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Decisions, Decisions: Insights into Interior Design

Decisions, Decisions: Insights into Interior Design

Interior design elements at University of Rhode Island’s Hope Commons separate yet complement the diverse stations. Unifying colors and finishes are shared in flooring, countertops and the band around the drop ceiling; differences are conveyed through the colors and style of signage, graphics and decorative touches.

Whether a new hospital addition, college student union, high school or office complex, major building projects are initiated and planned by administrators and executives all the time. Although an efficiently-running foodservice is always expected when such projects are completed, the amount of input from and involvement of dining services directors in early stages of the planning process can vary widely.

Some operators are involved in making significant decisions from the beginning; others are asked for their suggestions on kitchen equipment or layout alone, but are not included on the architect-controlled design committees that designate finishes, lighting fixtures, furniture and decor.

In some cases, critical FSD input early in the process can help an organization ensure that foodservice space is efficient, practical and marketable. In other cases, foodservices can be handed an undersized, hard-to-utilize space that will forever entail unnecessary operating costs and preclude badly needed revenue opportunities.

Making the Case

Why do such disparities exist? In many cases, they are dictated by the scope of the development itself. When a stand-alone café renovation is at issue, directors often enjoy exclusive or significant say-so; there may not even be a separate interior designer for the project, with a foodservice consultant and FSD choosing from among available finishes and materials themselves. The trickiest situations usually occur when a café is just a minor element in an extensive, facility-wide construction venture.

“In large projects, such as a new hospital, the foodservice portion is very small—perhaps $10 million out of a $300 million budget,” observes Paul Hysen, foodservice consultant and principle of the Northville, Michiganbased Hysen Group.

“The architect for the project may say, ‘We have an interiors department and can do the foodservice part, too.’ But the materials are different; the feeling is different. You don’t want a dining area to end up looking like an office, and it’s important to have someone on the team who understands and has experience in the retail sales environment. The director should definitely be part of the decision making process, and might have to fight for that right; but it’s crucial to do so.”

At St. Ignatius’ Rade Hall in Cleveland, a more refined interpretation of traditional school colors combined with daylighting, warm wood tones and natural wood ceiling accents to create a brand new dining environment. The same design scheme blends easily into a variety of convenience retailing “corners” near the cashier stations.

Words of wisdom from directors who’ve lived through revamps themselves, as well as consultants and designers specializing in foodservice, resoundingly echo the same advice: directors need to get involved at the beginning and stay involved. But how to go about insisting on that?

For starters, Hysen suggests finding out about a given architect’s experience with foodservice interiors. If it’s possible to get in on the architect selection in the first place, that’s ideal; if not, ask some questions before any planning takes place for the dining area:

  • Are they aware of the abuse furniture will undergo in a foodservice setting?
  • Do they understand that the café is a “selling” environment?
  • Are they willing to not stint on high intensity lighting for food displays?
  • Do they understand that this is a place that needs to have a completely different feel from the rest of the facility; that it must provide respite and mental relief?

If the project-wide architect has designers on staff who are well-versed in foodservice, that’s a great boon. If not, directors should consider negotiating for a separate designer who specializes in foodservice interiors.

There are hopeful signs that make the latter decision more likely these days. Tales of the problems that can result when an institution fails to make educated foodservice design decisions abound and can be shared with administrators during the initial planning phases of a project (see more about that below).

As Ron Kooser, president and COO of Cini-Little International, notes, “More of our primary clients are now the institutions themselves. Sometimes we’re being brought in first, before the architect; in the past, the architect usually hired the consultant.” Kooser says it is also more common today for his firm “to work on a team with the FSD and a designer so we have a look and concept pre-determined before an architect is brought into the picture.”

Without ever touching the menu, a redesign a few years ago at Ohio University in Athens by R. Berlin& Associates of Northville, Michigan, bumped sales from 750 to 1,200 a day through a fresh, more customerfriendly layout and look.

“Lots of architects want to make everything out of stainless steel; we’ve been fighting for 40 years to get rid of stainless steel! The design team needs to understand that you’re responding to real customers. You have to determine and provide what those customers want.”

Deon Lategan, director of residential dining services at Colorado State University, has worked through several renovation projects at various universities and says he has “learned the hard way” to insist on having a project’s foodservice consultant take on responsibility for the interior design (either through its own company, or by hiring an independent designer).

“There can be a large disconnect between foodservice interiors planned in this way and those planned by architects,” he says, pointing to a “bareness” and lack of merchandising detail after renovations at dining facilities in some of his past positions. “Our goal was always to have our sites look like bustling, retail marketplaces.”

Colorado State is now in the final stages of building a $7 million residential facility that will seat 700 and offer a variety of menu choices. Lategan contracted with foodservice consulting firm Ricca Newmark Design in Denver on that project and it will feature food-themed wall art, murals, decorative items and even a whimsical sculpture created by a local artist out of bent and unusable flatware the staff used to throw away. The result is a festive, retail environment well suited to sales and merchandising, Lategan says.

Providing Input

Designers that have plenty of foodservice experience recognize the importance of an onsite directors’ ideas and typically will welcome them as valuable contributors to a design committee.

A well-thought-out redesign of an existing salad and soup bar at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston resulted in improved efficiencies and sales – to the tune of $9,500+ per week. The old design included a single sink right in the middle of the salad bar work area (“basically useless, because of health code requirements” says FSD Barraclough). The new scheme includes two sinks, one at each end, for the different prep and washup needs.

Kathy Diamond-Ulepic, owner of Kathy Diamond Design Associates in Scottsdale, AZ, suggests that “directors should peruse trade magazines, tear out pictures, talk to and visit peers who’ve recently completed new foodservice projects.

“They should develop their own ideas about looks and concepts they like and functional needs they have. They should be prepared to present these as idea-starters at the initial meeting. Our response would typically be to take those as starting points and come to the second meeting with three or four different schemes to present.”

Diamond-Ulepic, whose firm specializes in foodservice and retail design, says it’s important for the designer to listen to what a director has to say. “You want to avoid a situation where a designer just announces, ‘here’s what we’re going to do,’” she says. “After all, the foodservice directors are the ones who will have to use and take care of the space. If they don’t have a sense of ownership, things often won’t work out well.”

She also notes that in preparing an overall plan for a facility, an architect’s general designer “may not understand the issues that are specific to food preparation and serving, grease buildup on floor areas, and traffic flows from kitchen areas to the front of the house. Seating has very specific requirements, for example. Typically, there’s very high usage as well as a great variety of body types going into the chairs; it’s not the same as an individual sitting at a desk. You don’t select the chairs from an office furniture catalog.”

After insisting on and securing a seat on the design committee, directors need to make sure they go to every single meeting, or at least send a top associate if they’re unable to make it.

Susan Barraclough, director of food & nutrition services at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, commiserates with time-strapped operators, but adds, “At first, you may think you’ve got a designer and consultant hired to do the work; you’re busy, so why should you bother with every meeting?”

Barraclaugh, who has been through several renovations including several recent revamps at Mass General, believes “it’s crucial you remain very involved and have an ongoing ‘heads up’ about everything that goes on. Don’t be shy about asking questions. You’re the expert when it comes to your foodservice facility.”

Dexter Hancock, MHA, RD, director of nutritional services at DCH Regional Medical Center in Tuscaloosa, AL, concurs. “You may think you don’t need to go to the meeting where they’re scheduled to talk about when the concrete will be poured. But significant decisions can be made at any meeting, even if one has to do with a topic that isn’t on the agenda. That could be the very meeting where decisions are made about cutting money from your part of the budget. You’ve got to be there to protect your interests.”

Walking the Talk

Barraclough advocates numerous walkthroughs and visualization sessions with the designer and consultant over the course the renovation process. “Also, don’t neglect to review every document they send you. It may seem like a maze at first—but you may be the one who catches a significant oversight.”

Even with a foodservice specialist team, some things can slip through that only a the director could foresee, she notes. For instance, the accent lighting above her new salad bar was designed by engineers, but it turned out to be in the wrong place, once new positioning was established for the signage. “Until we walked through the physical layout with the plans, we would never have caught that,” she says.

As another example, she says that a “walkthrough” evaluation of ongoing plans for a new soup and salad bar led her group to decide to separate the two in the new design.

“We had originally planned to combine them, just as they had been before. But we suddenly realized we could go with a Corian countertop for the salad bar if a hot area didn’t need to be there for the soup. The money saved from that decision ended up covering the cost of a separate soup station.”

Hancock cautions about accepting suggestions for cost cutting from project construction personnel. “They may push to use cheaper materials. That might be okay if it’s a very small setting; but in a high-volume facility you need quality materials such as glazed tile for the walls and carpeting that is suitable for high volume use.

“Ask to see the manufacturer’s certificate to make sure carpet is suitable for your volume requirements and make sure all furniture finishes are easily cleanable. Even small details matter. We didn’t opt for a more expensive choice of wheel casters on the chairs, but it’s something to think about in terms of eventual wear and tear on the carpet.”

Kathy Gianquitti, R.D., L.D., administrator of foodservices at the University of Rhode Island in Providence, assisted in selecting the architect and foodservice consultant for the new Hope Commons that recently opened on campus and enjoyed a good, team-oriented working relationship with them. Still, she notes the importance of keeping on top of every design décor decision.

She asked to see pictures of every single light fixture, and ended up rejecting several that were too ‘out there.’ A plan for a decorative ledge on the wall two stories high was excluded when a member of the staff advisory board she’d formed commented on how hard it would be to clean. “And I insisted on as few variances in the type of light bulbs to be used as possible. We wanted to keep the stock down and not have to source obscure lamp types.”

A four-sided gas fireplace – an idea submitted by a student from a focus group Gianquitti conducted before hiring the architect – almost got “lined out” of the budget, but Gianquitti prevailed. It’s the centerpiece of the new Rhody Market retail spot in the commons, surrounded by soft seating with wireless internet access. Students flock to it, and faculty can reserve a spot for office hours with students, where they’ll be treated to a free beverage and a tray of cookies.

Lessons Learned

Although Kathy Zieja, director of residence and dining services at Massachusetts’s Smith College, had a distinct feeling that the brushed velour fabric that the architectural firm was planning for the booths at her new student center might not be entirely suitable for a high usage college venue that’s open 16 to 17 hours a day, she was assured that testing had been done and it would be fine.

“Actually, the material turned out not to be maintenance friendly, and at the end of three years, we had to replace 14 booths and banquettes,” she says.

Before replacing the fabric, however, Zieja brought in sample furniture covered in a manmade leather-like product that’s “easily wiped off and environmentally friendly,” and set it up for a month-long test before committing to the purchase.

In another clash of architect and foodservice mindsets, the design plan called for clean lines and a spare look, which meant no signage. “We knew we needed signs, and as it turned out, customers were confused without them. So we added some aesthetically pleasing signage later,” Zieja says. “Cleaner lines were also designed into the cashier area, and we modified the original plan to give us a double-sided cashier station.”

Anticipating breakage of the customized lighting fixtures in the espresso bar area, Zieja requested and received two extra back-up pieces to have on hand.

Catherine Boucher, RD, manager for food & nutrition services at Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville, VA, will not get to move into her beautiful, fourth floor level café with sweeping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains until 2012. That’s when the replacement hospital will be completed, but she’s already deeply involved with the architectural team to ensure that the look and feel of the new space will translate into a “complete escape.”

She’s testing out patches of heavy duty, cleanable wallpaper now in her current servery, and has already determined that, due to the ever-increasing number of electronic gadgets hospital doctors and personnel have attached to their belts these days, the new booth seating will need to have a gap in the cushions, to avoid tearing of the fabric as those customers slide into booths.

There’s no question that the required attention to detail and consistent involvement with interior design issues of a construction project takes considerable extra effort from already-burdened directors.

“It seems like it’s years of time,” says Gianquitti. “But if you get the results you want, it’s worth it.”

 School Spirit, All Grown Up

The temptation to outfit a high school cafeteria makeover in team colors can be strong, especially when the directive comes from top administrators. But as two recent projects in Ohio schools show, where school colors are concerned, less is decidedly more.

At St. Ignatius High School for boys in Cleveland, designer Marianne Riccardi of Westlake, Reed & Leskosky architects took the school’s traditional bold blue and gold colors and gave them a more refined interpretation of the same color scheme, with slate blue, tans, deep navy and warm gold touches in the brand new servery and refurbished dining hall.

“They wanted something that would look more mature,” she said; and after years of what Director of Campus Dining John Pietravoia describes as “turquoise and orange tiles on the walls, no windows, and two stainless steel serving lines,” the result is nothing short of spectacularly elegant.

Describing a similar experience at Chagrin Falls high school, former Foodservice Director Maureen Faron says she worked with Cini- Little consultant Ron Kooser to come up with a “classy, timeless decor that incorporates muted school spirit so it doesn’t look trendy or like it will need to be redone in five years.”

With orange and black as the school colors, Faron knew she needed a subdued approach if she wanted to attractively incorporate them. Thus, she chose surface countertops in Corian with natural flecks of black and rust scattered through; tannishpeach color in the flooring; and a chair rail, decorative ceramic tile design in low-key orange and black.

Getting and Staying Involved

Being a part of the design committee and making your voice heard from the beginning of a renovation project is crucial, both directors and designers agree. Here are some suggestions from the two sides of this process.

Tips from Designers:

  • Prepare a book or portfolio of pictures clipped from trade magazines or taken at other onsite facilities that show design elements you like.
  • Visit other facilities to gather ideas; take notes when visiting commercial restaurants.
  • Determine critical factors for a project: costs, flexibility, retail, traffic and sanitation needs.
  • Make a list of your “problem issues”: what hasn’t worked in the past?
  • Share menu and station ideas with the designer both verbally and in writing.
  • Have one point person who is responsible as the ongoing contact for the designer (try to avoid the design-by-committee approach).
  • Don’t feel you need to be an expert; you’ve hired an expert. Ask questions about what you don’t understand.

Tips from Directors:

  • Interview several designers before choosing one. If the architect for a large project has a design team, talk with them and see how much foodservice experience they have. Look at portfolios. If foodservice experience is limited, try to push for a separate designer for the dining facilities. At the very least, insist on approving all foodservice decisions.
  • Go to every meeting from the beginning—you never know what may come up for discussion and decision-making, even if it’s not on the printed agenda.
  • Bring in photos not only of what you like, but what you dislike, and check with the president and vice presidents/administrators to see if there are design features they’d object to.
  • Take your design team and boss along on some of your site visits to other facilities.
  • Check out other facilities’ foodservice websites.
  • Check with organizations in your segment— many associations hold seminars and workshops on design strategy during conferences.
  • Form a staff and student (if applicable) advisory team to consolidate ideas and concepts in-house. But have the foodservice director and/or associate meet with designers/architects alone.
  • Walk the space with your designer and consultant frequently. Allow time to “daydream” and brainstorm with the design team on these walks.
  • Test materials – line up samples of furnitureand let customers try them out for a week or more; put up samples of wallpaper to see how easy it really is to clean.

Material Matters

Materials and finishes that are durable, easily cleanable and made for high volume traffic are key for foodservice spaces. We asked designers to share some suggestions for products and approaches that they’ve found work well.

Kathy Diamond-Ulepic, owner, Kathy Diamond Design Associates, Scottsdale, AZ:

  • Don’t be afraid to step it up a notch and get away from synthetics, going with mosaic glass tiles, marble and granite in foodservice. They’re good quality materials that last.
  • Skid resistant ceramic tiles or porcelain tiles are good for floors; or, consider new “luxury” vinyls that emulate ceramic, marble or concrete.
  • Use lots of decorative lighting with health-code protected lenses, such as drop pendant lights, to help highlight the food and identify a station.

Deborah Roy, designer, Interior Design Professionals, Inc., Tuscaloosa, AL:

  • If the budget allows, look into a material like silestone, which looks like granite but is more expensive and includes anti-microbial properties built into the surface.
  • Consider carpet tile over broadloom, so pieces can be peeled up and a replacement put down when needed. Remember that the busier the pattern on the carpet, the less often it will have to be deep cleaned.
  • Rounded corners on counters made of plastic laminate won’t crack as easily when they take a hit (e.g., from carts), since there are no seams.

Robert Berlin, principle, R. Berlin & Associates, LLC, Northville, MI:

  • Look into marmoleum—available in many colors—as a good floor covering.
  • Incorporate a mix of direct lighting and indirect lighting bounced off the ceiling for a welcoming look.
  • Try to get the funds to outsource and do signage professionally versus printing your own.
  • Break things up visually in a large space, using different colors, countertops, types and styles of seating arrangements (four- and sixtops; banquettes; booths; some café seating with higher café tables).

· When selecting artwork for the walls, go for something that has a story line to it. Consider bold framing for large spaces.

Marianne Riccardi, designer, Westlake, Reed & Leskosky, Cleveland, OH:

  • FRP (fiberglass reinforced panels) on walls in the kitchen versus drywall helps prevent nicks.
  • Resinace flooring— textured, no grout, no seams— can be a good choice for some foodservice facilities.
  • Quartzite—quartz-filled acrylic—is impervious to water, yet looks like granite and can take heat.
  • Scrubable epoxy paint for walls helps with cleanability.
  • When a space includes all hard surfaces (no soft seating or carpeting), different ceiling heights and ceiling treatments can reflect and deflect sound.
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