Musical Chairs

Once upon a time, a high school principal in the Glendale (Calif.) Unified School District approached Rick DeBurgh, director of school foodservice. He said, “I want you to buy more study hall tables.” DeBurgh explained, “I don’t buy study hall tables.”

“Well, we need more places for students to eat,” argued the principal. Then, let the students eat on fastfood-type tables that feature school colors, countered DeBurgh. “But they also have to study there,” said the principal. And in a tale that ends happily ever after, DeBurgh showed the principal how students can study happily and productively on festive fastfood tables. “There was some initial concern, but after I met with the student group, the principal said, ‘OK, go for it,’ and the results have been wildly successful,” he says.

Not every school across the country boasts a separate space for its cafeteria, study hall, auditorium, gymnasium, school dance and meeting place. In fact, in many schools, one room must serve many functions. The result is the ubiquitous multi-purpose cafeteria, and its logistics can challenge even the most creative foodservice director. But with some innovative design or redesign, school foodservice professionals can find a wealth of solutions to maintain the cafeteria’s identity. The key is to get involved in the process early-before it’s too late and the music has stopped playing.

More than a necessary evil?

Many foodservice operators complain about facilities that are not exclusively designed to accommodate diners. But others recognize the fiscal realities that well-planned and well-designed multi-purpose rooms save schools money. “I think multi-purpose rooms are wonderful and save money for the school system because the buildings’ square footage requirements are lower,” says Beth Taylor, child nutrition director of Johnston County School District (N.C.).

Taylor says she actually enjoys multi-use rooms because they allow the cafeteria staff to be more involved in what’s going on in the school. Staff get to see a lot of different school activities take place and constantly are being asked to participate. “I don’t see any disadvantages,” she says.

Taylor has been involved in the design of six multi-purpose rooms in the last five years, and says the district’s best design is one in which the cafeteria is married with the auditorium, creating a “cafetorium.” She describes the space: “We set up the kitchen at one end, with dining in the middle and a stage at the other end so our dining area can be converted into auditorium-style seating.” The stage, she says, is removable, “so that the room has the ability to be used for many aspects of academic life. Plus, it very much suits the needs of our dining area because [the school foodservice department] got involved in the design phase early on.”

When in cafeteria-mode, the cafetoriums have booths, but they are also removable. Taylor uses one uniform 17.5-in. chair of hard, vinyl plastic, designed specifically for the cafeteria-in that the legs come straight down rather than splaying out and catching a child’s foot when walking between aisles. Because the chairs are stackable, workers can convert all seating from dining-style to auditorium-style in just 90 minutes. The speed of the change is aided by the use of fold-and-roll tables. The multi-purpose rooms also were designed with lots of built-in storage; the room requires up to 450 theater chairs, but only requires only 250 dining chairs.

According to Taylor, the kitchen is designed to be closed off from the dining area with doors and panels, so that when a banquet is in progress, staff can clean up without worrying about disrupting ongoing activities. “Because we designed the doors so that they shut the kitchen off from the room, we did not need special sound proofing,” explains says Taylor, adding that a secure kitchen ensures that equipment doesn’t disappear.

Design for style

One of the most frequent complaints with multi-function rooms is that they can be stark and spare by design, so that no one use is highlighted; the idea is that students won’t want to study in the cafeteria or eat in the auditorium. But all-purpose doesn’t have to mean wholly lacking in color or style.

“It used to be no one wanted to come in and sit down to eat, because the multi-purpose room was dingy,” notes Rick DeBurgh. He describes these facilities as large, stark rooms with four bare walls that were white in some places (and off-white in others), unbecoming floors, scratched-up study hall tables and fluorescent lighting. Unlike the schools in Johnston County, Glendale’s schools are endowed with separate auditoriums so the cafeterias do not have to double as stage theaters. But they do serve as meeting rooms, study halls and school dance locales.

DeBurgh recognized that the dŽcor was having a serious dampening effect on participation. By enhancing aesthetics, he knew he could increase sales. “You need to have a firm idea of what it is you want to do before you start, and know that it will positively impact your sales,” DeBurgh explains. The costs of remodeling multi-purpose cafeterias is recouped from happy, satisfied customers, he asserts. DeBurgh has remodeled two high school multi-purpose cafeterias, as well as two of his four middle schools. Another is slated for renovation next year.

After surveying students as to what they wanted, DeBurgh had permanent booths installed around the perimeter of the rooms and added two- and four-person fastfood tables. “You have to ask yourself, ‘What can I do to make the multi-purpose room look like a fastfood restaurant?'” says DeBurgh. “How many 12-ft. long, 3-ft. wide 12-person tables do you find at McDonalds?” The two- and four-person tables are more cozy and attract more customers.

“Before the remodeling, if I gave my managers a sign that said ‘Fine Dining,’ they would have had no place to hang it,” notes DeBurgh. “Now that the rooms have been remodeled, instead of having scratched-up study hall tables and ugly floors, we’ve got [a fastfood atmosphere] and neon lighting.”

Because Glendale’s Hoover High School is nicknamed the Tornadoes, the multi-purpose room is designed with a “The Wizard of Oz” theme. Laminated table tops have pictures of wheat fields on them. Other decorations include a flying monkey, a witch on a broom and a neon high-heeled purple sneaker with the moniker, ‘”Air Dorothy.” When students walk into “The Land of Oz,” they see yellow tile embedded into red tile that represents the yellow brick road. Clever custom signage is designed by a professional, says DeBurgh. One sign says, “You’re not in Kansas Anymore,” and students view it as they leave the cafeteria each day. “We also have the castle backlit in neon,” boasts DeBurgh.

The theme for Glendale High School is based on the school’s nickname, “The Dynamiters.” So the multi-purpose cafeteria sports an exploding clock. The signage on the “Make Your Own Burrito” station shows a burrito in reverse implosion, where the pieces are coming together as the sandwich is made in front of waiting students. Reflecting school colors, the room features a red-and-white patchwork floor.

For many projects, DeBurgh taps the experience of inhouse talent, encouraging the school’s graphics department to propose artwork to be displayed on the wall of the multi-purpose room. For example, the students at Glendale High School developed a mosaic that depicted aspects of local history.

Glendale cafeterias feature new padded chairs that replace old, hard wooden benches. Unlike Johnston County’s stackable vinyl chairs, Glendale’s padded chairs are not stackable, because the room does not have to be cleared for its other uses. Some operators may fear such an expensive purchase would be squandered through vandalism. But Glendale staff explained to students that if they ripped or otherwise destroyed the padded chairs in any way, the replacement chairs would be the old, hard, wooden benches. “I’ve had [the padded chairs] for three years now, and I’ve never lost a single chair yet,” reports DeBurgh.

Everyone’s got an interest

Designing a functional multi-function room means more than creating a bright, pleasant atmosphere. It means taking into consideration many different needs-and sometimes making some compromises.

Jean Ronnei, foodservice director, St. Paul Public School District in Minnesota, worked for two years on the design team of a multi-purpose cafeteria called “The Great Room” for Arlington High School. The room, which opened in 1996, is used for district and community events, such as seminars and performances.

According to Ronnei, the team found that the success of the project hinged on both sound and visual barriers between the kitchen and the Great Room. The solution? The Great Room is a space that is lower than the serving area and the kitchen, and there is a stage area opposite the kitchen. Because one side of the entire room is windows, consideration had to be given to creating a unique way to darken the room for films and stage performances. Designers also had to factor in the placement of custodial offices, delivery space and storage. For example, the custodians’ offices needed to be near The Great Room because of the many changes different functions require. Access between loading docks and the kitchen was arranged so that deliveries would not have to travel through The Great Room itself. In addition, a hallway between the loading dock and the Great Room was designed to ease non-kitchen equipment delivery.

The design team also gave a lot of consideration to how students and others would move in and out of the space. For example, there is an entrance to the Great Room from the outside parking area, so that community members can enter the room without going through the main doors and traveling through the school.

Compromise doesn’t necessarily end when construction does. Ronnei notes that scheduling was a big issue. “We came to an agreement during the design phase that first and foremost, the space would be used for school breakfast and lunch,” she recalls. “Never would something else be scheduled during lunch.” Good intentions, but the first year, the room accidentally did get booked during lunch. Overall, however, a cooperative relationship among all players helps to keep conflicts to a minimum.

A ground-level issue

Students may not pay attention to the floor they tromp over, but depending on the mix of uses for a multi-purpose room, flooring can be a particular concern. Tim Eslinger, now a project manager for Miller Cook Architects in Portland (Ore.), was the project architect for Henkle Middle School’s multi-purpose cafeteria (which combines the cafeteria with the gymnasium and a stage theater) in White Salmon, Washington.

Naturally, appropriate flooring was one of the greatest challenges. Gym floors usually are wood and vulnerable to the scrapes and bruises of street shoes. Yet because food is served on the same floor, any wood must be protected from spills. “We had explored the possibility of installing a more resilient, two-part epoxy floor, which is a petroleum-based product,” says Eslinger. “The benefit is the floor’s more durable life of 20 some odd years.” Wooden floors, on the other hand, with the polyurethane finish, often must be refinished every five years, which is expensive. While ultimately, the petroleum-based floor route is less expensive, wooden floors are admired and often are preserved wherever possible. The school decided to keep the existing wooden floor.

The room is designed to serve lunch meals from a vertical coil door, with direct access to the kitchen, which is positioned along one side of the room. “Students move down the serving line and pay at a mobile station, which is actually a small podium on wheels, with a cash register,” explains Eslinger. “After meals, you have a very clean image-all you see is a large hole with stainless steel horizontal slats, so nothing juts out into the room that would be dangerous during gym time.”

Timing and teamwork

As you go through the design or renovation of a multi-purpose room, there are a number of factors that come into play. Timing is key. Glendale’s Rick DeBurgh cautions about the importance of the scheduling timeline. “Renovations always take longer than you think. I think you need to plan on at least a year,” he says of a project’s total duration. “I had one project that was not finished until three weeks after school had begun. You can’t decide in February that you want to remodel a dining room starting in June, and then have it done by September.”

What’s more important than good timing? Teamwork, teamwork, teamwork! “Above all, make sure that you involve everyone and communicate well,” stresses DeBurgh. Possible design team members may include students, foodservice employees at the site (cooks or servers, as well as the site manager), the principal, assistant superintendent of business and the school board.

Why is it so important to include the customer? “The student in a high school is an expert on what an eating area should look like,” asserts DeBurgh, “So the first thing we do when planning a remodeling job is meet with the student council.”

DeBurgh says that student involvement is the key to his ability to gain the ear of the principal and even the school board. “The single most important person in a school district, if you want to get something done, is the student board representative,” he explains. “If I get student groups behind a new idea, everybody says it’s a great idea. We have 30,000 students in our district and 3,000 employees. [School administrators] don’t want to disagree with a student board member.”

For Beth Taylor, the major team players in her renovations were the maintenance staff, child nutrition staff, special building consultant, deputy superintendents, assistant superintendent, academic supervisors and directors, the principal and other staff members in the school. Jean Ronnei’s St. Paul’s team consisted of the building principal, cafeteria supervisor, curriculum team, architect, community members and parents.

With so many people involved in the process-each with their own needs, interests and agendas-it may be a real challenge to keep things from getting as competitive as a literal game of musical chairs. Be open to compromises (except where safety is concerned) and enjoy the challenges and advantages a multi-purpose room offers.