Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Dining Center as an Oasis

By Angela Phelan
Senior Vice President
Clarion Group

The business of hospitality, running a food service operation, rests on its core mandate: To offer good, healthy food to customers, whether they are students in a large university or the staff of a high-powered law or financial firm -- or to the very youngest customers trying to get through their day in fifth grade.

But hospitality connotes food and rest.

This central goal of providing good, healthy food costs time, money and above all, the good will of the team designated to run it. But note that I suggest food and rest. This is a novel concept. I rarely hear anyone talking about rest when discussing what food service has to offer its customers.

Interestingly, the only client I ever had that considered the rest that its dining service could offer to its customers was one of the Swiss banks who, from their main headquarters abroad carefully guided the U.S. designers in the art and science of caring for its employees. They insisted on a separate area for dessert and coffee, a few yards away from the main servery and seating area. Chairs are softer, lower, set around coffee tables (literally). The floors in that area are carpeted, the lighting lower.

The Swiss concept was that the downtime offered by dessert and coffee was a better way to transition back to work at a desk, telephone and any number of competing computer screens. This novel concept -- at least for the hard-charging Americans -- seemed almost quaint. To consider the psychological as well as the basic nutritional needs of employees (or students) was partically off the scale.

Restaurateurs, of course, are well aware that the time devoted to dessert and coffee can add many dollars to their bottom line. To be sure, one must make a choice between "turning the table" and the benefits of adding dollars to the check by selling the customer another hour's worth of food and drink. The downtime tends to enhance the customer's mood; tips are more generous.

Now we should consider the news reported in The New York Times recently. There is new data being assembled in some school districts in Texas and other states. Educators have discovered that simply by reversing the order of lunch with recess, the students were more relaxed, ate their meals more slowly, drank more milk or water and were generally in a better frame of mind to resume their classes and focus more readilly on their work.

This uptick in productivity, arrived at by such a simple and "old fashioned" notion of allowing students to take a full half-hour for lunch after their recess period was enormously revealing. All those time-and-motion studies designed to increase productivity have been turned on their heads by this simple, timeless notion. Let them rest before taking up the balance of their workday.

This could be an important way to give the employee a quiet time to "reset and recharge."

For those of us who design dining facilities for our clients, this is a very interesting and satisfying study. Americans traveling to Italy and France return with newfound respect for the leisurely meal, noting that the temperment of the diners appears to be more relaxed.

This is an extraordinarily difficult time in the world. Stress is the word on the lips of just about everyone over the age of seven: Too much homework, too much overtime, too much and too little of everything.

Serving the needs of one's employees, stressed as they are, requires some thought. Perhaps we should think about providing not only excellent food, but offering a quarter-hour of restful time before returning to work. Suppose we consider carpeting a quarter of the seating space, taking out the lunch tables and arranging some comfortable chairs and coffee tables. Sounds a little familiar? A little like your neighborhood Starbucks?

This could clear the dining area for others and subtly move them to the coffee and conversation area fo a little rest and recharge. A lawyer at one of our client firms, where we were in the throes of redesigning the cafe made this suggestion. Clearly, his travels abroad or a good deal of time in a Starbucks influenced his thinking.

So the firm created an "Oasis" for their associates, complete with foosball tables, a big coffee bar and some comfortable armchairs. It's actually on another floor from the cafe and it's a great success.

We would like to see the good will that could come from giving employees a restful, healthy break at lunch, encourage the R&R concept by moving some tables out and bringing in some comfortable chairs.

Do you have some room in your cafe or in an adjacent space? If you would like some help in putting it together, give us a call. Clarion can make it work.

After all, an Oasis shouldn't be a mirage.

Contact Angela Phelan at 973/544-6223 or e-mail us at

PS: Do you have an arrangement like this that works for you? Write and let us know, either by leaving a comment or by e-mail to