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San Rafael’s new Student Commons includes has 30-ft. ceilings, modern architecture and a contemporary design. Nearby is a new courtyard with amphitheater-style concrete seating and a shade structure.

New cafeteria/kitchen complex gives high school a college vibe

San Rafael High School recently added a 43,000-sq.ft. cafeteria/central kitchen facility that will allow enhanced meal production for district schools while giving the high school’s students a college-style commons area.

The new school year will bring a dramatic upgrade in how and where students of San Rafael High School and the adjoining Madrone Continuation High School eat. That’s because the San Rafael City Schools in California recently completed construction of its 43,000-sq.-ft. Madrone-Admin-Cafeteria-Kitchen (MACK) building project that incorporates a new two-story administration building, central kitchen, support spaces, student commons area and classrooms for Madrone.

The MACK is just one part of a larger upgrade of facilities in San Rafael City Schools that also produced new kitchens in two other school sites—Terra Linda High School and Venetia Valley K-8.

San Rafael City Schools consists of a high school district with three facilities—San Rafael, Madrone and Terra Linda—and an elementary district with eight schools, including six K-5 schools, the Venetia Valley K-8 school and one middle school. Total enrollment is around 7,200 with three of the elementary schools and Madrone High School operating on Community Eligibility Program (CEP) status due to elevated poverty ratios in their enrollments.


The Bulldog Bistro is the serving area in the new San Rafael High School Student Commons and features two outlets, each able to serve either hot or cold selections.

“I felt very fortunate in getting three new facilities that are state of the art,” offers Alan Downing, director of nutrition services. “Previously, we were operating a district central kitchen out of a high school facility, San Rafael High School’s kitchen that was the largest in the district, and it was difficult. I started here as the operations manager and when you have a 10 by 10 freezer from which you're trying to work out 3,500-4,000 meals a day, it gets complicated!”

The plan going forward is now to continue to satellite meals to district sites other than Terra Linda and Venetia Valley from the new San Rafael kitchen. The plan for those meals will evolve as circumstances in the post-pandemic environment emerge, Downing says.

“We've always done some scratch cooking in our high schools and tried to get three to four scratch items per week and always offered three to four entrees per day,” he explains. “The plan for the start of the 2021-22 school year in the high school district is a scratch item per day that we’ll try to transition to two per day in the second half of the school year. In the elementaries, we're starting humbly with one scratch item per week and will try to transform that into two to three by the end of school year.”

College setting

In addition to the kitchen, the MACK includes a Student Commons Building “that is entirely different from what we had in the past,” Downing says, adding that the servery in the Commons offers lunch to both the San Rafael and Madrone student populations at separate times. San Rafael has about 1,200 students while Madrone has less than a hundred.

“I would liken it to a college setting,” he says of the Commons. “It's a very large room with soft chairs, a lounge area and little independent studying cubbies and not your prototypical multipurpose room with fold down tables.”

Cooking_side_2.jpegPhoto: San Rafael’s production kitchen prepares food for most district schools and the new facility has the capacity to do that efficiently, unlike the previous undersized kitchen at the site.

The MACK opened toward the end of 2020, “so we did not have students really on campus at the time” as the district operated first at full distance learning and then with a hybrid remote/in-person system for most of the 2020-21 school year. It implemented a return to in-person classes for those who chose it over the last five weeks of the term this past spring, a development that provided the meal program a chance to try out its new facilities on actual customers.

“The district goal over summer is to see where the virus takes us, what the Marin County Health & Human Services puts out as guidelines, what the state puts out as guidelines and then rethink how we’ll be doing the meal service,” Downing says.

The café in the Commons building, called the Bulldog Bistro, has two platforms that can serve both hot and cold food.

“The intention when we designed this five years ago was that it was going be all bulk food and self-serve, but now because of the pandemic we’re trying to re-evaluate how we're going to do this,” Downing notes.

When some students returned toward the end of the last school year, everything was packaged, but for the fall he is considering several options ranging from a return to “normal,” a midway plan with scratch cooking but everything individually packaged, and one that has everything served as bagged-up grab and go.

“With 1,300 students at max, it’s not like a high school with 10,000 where you have to have five different areas,” he says. “At a lunchtime, we typically feed maybe 100 to 500 on a good day and get them through quickly and in an orderly fashion. During the pandemic, we did talk about having multiple stations on campus but then you run into the staffing issue.”

Also, both high schools are open campus, meaning the meal program has to compete with outside vendors. To help compensate, the school had “a fair amount” of a la carte options such as chips, cookies, beverages that could accompany a regulation lunch meal.

“We haven't thought that through for next school year yet,” Downing offers. “Financially, I would love to bring back a la carte sales up but that means dealing with cash in hand and there’s been some pushback on that” due to potential safety issues related to handling cash.  

Meanwhile, with the expected return of the full student body to in-person instruction this fall, participation levels remain an open question.

“I will have to wait and see if operating the summer seamless option for next school year is going to increase participation drastically,” Downing notes. “In that last six weeks of school this spring where I had kids on campus, we still had a good percentage of students who opted for distance learning. At San Rafael, for example, three or four hundred out of the 1,200 opted to be in distance learning for the entire school year and never came on campus, so I did not get a true read of whether participation was going to increase dramatically.”

Dramatically illustrating the problem

Pre-construction activities by contract firm Alten Construction on the estimated $29 million project began in December 2018, with ground broken the following March. The projects were parts of a much larger upgrade of district facilities that is ongoing, though the portions affecting the meal program are pretty much finished. Downing is very pleased with the results, noting that one early experience may have helped produce the kind of kitchen facility he needed.

receiving_2.jpegPhoto: The new receiving area has a loading zone that accommodates multiple delivery trucks and leads directly into a two-door walk-in refrigerator and freezer.

“We had had meeting after meeting on what we wanted and what was needed,” he recalls, “so finally I invited the architect and the kitchen designer to come down on a morning when we were getting a grocery delivery, which happened to be something like 14 pallets. Meanwhile, the produce company was also making a delivery at the same time, and the architect and the kitchen designer were like, ‘Oh, now I see the problem!’ because you had a dozen people in that facility working while all of this was being delivered to refrigerators and freezers that didn’t have enough space for them. It was eye-opening to them and helped the design process.”

The new space they came up with has a loading zone to accommodate delivery trucks with plenty of parking space, while inside, the delivery zone leads directly into a two-door walk-in refrigerator and freezer.

“Now, there's plenty of space to easily get 14 pallets down so it can all be checked in and then put away accordingly,” Downing says. “The freezer and refrigerator are large enough to wheel pallets into them for staging. It’s just completely different from what we were doing, when we were trying to operate a district [meal program] out of a [single] high school kitchen.”

TAGS: Design
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