What goes into a positive, productive workplace environment? For many forward-looking companies, a main ingredient is a modern, corporate cafeteria design space for serving up exceptional dining experiences. Drab, old school cafeterias where workers trudged, single file, along a metal tray slide to grab pre-plated lunches off a frost top, have all but disappeared. In their place are contemporary, sun-lit cafés where the dynamics, corporate cafeteria design and on-trend cuisine go toe-to-toe (and beyond) what’s found at many commercial eateries. “A lot of the corporate cafés we manage have the feel of a restaurant or upscale bistro,” says Brian Stone, CEO and President of Café Services, a corporate dining services provider with locations in New England and the mid-Atlantic. “In more modern buildings, the café is the focal point of the office, with dining tables arranged around lounging areas in the lobby or atrium.” Smart Spaces Serve Up Productivity. While food is the main attraction, space now plays an indispensable role as companies look to their corporate dining programs to support business goals. At the top of the list is improving productivity by encouraging spontaneous encounters, which sparks collaboration and innovation. Emerging evidence suggests it works. “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions,” according to a Yahoo human resources chief cited in the Harvard Business Review. If you work at a company like Amazon Robotics, innovation often starts around the Ping-Pong table — the centerpiece of the dining lounge adjacent to the café. A Café Services customer, the tech firm recently renovated its dining facilities to accommodate a growth spurt, and make smarter use of a small footprint. Floor-to-ceiling whiteboards cover the walls of the lounge, which along with the Ping Pong table, houses a self-service micro-market where employees go to refuel when the kitchen is closed. Designed for grab-and-go convenience, the Amazon Robotics dining lounge reflects a growing trend to cater to millennial and Gen-Y workers who want the option to eat when, where and what they want. Food Takes Center Stage In Modern Cafeteria Design. In the office buildings of today, straight-line cafeteria models with kitchens hidden behind the scenes are out. In are lively, inviting dining spaces with coffee bars, juice bars, smoothie bars, healthy snack bars, and specialty food and farmers’ markets. Also out are processed, pre-plated foods, prepared ahead of time in the kitchen. In today’s corporate cafés, ingredients get top billing in creative, eye-catching arrangements at the grill, salad bar, deli, and special exhibition stations where chefs prepare fresh, made-to-order, local and global cuisines in plain view of diners. In the stylish, not-yet-year-old café at office product icon, W.B. Mason, even the oven and grill are out on the café floor, because that’s where the action is. Café Services helped design the contemporary, state-of-the-art kitchen and bistro-style café from the ground up to serve the approximately 400 employees who work from the company’s original location, a historic warehouse near Boston. Prior to the opening of the café, employees had to leave the building to eat — a waste of time and productivity as they battled lunchtime crowds in a busy business district. Adding the café was part of a corporate strategy to improve productivity by keeping employees onsite for lunch, where they could make chance connections with workers in different roles as they moved between action stations. This called for building a space conducive to collaboration. Clusters of clean-lined tables of various sizes invite mingling. A tasteful blend of urban sophistication and old world charm, the architectural bones feature a floating drop ceiling and exposed brick walls to create an upscale backdrop for socializing, and meetings with customers and suppliers. Corporate Cafés are Hub of Activity. "The dining facility is, more than ever, the hub of the organization,”according to Sabrina Capannolo, a member of the Board of Directors for the Society for Hospitality and Foodservice Management (SHFM), who was quoted in Food Service Equipment & Supplies. “Organizations are using that space or those spaces more strategically to impact their corporate culture and productivity." The newly renovated employee dining room at the Comcast division office in Manchester, New Hampshire, also a Café Services customer, is a case in point. Enclosed on all sides by floor-to-ceiling glass, the café sits in the middle of a 900-person call center. “When people see all the activity in the café, they want to come in and share the experience…see what’s going on,” says Matt Shank, a Comcast Northeast Division Facilities Specialist. Café Services collaborated with Comcast on the renovation, which involved gutting an old, worn cafeteria and rebuilding from scratch. A requirement was building a space to meet the corporate dining provider’s high standards for food, service and equipment quality. Designed to draw employees into the café and optimize traffic flow, the new corporate cafeteria design features a large exhibition area and skylights. The food stations and exhibition stations are arranged so that one server can manage two stations, and diners can access their food from all sides without creating bottlenecks. Successful Cafeteria Renovations Start with a ‘Food-First’ Approach Stone says that as the economy improves, more Café Services customers are investing in their cafés as an amenity to their employees. “Like comprehensive health plans and 401ks, upscale corporate dining is now viewed as a perk. They’re an asset for attracting and retaining top talent,” he explains. But while it’s easy to get caught up in the aesthetics of a renovation, Stone recommends a ‘food-first’ approach. “Food concepts drive design,”he says. “Every customer is different. The goal is to design a café that suits their food requirements and business culture.” To identify the scope and requirements of a cafe design project, Café Services takes customers through a series of questions, including: What is the demographic of your employee population?Differences in ages, ethnicity, education and socio-economic background all factor into food preferences, and subsequently, the number and types of food stations and cooking equipment. What functional roles work at your company? The answer to this question informs decisions around service hours and corporate catering needs. Corporate catering is growing as a strategy for improving business partnerships, employee satisfaction and company performance. Its place in a food service strategy influences equipment purchases and storage design. What price points suit your business model? Deciding whether to subsidize all, part or none of your dining service offering is an important step in food concept development. Other than eating, what other activities will take place in the café? Do your employees like working lunches? Include connectivity ports, flat screen TVs and a variety of seating arrangements. Is health and wellness a focus? Make sure your floor plan can accommodate demos. If sparking connections is important, consider high top tables or a patio outside the café. Cafés that serve multiple purposes generate more traffic, which is good for business. What is your capital budget? Even small updates can make a big difference in areas like traffic flow. Renovating a café is a business decision that needs to generate a return on your investment. While there’s no cookie-cutter approach to renovating a corporate café, creating a modern space that serves employees' needs for comfort, convenience and productivity is a smart business decision.