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Programming for On-Site Dining

By:  Theodore E. Farrand, FMP
President – Washington, DC Office

 Definition and Purpose:

 The term “programming” is a very broad category in the design world.  It can mean a simple list of rooms/spaces  with square footages assigned to each, or it can mean a detailed description of the operating parameters and design criteria for a new or renovation project. It can take many forms in between the two.

 The purpose of a Program in any design is to define the scope and parameters of the project that will guide the planners in all that is designed, so that the final product meets all the objectives of the client and users.

 A carefully developed design program saves time in the entire process, avoids costly changes after the design has been finalized, and is based on sound data and analysis early in the process to allow well thought-out decisions by the stakeholders of the project.


 In addition to the owners, architects, engineers, and others on the design team, other parties may also be involved in the early data gathering stage. Current or future operators, maintenance personnel, and customers are likely to have valuable insights to assist in the process.  There may also be an opportunity to survey the employee base for their input as to preferred food types and favorite outside dining establishments, which guides the planners in including food outlets that will likely be most successful.


The goals of the owners must be the starting point.  A number of questions must be posed before any planning begins, such as:  What is the client’s vision for foodservice?  Do they want to update their older, facilities in exchange for a more efficient and/or sustainable operation?  Do they want to increase or decrease capacity to match a new demand?  What policies exist in this corporation’s culture that will affect the future foodservice, such as virtual work policies?  Do they have a cashless payment system in place today or do they want to implement such a system?   

 If they have no on-site foodservice today, do they need assistance in learning all about the capital, space and operating costs that will be required for full or scaled back foodservice operations?  What is the client’s estimated budget for the new or renovated facilities?   Visits to comparable sized operations can provide important impressions of what the client wants, particularly if they have no current foodservice or need to see new concepts that are popular today.

 Data Gathering:

 The basic information needed includes employee population, general breakdown of employee categories (i.e., portion of the staff that are in sales and therefore frequently out of the office, the portion that may be call center staff, who have very limited times for dining, the ratio of executive/management to general staff categories, etc.).  In addition, the projections for population growth are critical for the design team, as they must determine what the “design population” is to be.  In other words, what is the targeted population for the design?

If the project is a renovatiton, current operating statistics are very important and should include customer counts at all day parts, for every day, for a representative period, and if seasonality affects participation, then different months’ statistics may also be included.  This will tell the team what the current participation rates are today, and allow calculation of what the potential increased participation will be in the new facilities.  Current sales mix (what foods are purchased today) will help with planning the menu platforms for the new facilities. The amount of customers purchasing take out foods tells the team how much of the foodservice should be “express” or “grab n go” concepts versus “cooked to order” stations.  It is also important to understand check averages and client P&L or subsidy goals to understand what the market will bear in considering the stations to be included.

Concept Development:

 Today’s successful on-site dining concepts focus on foods freshly prepared in front of you, and incorporate healthful menu choices along with traditional foods. The “cafeterias” of yesteryear, with their huge kitchens and a sea of stainless steel steamtables have been replaced with “dining centers”, or “cafés”.  Servery Stations have been replaced with exciting “destinations”, where oftentimes food is prepared or finished to order in front of customers.   Fresh food displays, locally sourced foods, vibrant graphics all contribute to lively dining experiences today.  The majority of cooking is done in the servery, and much less in the kitchen.  The programmer must translate all the previous information into a clear list of what will be included in the new foodservices. What part does sustainability play in the project?  Is it to be LEED certified?  If so, have all possibilities for foodservice been considered, such as Energy Star equipment, variable speed exhaust hoods, composting and other solutions?

 Quantitative Requirements:

 The projected demand levels for the peak serving period guides the programmer to adequately size the facilities.  Industry rules of thumb are used to calculate the peak demand throughput. The dining spaces are sized based on the degree of comfort the owner desires.  Many dining rooms are subdivided spaces with a mix of types of tables: traditional tables for two and four, lounge type “soft” seating, bar type seating, etc.

 How do the sizing calculations relate to the expected operating costs?  Is the facility sized right?  Is the owner/client willing to subsidize operating costs if the offerings are more generous than the sizing directs?

 Cost estimates for major foodservice equipment is generated early, to which the architect adds the total costs of construction and other furnishings and finishes.  The estimates keep the project on target and are revised as the project progresses through each design phase.

 Strategies are often developed at this stage for the following elements:

 Centralization and decentralization:  If there is more than one point of service, is it practical to group some of the function components in one facility to be able to supply all locations?

  • Flexibility of Destinations:  How much flexibility should and can be incorporated into the design?  Future concept shifts are possible with counter top equipment versus drop in equipment.
  • Flows of customers, product, serviceware, and trash/garbage/recyclables/composting:  Have all logistical routes been optimized in the planning?

   Preparation for Schematic Design:

  The next tasks are for the client/owner and architect to approve or modify the written design program so that the foodservice designer can begin to test fit the available spaces.   The designer develops the foodservice facility with a logical plan following the natural flow of the foodservice:  loading/receiving dock, storage components, preparation and production, service/final cooking areas, cashiering, dining, tray return, dishwashing, potwashing, trash/garbage/recycling/composting functions.  The designer must follow the goals of creating efficient workstations, following all applicable codes.

 A well developed foodservice design program will serve as a solid foundation for the design that evolves.

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