The University Cafeteria
Cafeterias and restaurants are important in university campuses. The largest Cafeteria of the university designed for use by staff, students and visitors is generally the most visited component of a university. It is also a place where students and faculty can take their visitors for a brief coffee break or a lunch hour visit. A well-designed Central cafeteria, housed perhaps in the student center adds to functional efficiency of the university. For here, the lunch hour can be combined with a visit to the bank, post office and the book store along with a friendly exchange of words with colleagues, fellow students, visitors, staff and faculty who may be visiting the same building at the same time. Universities where such centers are not common would do well to plan for it on their campuses.
As mentioned, the ideal location for the central cafeteria of a university is the student center. The student center building containing the cafeteria, along with the administration building can easily be designed as the two largest buildings on a university campus because of their central and essential functions. Both of these buildings need to be accessed from the academic departments as well as by outsiders and vehicles. Therefore, their placement in the university in conjunction with parking areas and the university boulevard has to be incorporated in the master plan. The best location for a student center on a campus is a location close to the administration building but towards the student residential area. It must also be close to the University Boulevard and Visitors Parking area. The building needs to be surrounded by lawns and gardens containing benches for sitting.
The university cafeteria needs to be spacious not just because of the large number of its visitors but also because spacing between tables should ideally be much more than the spacing between tables in an ordinary restaurant. Students often use these tables to read or complete an assignment along with a snack, lunch or dinner. The acoustic design of a university cafeteria should be such as to minimize noise level. Using non-reflecting wall coverings and providing sections of the cafeteria that can be opened to surroundings during busy hours takes care of this need. Music may never be permitted inside a university cafeteria for the same reason. Other sound proof sections of the student center can be designed to permit music.
It may be mentioned that a university cafeteria needs to serve nutritious food at subsidized rates. Its primary clients are students, who are not earning members of society. Two different models for running such cafeterias are prevalent. In the first one, the university gives out a contract to a private caterer. In the second, the university runs its own food services department and runs the cafeteria by hiring the required staff. Both models have inherent limitations. When services are contracted out to a private caterer he gets an assured and captive clientele without having to face competition of the open market. This can, and often does lead to deterioration in the quality of food and service. Although contracts are for limited periods of time, university food contractors tend to stick on for various reasons.
On the other hand, when a university runs the cafeteria on its own, we end up with a problem similar to the problem that state enterprises face. A staff assured of employment yet unconcerned about profits can lead to a costly establishment providing a poor service. A novel solution to the problem is to provide a set of small kitchens – five or six – instead of a single large one. These kitchens are then hired out to separate caterers or restaurants serving different types of food. The maintenance and cleaning of the premises as well as billing are entrusted to staff hired by the university. A common billing clerk charges the appropriate amounts for food from different counters. The practice is to provide a plastic tray and cutlery at the entrance of the food counter enclosure. After the desired items of food are procured in the enclosure a customer proceeds for billing in much the same way as billing in a supermarket. The billing of food items is done at the exit of this enclosure. The billing done on a computer easily segregates and divides the proceeds between the different caterers. A separate counter for hot and cold beverages (requiring the least effort in preparation) is kept under the direct control of the university department. Profits from it help maintain the cafeteria.
A clause in the contract with caterers ensures that the caterer with the least cumulative sales (i.e. the least popular one) shall not have his contract renewed in the subsequent year. Poor caterers thus last for a year, while a good one can remain forever at the university. This system introduces competition amongst caterers and provides for constant improvement. The best of the caterers can be sure of long contracts, whereas the poor ones would be quickly changed. The fact that the university provides space, cutlery, utilities, and some of the staff to run the cafeteria automatically introduces a measure of subsidy that can translate into lower costs. In this competitive system, the university need not control the costs since an expensive caterer will generally not be popular with students. Some ground rules have to be specified in this food court, such as the number of items each caterer may prepare.
A campus without a good cafetaria is a barren one.