Wave of the Future
A well-dressed school cafeteria can mean sea change in student attitude.
By Janice Matsumoto
In The Eagle's Nest dining room, one wall, cluttered with a wide roll-up door and various entrances, was transformed by a muralist to a scene of eagles soaring over mountains and valleys. Life-size bird models swoop from the ceiling toward nests tucked above windows, where willow branches bound to form valences complete the outdoor illusion.
What could be the rustic décor of a casual-dining restaurant is instead the cafeteria at Emerson Elementary in Long Beach, Calif. It is one of several school dining facilities transformed from grunge to greatness via themed renovations. These eateries may not be quite as slick as national restaurant brands, but they make up for it with originality and fun.
The impact of revved-up cafeterias goes beyond the cosmetic. Foodservice staff, teachers, and principals at schools with themed eating spaces find that participation levels rise, food satisfaction increases, school pride mounts and mealtime behavior problems subside as students respond to being treated with respect by adults.
"The principal asked kids to write down their thoughts about The Eagle's Nest," recalls Sharon Stephens, the Costa Mesa, Calif.-based foodservice consultant who created Emerson Elementary's concept. "One boy wrote, 'Even the food tastes better now.' But the thing is, the kitchen and menus stayed exactly the same."
A themed renovation can cost from $10,000 to more than $100,000, depending on the scope of work done, says Stephens. Opponents to the expenditures, focusing solely on a school's bottom line, may claim that the money is better spent on books or teachers. Stephens disagrees. "Stimulating kids' creativity is just as important," she says. "And many times, giving students a welcoming place for social activities at school is what keeps them at school. It rounds out the school environment."
Meg Chesley, foodservice director at Corona-Norco (Calif.) Unified School District, created her district's first themed cafeteria more than eight years ago. "I would do them over and over again because I believe in them so strongly," she says. "Part of our mission is to nourish the spirit. My goal is for students to grow up and say to their kids, 'You need to eat in school because I had a great experience when I was your age.'"
Creating a school eatery snazzy enough to raise quality perceptions takes more than walls filled with pretty pictures. It requires a solid foodservice operation, funding, administrative buy-in, vision and attention to detail, says Stephens, who has worked with eight different California school districts on cafeteria makeovers.
Themed cafeterias at older schools, such as those in Brevard County, Fla., are prized all the more by students because the transformation is so dramatic. When Dawn Houser took charge of foodservice at Brevard Public Schools in 1996, more than half of the district's 80 schools dated from the late '50s and '60s, with equally old equipment and battered furnishings.
Her first move was to bring equipment and operations up to par. "If the food is mediocre, no amount of renovations will keep students coming back," Houser says.
As revenues rose, profits were plowed back into the next round of improvements: a $1 million furniture purchase to replace splintering tables and dented, rusting folding chairs at the older schools.
Then came makeovers to themed serveries. Topping the list was Cocoa Beach Junior/Senior High School, with its plywood serving lines, weak lighting and peeling walls. Over one summer, workers gutted the servery and installed new fixtures, furniture, flooring and lighting. Houser hired an artist to enliven every wall with a tropical/beach theme, with elements ranging from a surfer to a larger-than-life sea turtle and a series of tall Tiki figures.
Students were in awe when they returned in fall. "On the second day of school, kids were bringing cameras to take pictures of the cafeteria," Houser says. "How often does that happen?"
The Cocoa Beach renovation was just the start. Over the past five years, the Brevard foodservice team has created a food-court prototype, complete with food stations, commercial artwork and signage. The food-court theme varies according to location, from the NASA-assisted space travel look at Satellite (Beach) High School, to a swashbuckling air at Palm Bay High School (home of the Pirates). This year, all 12 Brevard County high schools will have new serving lines, professional signage and artwork.
Brevard County school cafeterias are a regular stop on school tours for 8th graders about to enter high school. Houser struck deals with principals and administrators, renovating cafeterias only if more serving periods were added. That resulted in more leisurely lunches for time-crunched kids: 2,000 students at the largest high school now have time to eat in one of five 25-minute lunch periods.
Once renovations started, principals would visit new cafeterias at other schools and want their own cafeterias upgraded.
"They've been converted into some of our biggest supporters," Houser says.
Creating themed décor involves more than just "putting stuff up on walls," Chesley says. Her newest cafeteria, at Norco High School, features a California Gold Rush motif inspired by Norco's "horsy, rural" setting. Natural materials such as river rock and raw wood coupled with Old West items create the atmosphere. In the dining area, kids sit at six-foot round tables with wagon-wheel tops. Chairs are black metal with a horseshoe design on the back. The most whimsical touch is in the buffet serving area, where jail-like bars serve as a room divider. "When they're getting their food, they're behind bars," Chesley says. "Appropriate, in their eyes."
Since the project was part of a new building construction, the cafeteria décor cost was a small fraction of the overall $1 million price tag.
At other schools, sports teams, school colors and mascots help determine the story line. Often the mascot takes on a life of its own. Sports teams at Santiago High School, part of the Corona-Norco District, are the Sharks, so it seemed only natural that the cafeteria be transformed into The Shark Tank. A "bubbling" water wall stands by windows at the building's entrance; saltwater fish tanks were installed in existing trophy cabinets; and a floor-to-ceiling coral reef stands in the center of the room, a diver suspended from the ceiling near the "surface" of the water. The servery was transformed into a tropical oasis with lush greenery and billowy clouds painted on walls and ceiling, while a life-size surfer suspended from the ceiling cruises over food displays. Silk flowers and palm trees-with clear, water-filled acrylic tubes serving as trunks-set the mood.
At one middle school, slated for redesign, the principal wants more than the school sports teams represented. Consultant Sharon Stephens' proposal, which was accepted, acknowledges theater and choir groups and after-school clubs as well as the school sports teams. As planned, one wall of the Allstars Café will feature vibrantly colored stars that Stephens says will "come alive with photographs of kids."
THROUGH A CHILD'S EYES
Appreciating a child's point of view takes practice. Kid-friendly designs tend to be "busier than those adults are comfortable with," says Bill Caldwell, foodservice director of Capistrano Unified School District in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., for 15 years. "The colors are brighter. And for teens, the graphics are more contemporary, edgier."
For young children, Caldwell uses the colorful images as a way to slip in positive nutritional messages. Come this fall, the servery wall at San Juan Elementary, across the street from Mission San Juan Capistrano (famed for its annual flocks of migrating swallows), will be adorned with a 4-by-14-foot banner. On one side are the Mission's bells; on the other, the sun rising over a farm. In the middle, children dance around a giant pepper tree whose branches hold fruits and vegetables, while swallows overhead fly past holding streamers that read, "Our Mission is Nutrition."
Caldwell wants to create the ultimate teen-friendly designs: He hopes to bring in retired or professional graffiti artists to paint the walls at some of his cafeterias.
"Graffiti is the art of the 21st century," Caldwell says. "When I rode the train into Los Angeles one night, I kept looking at [the art painted on] the embankments along the river and was inspired."
The other side of the "kid-friendly" coin is "kid-proof." A foodservice manufacturer in Owatonna, Minn., for example, specializes in dining furniture for high school settings. Though the tables, chairs and booths would look at home in any trendy quick-service operation, the difference lies in the construction, which is designed to meet what the company tactfully calls "challenging environments."
Metal tubing and wood are made thicker and stronger than for restaurant clients. Table tops and bottoms are laminated for easier cleaning, and laminate edges, the manufacturer says, are "virtually seamless," reducing the possibility of damage. Booths come with a one-piece frame that is both stronger and easier to install. And true to Caldwell's advice, the wide range of colors offered is sufficient to suit any school cafeteria's décor.
"The idea is to keep students on campus by making the cafeteria look more like a fast-food restaurant," says John Price, the manufacturer's marketing coordinator.
Stephens keeps durability in mind when consulting on renovations. She recommends that an anti-graffiti layer be applied to murals, primarily to make them easier to clean, since graffiti and vandalism are generally not problems. "Kids are proud of the finished product," she says.