By Christina Uticone 2016-11-04 02:25:34
Tips for hiring the right contractors and consultants for your large and small construction projects. ANYONE WHO HAS WATCHED EVEN A COUPLE OF HOURS OF HGTV knows that renovations (and new construction) are replete with potential (and often expensive) problems. If you’ve lived through a home renovation, you are familiar with the most common challenges: working with outside contractors and consultants, unforeseen expenses and timeline delays, to name a few. Such challenges (and their consequences) multiply when the construction space in question is a school kitchen and/or cafeteria where hundreds or thousands of students rely on the meals you serve. While school nutrition directors are accustomed to wearing multiple hats every day, when it comes to architecture and construction, specialized expertise is required. Architects, kitchen designers and foodservice consultants, particularly those with experience working on K-12 facilities, can be essential partners when building a new facility or updating an existing one. Such experts can be enormously helpful—or complicate your challenges exponentially. That’s why School Nutrition has checked in with several school nutrition directors from around the country to discover their tips and best practices for finding, hiring and working with the right construction pros when it’s hard hat time in your district. STARTING FROM SCRATCH: CANDIDATE SEARCH Stacy Lenihan, SNS, is director of foodservices in Township High School District 211, an all-high-school district of some 12,000 students in Cook County, Ill. Lenihan and her staff are currently in the process of planning a kitchen redesign at Schaumburg High School. Expected to be completed during Summer 2017, the project requires “taking it down to the dirt,” before building a brand-new kitchen and—if the budget allows—adding a few cafeteria upgrades, as well. “The kitchen is original to the building, built in the 1970s, and we still have equipment from that period—those Hobart mixers never go bad!” reports Lenihan. “Equipment was built to last back then, but we’ve gone as long as possible, and [the kitchen] is in need of a total re-do. Foodservice redesign is not an area I’ve had a lot of experience with, so I looked to our district architect [for help] in hiring a kitchen design consultant.” Recognizing that the district architect may have limited expertise with the possibilities available for foodservice, Lenihan looked for help outside the district. Beginning with neighboring districts who participated in her co-op, she asked her peers about their experiences in hiring a foodservice consultant, requesting recommendations and adding names to her list of potential candidates. Then, when it came time to reach out to individual candidates, she looped the district architect into the process. Even then, she didn’t just rely on testimonials, but did her own research. “I was asking questions like, ‘Would you have time for this project?’ and ‘Who have you worked with in the past?’” Lenihan recounts. “I wanted to gauge interest, get some references and see some of their past projects at other schools—really just doing my homework.” Reviewing a candidate’s professional memberships and accreditations also helped, says Lenihan. “I wasn’t quite sure what we should be looking at, so I asked the consultants [about their background] and I did a Google search.” She discovered that several consultants were members of the Foodservice Consultants Society International (www. fcsi.org). This became another important factor in the selection process. “I think any time you are involved in a membership organization or association in your field, it makes you a stronger professional,” Lenihan explains. “Memberships often require training hours and [adhering to] a certain standard of ethics—that all makes you a stronger candidate.” For Dr. Robert Lewis, SNS, director of nutrition services for El Monte City School District (Calif.), the priority is finding candidates who truly understand that each project is unique. A good consultant should be able to speak to your individual needs and should have a background in bringing fresh, problem-solving ideas to the table. “Many times local, independent firms can offer more unique choices,” Lewis notes. “They are also in tune with surrounding school districts and popular equipment items. But one size does not fit all! I like to hear consultants tell me how they have solved unique problems in districts where they have worked. For example, how did they approach a small space and make it work, or how did the consultant offer a unique spin to the design of a dining room or kitchen?” THE EX(PERIENCE) FACTOR It’s natural that most school nutrition directors prefer a foodservice consultant candidate with a solid background in working within the K-12 segment. But is experience in other foodservice segments also valuable? This perspective can be very helpful—but doesn’t literally have to come from the consultant, if you have that expertise represented by one of the other partners in the project. When Houston County (Ga.) School District received more than $700,000 from Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom to implement breakfast in the classroom (BIC) service in 16 schools, renovating various serving sites to make room for new coolers and freezers (to accommodate more food for higher participation) was high on the to-do list for the school nutrition team, led by School Nutrition Director Meredith Potter, SNS. “When you go from serving 200-300 kids to serving 600, you need a lot more storage room,” explains Houston County School Nutrition Dietitian Lauren Koff, SNS. “We had several schools with old, outdated freezers and coolers, and tackling that became part of our BIC project.” Koff and Potter wanted to hire a consultant with K-12 and commercial experience, but were also concerned with finding the right contractor to complete the work. “It was equally important for us to find a good contractor as it was a kitchen designer, because they have to be familiar with commercial codes and equipment—we felt like that was a critical component for us,” Koff notes. The hiring decisions were based on both general expertise, as well as past partnerships. “We happen to have a great relationship with a local contractor who does a lot of commercial work, and we paired that contractor with an excellent kitchen designer,” Koff continues. The experience within the design firm played a big part in the selection—and so did the fact that the school system uses the company as its general construction management firm. “They have a reputation for representing the customer and doing the job right.” Although the choice wasn’t necessarily the cheapest option, “We don’t regret at all paying a little bit more to have a construction management company guide us through this process—we definitely think that was money well-spent.” When the central kitchen in Corpus Christi (Texas) ISD needed renovating several years ago, Foodservices Director Jody Houston, SNS, focused on candidates with strong K-12 and commercial foodservice experience. “We’re the original fastfood restaurant, so K-12 experience is absolutely necessary,” asserts Houston. That said, she wanted experts who could bring a wide-ranging background to her project. “I don’t want someone to bring a cookie-cutter approach; our needs differ from other districts.” Houston also made SNA membership a factor in her hiring decision. “Being a member of the Association gives [the consultant] more exposure, and gives us more exposure to them,” she explains. “We actually met with our consultant and made some major decisions at [an Association] food show, because the supervisors and I were all present, and we could really think through the project together as a team.” HIGH STAKES FOR STAKEHOLDERS Both new construction projects and renovations involve high stakes that go beyond the hefty price tag. All of the directors SN spoke with stressed the importance of choosing the right consultant/designer for meeting the goals of the individual project—and to protect or advance your school meals program overall. “Our business is at stake if we hire the wrong consultant,” warns Lewis, pointing out, “We are running mini-restaurant chains. If a kitchen does not have enough refrigeration, then the menu will be limited.” Lewis has a surefire way to spot the “wrong” consultant: He or she is the “one who does not interview the actual staff members who work in that space. Let’s hear from the ‘boots-on-the-ground’ folks. What do they need, what would they like to change? A sharp consultant knows that when t he cafeteria manager isn’t happy, no one is happy.” Dan Gorman, foodservice director for Whitehall District Schools and Montague Area Public Schools, both in Michigan, adds that the scope and speed of most school-based construction projects also require a sharp and practiced consultant’s eye. “Building projects for the entire school are huge, and they move quickly. You have many conversations, and it’s easy for important things to be forgotten or left out,” Gorman says. “Construction is a foodservice program’s opportunity to have a functional effect on design for years to come,” he notes, emphasizing the importance of making the most of this opportunity—with the right partners in place. That point is not lost on Stacy Lenihan, who knows that the kitchen renovation project at Schaumburg High School is an opportunity for significant, long-term impact on her school meal program. She is relying on her foodservice consultant to create the bridge between the culinary/menu/nutrition needs of her team—along with their logistical needs—and today’s architectural realities. “We don’t get a kitchen every five years, we get a kitchen every 30 years,” says Lenihan. “It’s important that I communicate what our operation needs, and that it fit into the footprint that’s already there. I can’t open up my low ceilings, so I need someone who can work with that limitation—and with the architect—to find solutions. Can we change the lighting, open up the serving area or reallocate space? What can we do to make it work?” SOLVE THE PROBLEM “Make it work.” The catchphrase of Project Runway’s Tim Gunn has resonance in school foodservice construction, too. Several years ago, when the opportunity arose in Corpus Christi ISD to renovate a high school cafeteria, Jody Houston knew that hiring a foodservice consultant was a must—there were simply too many moving parts to tackle the job in-house, and she needed someone to help bridge the gap between the architectural plans and the requirements of her foodservice staff, especially given a new operational complication. For many years, Corpus Christi had planned its menus using a nutrient-standard planning system—in fact, it had been one of the test sites for that approach. But new federal requirements meant going back to food-based planning—which meant a new menu mix, which meant new equipment and systems for meal preparation. “Our consultant helped us work through those issues,” Houston credits. “You need to know your menu before you know what equipment you need, and he helped us think through what we were going to serve and where. He was able to work with us to get us enough space to have a food court system, which we were able to do by placing the walk-ins on the outside of the building.” It’s all about making it work—for today’s needs and tomorrow’s. With that in mind, we give the last tip to Houston. For a central kitchen design, she and her consultant made sure that “everything that can be mobile, is mobile.” While ovens are located up against a wall, she says, “any preparation equipment is in the center of the kitchen, and whatever can be on castors is.” Houston knows that there’s one given in K-12 school nutrition: Things are always changing. Thus, prioritize “anything that can be moved—so that when things do change, you can bring in new equipment and/or move out old equipment. That is handy!” CAUTIONARY TALES Sometimes, you learn lessons the hard way. Two school nutrition professionals lament past frustrations. “A few years ago, we brought in a consultant on a smaller job. Even though the job called for electric equipment, when we looked at the list of equipment he was specifying for procurement, it was all gas equipment! I saw that and thought, ‘This consultant isn’t going to help us very much.’ We ended up not using a consultant for that particular job.”—Jody Houston, SNS, Foodservices Director, Corpus Christi ISD, Texas “Once we installed the first freezer [at sites where we were about to implement breakfast in the classroom service], we noticed that the threshold—the piece of metal that is the bridge between the existing floor and the cooler/freezer—was buckling. We worked with our construction management company and the equipment supplier to re-write the specs for future cooler/freezers, requiring a heavier metal that wouldn’t buckle. We also found it was best to place shelving layouts into the architectural drawings to make sure we were using the space in the best way possible.”—Lauren Koff, SNS, School Nutrition Dietitian, Houston County School District, Georgia QUIZ YOUR CONSULTANT When planning a new construction or major renovation project for your kitchen, cafeteria or other foodservice facility, it can be helpful to hire a foodservice consultant or kitchen designer to advise you on both design/layout and equipment purchases. The best candidate is going to be one that has some understanding of the K-12 school foodservice segment. Ask. Make them demonstrate their knowledge. Do they: • Speak knowledgably about central prep vs. onsite kitchen facility needs? • Have a working understanding of the National School Lunch Program and/or other federal child nutrition programs? • Have experience with various service models (straight-line, food court, remote kiosks, stations, etc.)? • Ask knowledgeable questions about your program (such as total student enrollment, average daily participation rates, free/reduced eligibility)? Christina Uticone is a freelance writer based in Houston, Texas, and a School Nutrition contributing editor. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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