preparation out into the seating areas where it’s more interactive. They’re also moving seating into the service areas to try and replicate the open kitchen or chef-table feel found at growing numbers of restaurants. The buffet-line model is obsolete, and creating themed stations where different types of food can be presented in compelling and creative ways can go a long way toward making students feel like they are enjoying a curated and customizable dining experience.

Flexibility and Sustainability

Moving things around does more than just add interest and excitement. This approach sets you up for flexibility and sustainability, with designs and equipment suitable for a variety of different configurable options. Instead of cold wells, for example, you can install hot and cold wells that make it easy to switch from cold pasta salads to soups with just a few easy graphics changes.

Expectations about what feels new and fresh have changed radically. Surveys show college students perceive anything older than 90 days as dated. The right professional partners will help you to maximize your available the space to match a changing menu or simply to give students a new experience.

Plan Ahead

Extensive preparation and meticulous task planning is critically important, given the unique constraints on construction in a university setting. As a general rule, a bare minimum of six months lead time is required for any significant food service project, allowing sufficient time for design and permitting approvals. Since so many projects need to be completed over the 12- to 14-week summer window, designs and approvals should be fully finalized several months in advance, allowing the construction team to purchase equipment, secure long-lead-time items, and store and stage all needed equipment and materials in a warehouse local to campus.

Know Your Customer

This may seem obvious, but remember to gear your facility toward your students. They are your customers, and all design and functionality decisions should be made with that in mind. Utilize detailed surveys and conduct research to determine what students want out of their on-campus dining experience, understand what demographic(s) you’re serving, and design your facility to meet those preferences and priorities. The student feedback process doesn’t end once the job is done. Have a mechanism in place to continue to secure feedback, and be willing to make strategic changes in the future that can make a significant impact for a relatively modest investment.

Dollars and Sense

When it comes to budgeting, every facility and every project is different. Different universities have different capital expenditures budget and their own individualized priorities and timelines. Surprisingly significant changes can be manifested for a few hundred thousand dollars to deliver a sizable impact for a relatively small cost. In other cases, substantial renovations with dramatic structural changes may cost several million dollars over the course of one or more summers.

Regardless of size, every project should be designed to deliver the most bang for the buck. Experienced construction professionals should be able to help university officials be flexible with equipment selections, finishes, and other variables to help projects stay under budget. If possible, those professionals should be involved and on campus early in the design process—not just to help with planning, but also to evaluate existing facilities. Your options might be limited (or expanded) based on requirements or opportunities that only a professional would recognize.

Be Mindful of Trends

Finally, be mindful of culinary and campus trends, and be proactive about creating spaces and services that will be ahead of the curve with respect to student preferences and priorities. Specialized dietary needs are on the rise, and more schools are creating allergy-free stations, vegan and vegetarian options, and kosher and halal kitchens. Some of those have very specific design requirements that need to be considered early in the (re)design process.

Other schools are designing space for creative and distinctive new food service options like full-service bakeries to help make dining facilities more of a unique destination or experience. Mobile ordering is hugely popular, and university officials should be aware that things like kiosk ordering stations and mobile pickup options need to be part of the design for true mobile ordering to work properly.

Ultimately, it’s about empowering students. Provide more choices—and more reasons—to come and eat at your facilities. Thoughtful and strategic campus dining designs can achieve those goals and create extraordinary and cost-effective new spaces that will quickly become popular new campus attractions.

About the Author

Todd Sachse is the CEO and Founder of Sachse Construction, a premier commercial construction firm recognized as one of the most trusted and respected construction partners in North America. For more information, visit