By Penny McLaren 2016-11-04 02:43:29
Four school nutrition directors share their tips on beating the school construction blues. I’VE GOT A STORY FOR YOU—GET THIS: Meal service is officially up and running in the brand-new kitchen of a brandnew high school—and then, mysteriously, the equipment keeps turning off. Meal preparation stops. It turns out that every time the heat for the building goes on, the gas feed is diminished to the kitchen in order to meet the demand of the rest of the building. Or how about this one: Instead of pulling air up and out of the new kitchen, the new vent hoods are blowing down and filling the kitchen with warm, humid air. They’re wired incorrectly. Oh, yeah—we’re singing those school construction blues! Denise Lamar, SNS, is school nutrition service director for Union County (N.C.) Public Schools (UCPS) When she started with the district, there were 32 schools. Today, there are 53—and 17 of these were built within an eight-year period. For a time, UCPS was building five to six schools every year. And of those “original” sites? Every school has had some major or minor work done during Lamar’s tenure. So, Lamar has seen a thing or two (and then some) when it comes to overseeing new construction and renovations in kitchens and cafeterias. Correct that—she’s seen a thing or two (and then some) go wrong. Surely you’ve heard the expression “what can go wrong, will go wrong?” Lamar can give you a few examples of that. The gas feed and the vent hood incidents described at the beginning of this article? Those were problems she had to manage. “You need to be proactive,” she warns, “or there will be some big boo-boos.” You want another one? In one new UCPS high school construction, the district decided to use the same building plans that had been used for another recent high school build. But a shift in the design orientation was among the tweaks. As a result, an outside wall in the first new build became an inside wall—in the kitchen—in the second new build. And since no one ever removed it from the plans, Lamar’s kitchen staff ended up with a window for no purpose set in an inside wall. “You’d think somebody would have questioned it,” says Lamar, with exasperation. “But if the plans call for a window, the construction crew will follow the plan.” Lamar and her team eventually altered the window and use it as a pass-through. “But it is still awkward,” she reports. Lamar is hardly alone in singing the construction blues. She, and many of her contemporaries in districts large and small, rural and urban, have learned (the hard way) to insist on being involved in any construction project expected to involve or impact the school meals operation. And not just involved—but heard. It’s not easy. It calls for continual vigilance. It also calls for knowing what you must be vigilant about. This is where School Nutrition comes in. We’ve sought advice from a few school nutrition professionals who have been through their fair share of cafeteria construction projects. Here we present their cautionary tales of things that can—and did—go wrong. And here we also offer their advice about what it takes for you to avoid such problems in the future. Turn the page and get ready to take some notes. MISGUIDED MANAGEMENT So it begins. A new school is proposed or a cafeteria renovation is scheduled. What could go wrong? Communication, to start. In many such endeavors, there are project managers who don’t know what your department needs and who don’t make an effort to ask. Can the design and construction team possibly put together an efficient operational flow in the layout without input from the school nutrition team? For her first kitchen renovation, Lisa Sims, school nutrition director, Daviess County (Ky.) Public Schools, felt shut out of the process. “There was a big team that included the construction manager, the general contractor and the architect,” she recalls. “It was like a good ol’ boys club.” They didn’t consult her on anything—and she was not happy with the results. The next time a renovation was scheduled, Sims made herself a promise: “I will do my research.” She spoke with all of her staff, asking what they liked and didn’t like about their school kitchens. “I came to the planning meeting prepared and confident,” Sims says. “I got a lot more respect, and got the discussion going on what we wanted.” Since then, she has been involved in two new school construction and six renovation projects. Sims continues to regularly ask her school nutrition team about their kitchen wish lists—feedback goes into the pile to be included the next time. As a result, “The staff have more buy-in for renovations, because they give their input,” she explains. “They are more positive about the changes.” The process also empowers Sims to make requests even when school nutrition spaces aren’t originally involved. Case in point: One Daviess school renovation didn’t intend to include making changes to the foodservice area. But Sims requested that a concrete pad be poured outside the kitchen, with a doorway cut leading out to the pad. The construction planners agreed. This change allowed her to install a new, larger, walk-in freezer outside the kitchen, which also gave her staff more working space inside the facility. Sims also has learned to be proactive in monitoring construction projects. She admits to coming up with excuses to visit the site. She also makes a point to check in frequently with the construction manager from her maintenance department. We may all wish it were different, but “You can’t count on [the builders] to do what you want them to do” without your oversight, she notes. “Make sure they are listening,” echoes Tammy Yarmon, nutrition services director, Omaha (Neb.) Public Schools. “You are the one who has to work in that kitchen.” She cautions against giving in to a sales pitch. “They might try to talk you into something. It’s just like if you are decorating a room in your house, and you say, ‘I don’t want a purple room,’ but the decorator talks you into a purple room. Then, every time you walk in that room, you don’t like it—and it grates on you.” Yarmon has found that sometimes a kitchen designer or consultant “makes a recommendation that might sound good on paper, but in operation, it doesn’t work—and the staff hates it.” Like other districts, Omaha Public Schools has been building. Between 2000 and 2005, a whopping 25 schools were built. Now, Yarmon is in more of a renovation phase, with two planned for this school year. “Communication is the most important factor, from design to completion,” she emphasizes. “Because we know what we want.” Yarmon admits that even when she does the homework and includes her team in the decision making, “We don’t always get the perfect layout.” Sometimes, this is because the construction team has opted to use a standard kitchen design, which makes their overall planning easier. While these spaces may not be ideal, they usually account for the most important operational needs of the school nutrition staff. EQUIPMENT ERRORS One thing school nutrition operators really hate to hear—especially about a new construction or renovation project is: “Uh, oh, this isn’t working.” In Spokane (Wash.) Public Schools, the specifications for the renovation of a high school kitchen called for the addition of a new combi oven. Pretty basic, right? Let’s take a moment for a quick equipment primer. A combi oven acts as both a convection oven and a steamer—and as a consequence, most standard units need a drain. (Can you guess what’s coming?) When construction was almost complete and it came to installing the combi oven—the plumbers had failed to provide a drain. Doug Wordell, Spokane’s director of nutrition services, insisted that the oven was a necessity. “So, we got our drain,” he recounts. The construction crew had to return to install it. And this wasn’t Wordell’s only misadventure with plumbers. In another school construction project, the hot water line was connected to the refrigeration unit! Wordell has been part of school construction projects every year since 2001, when district residents passed a 25-year bond measure. Since then, the district has built or renovated four to six schools in every six-year cycle. So he knows he needs to oversee projects that involve kitchens or cafeterias at every step. “You have to be engaged with it all the way from the architect’s plans to the site process to the construction phase,” he advises. Failing to do so inevitably leads to mistakes. “Vendors have brought in equipment with the wrong specifications,” recounts Wordell. “Or they have tried to substitute equipment.” To help ward off such problems, Wordell turns to Dennis Baird, nutrition supervisor, who has had the responsibility for designing the district’s kitchen and cafeteria spaces for the last 12 years. Baird handles writing the specifications for all equipment and working with suppliers. To find kitchen equipment that would stand the test of time, Baird visited a large, local grocery chain to observe the equipment it used for heavy-duty, 24/7 food prep. As a result, he opted to specify the same manufacturer—and he sticks with his suppliers, giving the district’s maintenance team familiarity (and parts) for making repairs. Other tips: • Baird has specified refrigeration equipment with compressors on the top, instead of the bottom. It means that mop strings don’t get pulled into the machinery and it offers a better ergonomic position for repair personnel. • He designs for more working space for dishes on the clean side of the dishwasher than on the dirty side, because that’s where space is needed for drying. • “One thing that is key, key, key, is to have the tile floor go through the refrigerator and freezer, so carts can roll in and out easily through the door,” says Baird. Baird also maintains a reminder list. “It’s a list of things I notice and will do in the future,” he explains. For example, they installed a tray line in one new school that used tube rails, and discovered that when kids would get their trays misaligned, the trays would fall down through the spaces between the rails! That was a consequence that went on his list. “Now we use solid tray lines,” he reports. Lisa Sims warns that equipment and features may be left off a construction plan. In Daviess, equipment has been cut for budgetary reasons. “I tried to request a sink that washes large wares by agitating the water, but that request was taken out of the budget” in favor of alternate equipment. Equipment also has been cut for seemingly no reason. Sims once requested that an electric panel be installed behind equipment for more efficient access. “But that idea didn’t fly,” she mourns. Also look out for unwanted equipment or features that may be added to a construction plan. “The contractor wanted to put mirrors over the hand sinks, just as they do in the restrooms,” Sims recounts. “But I don’t want staff messing with their hair while they are at the hand sink, so I had to insist: No mirrors over the sinks.” BEING COMPREHENSIVE IS CRITICAL In one Union County school kitchen construction, a required hand sink was missing from the original design plan and only discovered late in the game. Adding it at this point was considered a “change order” and “It turned out, change orders are very expensive,” Lamar says. “It cost $5,000 for that hand sink, when it should have cost $1,500.” Other changes to the plan may have unfortunate—and often unforeseen—consequences. Lamar recounts another new school building project, which called for the refrigeration equipment compressors to be installed outside, at ground level. Fine—but when budget cuts eliminated security fencing around the building, the compressors were left unprotected, and the copper wiring and equipment were stolen. Lamar remembers a new building architect who pushed to increase the size of the serving area. When the plan was redrawn, the easiest fix meant the kitchen lost square footage—and the prep tables ended up too close to the ovens. Omaha’s Yarmon urges her school nutrition peers to insist—early and often—on as much storage space as you can. “Nothing is worse than not having enough storage,” she warns. “Plan 10 years down the road.” Wordell also recommends that school nutrition professionals design for the future. “You don’t get to move the bricks later,” he notes. He has had kitchens wired to meet the specifications of certain types of equipment, even before they are able to purchase that equipment. “It is a lot more challenging to pull more power in from the street, than to have it available when you need it,” Wordell explains. “Build in as much flexibility as possible. Get as much power as you can. Ask for additional circuits.” Take care to be respectful and cooperative so that you don’t burn bridges when you need support for your requests. “You must have a great relationship with the management team,” advises Wordell. “Otherwise, there will be meetings you won’t be invited to. And they won’t advocate for you.” INTERRUPTED FLOW The “flow” of the kitchen is critical to productivity, which is critical to your bottom line. Lisa Sims has become something of an expert in spotting design flaws that will lead to inefficiencies. For example, sometimes the freezer is far away from the delivery door. Or the dish window is too far from the dining room exit. Or the width of the center door into the serving line needs to be wider to accommodate a better flow of students. The more you know about what works best in your current school cafeterias, the better positioned you will be to use the new construction to its fullest advantage. In addition to leveraging your expertise, Tammy Yarmon recommends being ready to suggest the next-best option, being cognizant that the priorities of other departments also need to be taken into account. She recounts an occasion when one of Omaha’s new schools was designed without a loading dock. “All schools must have a dock,” says Yarmon. But the placement of the dock is almost as important as its very existence. “There needs to be a flow from the dock to the kitchen,” she explains. Unfortunately, “It depends on the lay of the land. You don’t always get the perfect layout. You have to site the dock so it doesn’t conflict with buses, parents coming to the school and even how the trucks have to back in.” As you reflect on proposed kitchen designs, review the location of everything with flow in mind. “Where will the staff take their breaks and where are the lockers?” Yarmon asks. “You don’t want it to be a long walk for them to get to the bathroom and back. Also, make sure hand sinks are right where employees can see and use them as soon as they come [into the prep area].” Give serving areas this same scrutiny to be sure you end up with order and not chaos. According to Wordell, if you want to design a new system that will work smoothly, you have to know your menus, equipment, service model, payment systems and expected participation. UP—BUT NOT RUNNING Construction is complete, the grand opening approaches. Will it be a celebration or a disaster? It’s best to expect some trouble, so you can prepare as best you can, heading off problems and developing contingency plans. Before you open the doors, sit down and make some lists. Think about what it takes to open an existing site on the first day of school, but that’s just your starting point. Reflect on what those sites probably take for granted. Does the manager’s office have desk supplies? Are there towels in the restroom? Have you put new equipment through a test? Have you put it through a test with the staff who will work at this site? Has all the construction debris and dust been cleaned? When starting fresh in a brand-new kitchen, Lamar always makes sure it’s staffed by an experienced manager and at least one or two experienced team members who have the knowledge and skills to train newbies. Make sure that all staff assigned to this location know that their hours may be unpredictable in the initial weeks. They may even have to work weekends. If the site is one that’s been renovated, returning staff may need time to adjust to a new set-up. “There will be a learning curve,” notes Yarmon. And even if a school renovation doesn’t directly involve the school nutrition spaces, you may have to take protective steps if the project involves replacing roofs or HVAC systems, warns Wordell. “You have to tuck everything away, and then be prepared to get it all back out and rewash everything before school starts,” he says. YOU, TOO, CAN BEAT THE BLUES Cafeteria construction could be happening right now in your school district. Perhaps there’s been a successful bond initiative. A building expansion committee has been appointed. The timeline for a new or renovated school is being drafted. Are you aware of these steps? Are you involved in these steps? If you’re not, you can almost guarantee your eventual disappointment with the result. It’s hard to avoid the school construction blues. As illustrated by the examples shared here, it’s almost impossible to predict every potential problem, never mind guard against them. But if you go into the project with your eyes open and your expectations managed, you can gain a little rhythm to counter those blues. BONUS WEB CONTENT What Could Possibly Go Wrong? Most of the time, the final results of cafeteria construction projects are well worth the toil and trouble. This month’s web extras include some photos of beautiful new school nutrition spaces that are sure to inspire your involvement in the process. Visit www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonus to access. Penny McLaren is a freelance writer in Vancouver, Wash., and a former editor of this publication. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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