Pushing the Envelope: Innovation in Food-Service Design

Throughout the process of renovating Lakeside Dining Hall at The University of Alabama campus, CMH Architects helped the university address overlapping and evolving areas of major concern with the existing building through creative design solutions, innovative design strategies and technologies, and intentional focus on design and construction efficiency to accommodate an intensely accelerated project schedule. 

CMH initially met with the university in 2016 to listen to the administrators’ issues with the existing dining hall. Originally built in 2007, Lakeside serves as the primary dining hall for north campus serving more than 1,500 meals on an average day. “The initial concerns were to address the insufficient seating capacity and lack of seating options and to fulfill the need to create a physical connection with a new residence hall that was to be built next door,” says CMH Vice President John Wood, who served as project manager on the Lakeside Dining Hall renovation. “As we got into planning, it quickly became evident that Lakeside had a more fundamental problems with inefficient serving station layouts causing exhaustion and ultimately affecting staff retention.” In addition, the entire design-and-construction process, which would normally take a year, would need to be completed within five months to minimize interference with the students use of the facility.

CMH listened and asked questions in these planning discussions, which led them to thoroughly investigate the facility’s spatial relationships and analyze its mechanical, plumbing, and electrical systems to determine a design solution that would meet the university’s functional needs, aesthetic goals, and scheduling requirements. Here, we dive into the clever, innovative, and tech-savvy strategies that CMH employed to tackle each design challenge.

BEFORE: The entry to The University of Alabama’s Lakeside Dining facility
AFTER: The renovated Lakeside Dining facility is sleek, modern, and inviting.

Challenge: Staff Retention Hindering Efficiency & Growth

Solution: Create Self-Sufficient Food Stations That Improve Service & Foster Growth

Bruce McVeigh the General Manager for Bama Dining was trying to efficiently operate Lakeside Dining Hall in a manner that would facilitate the university’s goal of increasing its seating capacity and making a connection to the new adjacent residence hall; however, this effort was futile in light of his staff-retention issues. “Lakeside Dining was his problem child as far as staff retention,” says John, explaining that the distance from the back-of-house kitchen to the points of service was a significant trek, and the staff was continuously having to go back and forth to replenish food stations throughout the day. “Bruce said, ‘What CMH did for Fresh Food Dining Hall works. Why did that work?’ And he realized, or remembered, that we wanted to set these food venues up so that each food-service station is self-sustaining for an entire meal service.”

To test this theory, Bruce had his staff wear pedometers both at Lakeside Dining and other food-service venues on campus. John reports, “The results showed that the staff at Lakeside Dining were clocking in miles further a day of walking. So, CMH included a walk-in cooler and freezer as part of the food-service island, as well as small equipment storage in each station. The result, John says, was that “staff could remain on station throughout a meal service, efficiency improved dramatically, and staff retention stabilized.”

BEFORE: One food prep area was far removed from the dining hall’s various points of service.
AFTER: Smart design solutions, such as equipment storage and coolers at each serving station drastically improved efficency.

Challenge: Discovery of Maintenance Issues

Solution: Design Cost-Efficient Solutions Leading to More Efficient Operations 

CMH worked with the facilities department to assess the efficiency of the facility’s systems and identify any persistent maintenance issues. “The university tracks maintenance calls for their buildings, so we had them pull five years of maintenance reports for Lakeside Dining,” explains  John. “We did an analysis of those reports and found recurring issues with reports of insufficient hot water and clogging of the grease interceptor.” 

“The water boiler was sufficient, but it lacked storage capacity to handle surges of use during the day. Instead of replacing an expensive boiler, we recommended a recirculating pump and a larger hot-water storage tank, which was much less expensive, and would provide the surge capacity needed,” says John. “And we did some modifications to their plumbing systems and enlarged the grease interceptor.”

Taking the time to thoroughly research and analyze these foundational systems ultimately allowed for a more efficient and lasting facility.  

BEFORE: “The dining hall was outdated and not supportive of contemporary food-service trends,” says CMH Vice President John Wood, who served as project manager on the Lakeside Dining Hall renovation.
AFTER: The new dining space capture’s the desired light-filled contemporary feel, even with the addition of a mezzanine level above, which overlooks the different food-hall vendor stations.

Challenge: To Create a Light, Airy Space with a Modernized Look

Solution: Expose the Structure and Invent a Polycarbonate Design Solution to Meet Codes

The original Lakeside Dining Hall had large, high-ceiling serving and dining areas with no obvious flow for the end user or any intentional design style differentiating the myriad food stations. The dining layout was in keeping with the outmoded food-court style in which back-of-house cooks brought food to steam tables where diners formed into serving lines. In addition, the food stations lacking the ability to support changing signage, menu, or nutrition information.

BEFORE: Millwork and signage at the original beverage station
AFTER: Renovated food stations feature changing signage, menu, and nutrition information via digital screens; while, the beverage station renovation includes updated millwork.

The university wanted the space to function with more zones so they could manipulate the size of the seating area while keeping an airy feel and a modern food-hall look. They asked for the majority of the food venues to be in one island in the middle of the room. The CMH design team added a mezzanine to expand seating and improve circulation between the two floors. This also created distinct seating areas with different lighting levels. A separate retail-based restaurant was added to the second floor overlooking the dining hall to add variety and additional capacity.

The food-service island presented a unique design challenge. “We all wanted an open feel where diners could look down into the serving area from above, but food-safety guidelines require a hard ceiling over all food-prep and serving areas” explains John. “So, we essentially invented a washable translucent ceiling, using the same plastic you see in a Coke bottle. So, you had a bunch of diffused natural light flowing through the food hall. From the guest’s vantage point, it looks sort of like opaque glass, but it’s actually plastic—and it’s removable and cleanable.”

CMH invented a polycarbonate design solution, covering the kitchens below, to allow for diners at the mezzanine level to look out into the food hall from above.
The main food-service island in the renovated Lakeside Dining Hall makes a great first impression in the modernized space.

CMH also proposed building a steel-framed trellis around the food-service stations that would support both branding signage as well as electronic menu boards, exuding a sleek industrial look. “This brought a contemporary ‘food hall’ feel to the space,” says John. “A wood-fired grill was placed front and center at the entry to the new serving area to excite the senses; while, fresh vegetables are displayed on the other side of the island in a walk-in cooler with reach-in glass doors. And there’s a fully functional bakery with the entire operation on display,” Overall, these changes not only met every functional need, but they also made the dining hall a more personal and visually compelling experience.

Challenge: Execute Entire Design-and-Construction Process in Only Five Months

Solution: Devise Innovative Strategies and Tweak Processes to Meet Tight Deadlines

Accelerated scheduling was the mother of innovation in this project. The university determined that they could only afford for the dining hall to be shut down in March of the school year, but it had to be up and running by sorority pledge week, which left CMH with an extremely aggressive schedule. “Normally you’d take this facility down for the school year, but we didn’t—we did it in five months,” says John. To accommodate such a tight schedule required innovation, both through the use of technology and streamlined—or cleverly circumvented—processes. 

“We had to front-load everything that we could, so we pre-purchased all of the food-service equipment. Normally this equipment takes eight to 12 weeks for delivery, but we ordered it all before we finished construction drawings, so we knew what we were going to get,” says John. “And we produced the structural steel shop drawings under our structural engineer’s direction during design. So, we cut the steel shop drawing process from two months to one week for structural steel review. That was innovative.” 

The CMH design team also tackled the entire design phase in just three months, November through January, including the holidays. “The only way we could design that fast was to produce the project in REVIT and utilizing a walkable, 3D model during design reviews with the client,” says John. “It’s not that uncommon, but it was certainly very helpful for this client to understand what they were going to see in the finished space. In weekly meetings, which were conducted virtually for convenience, we could walk through the space together, talk about it, and mark up changes. It was helpful because we were coordinating all kinds of things like equipment placement, clearances, views, signage, and electronic menu boards. And the truth of the matter was, it was exactly what they were delivered.”

This constant problem-solving through creativity and innovation is at the heart of CMH’s work. “Every time we do another food-service project, I learn something. I think it is not only important to learn what is possible, but also to constantly push the boundaries and be open to trying something new. And on this project, we pushed the envelope a little bit further, which is always really good.”

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