No other building or facility occupies campers’ time like the dining hall. Campers and alumni remember, rather revere, the wonderful experiences they had in their camp dining hall: the songs they sang, the friends they met, and, hopefully, the wonderful meals they ate.
While the computer-aided design (CAD) system, drawing board, and T-square are the tools of design, the dining hall is an expression of the camp ownership or management.
This individual, or group of individuals, must communicate the purpose and function of the hall, the clientele it serves, the cost versus value ratio, and the long-term use of the facility.
It is always good to remember that most architects are not large-volume food professionals. Therefore, a few suggestions may aid in the decision to design, build, or remodel a dining facility with a personal touch and expression in mind.
First and foremost, know the purpose or goal in making such a large capital investment. Perhaps there is a need to increase camper participation by attracting a larger or new population base. A dining facility may be the key to increasing revenue.
A break-even analysis should be performed, a new budget drafted, and long-term projections calculated.
▪ Base the size of the facility on the maximum number to be served, with consideration for expansion and potential special needs of campers.
▪ Decide whether this facility should be a multipurpose building or simply a dining hall. Then decide the type of food and service to offer, such as family or buffet-style dining.
▪ Next, plan a typical menu and the kitchen it will serve, based on the expected number of participants, giving consideration for all age groups. For example, many youth camps have eliminated deep fryers, but when designing a kitchen, provide a space for a fryer and the necessary exhaust system to support the equipment. It is very expensive to modify these systems at a later date.
The kitchen design should involve the opinions of food-service management. The dining hall and kitchen design should be planned to maximize labor efficiency, safety, and productivity. This includes the best kitchen equipment with the highest efficiency rating.
Larger is not always better. Many kitchen designers include a 60-quart mixer when a 40-quart unit is more productive for the menu. The menu directs the equipment, and the equipment directs the design of the facility.
In camp dining, it is often said the two favorite items on the menu are breads and desserts. Therefore, the design should plan for a separate baking area in the kitchen with special equipment, like a proofing cabinet for homemade breads, and convection ovens that permit the convection fans to be turned off while baking continues.
Kitchen equipment normally has a long life span if it is well-maintained, but labor costs continue to rise. The design should minimize the labor with multifunctional equipment and a well-trained staff experienced in high-efficiency equipment.
Specifically, the use of moist-cooking equipment is well-advised. The tilt brazing pan, the most versatile piece of equipment in the kitchen, has been on the market for decades, yet very few camps use it.
Steam kettles, too, are safe, as well as combi ovens. However, one seldom sees these marvelous pieces in older kitchens.
Moist cooking is safer, healthier, and more efficient than dry methods of cooking or preparing many foods. This system is beneficial for its convenience in cooking vegetables or defrosting frozen foods and leftovers.
Each kitchen staff position should be examined for its necessity and multifunctional possibility. Bakers should be trained to cook; cooks should be trained to bake; and all personnel should be trained to serve and clean.
Remember, every labor minute is a cost factor that must be passed on to the camper guest. An inefficient kitchen can adversely affect the overall camp financial statement, making the operation less competitive, resulting in fewer campers.
The kitchen layout should be set up by work stations, such as vegetable prep, grill/fryer, baking, moist cooking, receiving area, cold and dry storage, and dish room.
The pantry and cold storage should be near the prep and cooking areas, but also observable from the management office. Product security is paramount. The location of the receiving and storage areas should be given utmost concern along with other labor flow patterns.
When considering the size of the kitchen, the production area is usually estimated to be slightly larger than one-third the square footage of the dining area. However, there is a growing trend to promote space for exhibition cooking where campers and guests view the grill cooks preparing omelets, burgers, and steaks to order.
This is certainly an eye-catching, customer-satisfying method of food service.
Camp dining hall design should consider the speed of service needed for the number of campers to be seated. Depending on the age of the camper, the scatter system of self-serving salads, breads, beverages, and desserts may be an option.
The kitchen area for a camp dining hall can be safely estimated based on the number of meals served. For example, a camp serving 200 to 400 meals at a seating may require between 800 and 1,600 square feet, not including the server area.
Foods prepared from scratch may require additional space. In the preparation area, a 42-inch wide stainless-steel table, between 8 and 10 feet long, should accommodate two workers with under-counter shelving.
For a smaller dining hall with fewer than 100 meals served per sitting, a minimum of 40 square feet is necessary in the pot and pan cleaning area.
Keep in mind, too, the following design suggestions, which are sometimes overlooked:
▪ Local health and safety codes must be strictly followed.
▪ Air conditioning, kitchen restroom facilities, staff storage lockers, ample sinks and accompanying paper-towel dispensers, a rest area with a table and chairs, and convenient employee parking should be provided. The food-service manager should have a separate office with views to all prep and receiving areas.
▪ Soft incandescent lighting should be used wherever possible in the dining area, if only for accent pieces.
▪ Provide seating that accommodates the specific clientele served. Small, bench-type stools will not please adult groups. Round tables are more practical for all age groups.
▪ In enhancing the camp dining experience, one should consider outdoor cooking and serving, as well as catering events, which may require special equipment.
Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to dining hall layout and design. The planning process begins with both a purpose and a goal.
It is best practice to consult those with professional experience, but don’t neglect the opinions of the kitchen staff. Many of them know the pitfalls of large-volume feeding, and can offer significant time-saving advice. In the end, this is the camp’s signature facility.
Make it special!
George Hughes, MBA, is an Independent Management Consultant for the food-service industry. He can be reached via email at GeorgeHughes50@gmail.com or by phone at 214-385-0581.