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Media Coverage

Design: After the FIRE

By On-Campus Hospitality magazine - 9/1/2011
Original article here

On March 2, 2010, Michael Lindner, director of Housing and Food Services at Penn State Erie the Behrend College, got the call that no foodservice administrator wants to get: there was a fire at Dobbins Hall, the main campus dining facility.

“I was in State College for training when it happened,” he said. “It was about 11:30 at night and it was a quick 3-and-a-half-hour drive back home to Erie with a lot of thoughts racing through my mind as to what we were going to do next.”

The official report said that the fire was accidental and triggered by a surge protector.“ At the time of the fire, the building was undergoing renovation,” said Lindner. “We were in the midst of a full renovation to the operation. We had a temporary entryway into the dining room. We set up a cashier stand in that area and they think that one of the surge protectors for the point-of-sale equipment failed and shorted out and caught the carpet on fire.”

He was in disbelief when they told him that it was the dining room on fire. “I kept on thinking that it was the kitchen. The building is a gazebo. It is eight-sided with glass walls. All that is in there are tables and chairs and a little carpet. The hardest thing for everyone to believe was that it started in the dining room. It did not get to the kitchen.

The way the building is built, it has the gazebo section, which has the large seating area. There is the middle section, which is the servery where all of our stations are. The kitchen is behind a block wall. The fire never got into the servery area, but the whole building was a loss because of smoke and water damage.”

The renovation was originally not supposed to include the dining room. “We were renovating the lower levels of the building,” said Lindner, who was not yet director at the time of the fire. “The building is two stories and there is a basement level. They were renovating and there was expansion going on in the building. Where our original entry was had been closed off and they were doing construction there. It was fortunate that where the existing construction had taken place, none of that was affected by the fire. We did not lose any of the new construction.”

After the initial shock of the fire, the next thought was how to feed students the next morning. “We ended up serving breakfast in McGarvey Commons in the Reed Union Building,” he said. “It was in a space that we use to do special functions for catering events like upscale dinners and scholarship events. We were familiar with the space. It doesn’t have a lot of amenities, but in that building is also our second eatery — Bruno’s Café, so we had a full kitchen in that building.”

He continued, “We surveyed what we had on hand and what we could get in from our vendors — we made a lot of late-night phone calls. We were able to serve a continental breakfast that morning free of charge for all of our residents because it wasn’t what our standard fare was for breakfast. For lunch, we offered a full lunch menu, which was equivalent to what we would do at Dobbins Hall. Needless to say, it was a challenge to run a kitchen that was a third of the size of the one we lost.”

Not all was lost in the fire and that made it a little easier during the first week of serving out of McGarvey Commons. “Since the building was under renovation, we had already started moving a significant amount of our catering and extra supplies from the building and we had them in storage trailers,” said Lindner. “After the fire was over, we were able to use a lot of our catering equipment because basically we looked at just setting up one large-scale catered breakfast, lunch and dinner. We had a lot of mobile equipment that made it a lot simpler at that moment.”

Fortunately, the end of the first week was the start of spring break, which allowed for a little regrouping — and figuring out what to do for the rest of the semester. “We had one week when the students were gone and in that week, we hired a company called Kitchen Corps,” he said. “They came and set up a mobile kitchen next to the auxiliary gymnasium.”

The gymnasium was converted into a dining room and servery. “The mobile kitchen was basically five tractor trailers together,” said Lindner. “They are impressive. They have dry storage, freezer/cooler, a warewashing trailer. They were a top-notch organization to work with. We sat down with them on Wednesday and Monday morning after the students left, they were already up there doing excavation and the trailers showed up on Wednesday. When it was all said and done, we had an operation up and running Sunday when the students returned from spring break.”

While the temporary kitchen was running through the end of the semester, new plans were drawn up for Dobbins Hall and construction started again. “The only challenges that we faced were now there was a new portion of the building that had to be completely rebuilt, instead of just renovated and rehabilitated,” he said. “There were some challenges there, but most of the construction had been mapped out and had to be demoed. Once the fire restoration team came in and did their cleaning and the structure was inspected for its integrity, the project got moving again.”

In the original plans, everything in the building was to be renovated except for the dining room, which was to receive a minor facelift. The plans for the kitchen and servery pretty much stayed the same. “We were going to change the style of service dramatically,” said Lindner. “It was an older all-you-care-to-eat facility that was renovated back in the ’90s. We were going to take it to a more modern all-you-care-to-eat operation where there are a lot of action stations and more customer interaction.”

The fire allowed for them to test out this style of service in the temporary facility. “When we had the fire, we thought, ‘Okay, we have to put together a temporary dining facility; let’s start putting together the concept that is going to be in play for the fall,’” he said. “‘Let’s start rolling out the idea of action stations.’ We were able to get a head start on training our staff and saying to the students that this is what it is going to look like. It also gave us the opportunity to really get outside the box and come up with new ideas for how to change and be more efficient and productive. We were working in an area that we were creating as we went. It really prepared us for when we went to the new operation. It got us in this mindset of, ‘Okay, if this doesn’t work, try this idea.’ Really being ready to be more spontaneous and creative than we really had been. The best disasters always force a little more creativity sometimes.”

One of the best things to come out of the fire for Lindner was the effect it had on team morale. “It really set in how much it reinforced the teamwork and team morale concept of all of our staff from the management team and our full-time staff and the students who work for us. Everyone started leaning on each other. You would expect the morale of the operation to be down because of the fire, but it was actually probably the highest morale we had had in the building in a long time. Not to say that we don’t have good team morale, but it just brought it to another level.”

The new Dobbins Hall makes use of the lessons learned in the temporary facility. “We brought in a bunch of new action stations — a chargrill station, pasta made-to-order station,” he said. “We brought in a wok area for an international cuisine station and chopped salad bar. We expanded the overall seating of the space and we updated the look of the building to make it look much more modern.”

As was originally planned, the entire kitchen was gutted. “Every piece of equipment in that kitchen is a brand new piece of equipment,” said Lindner. “It is very unheard of for restaurant renovations that you get to renovate the whole kitchen. It was originally part of the renovation. The servery did not have as much new equipment, but as a result of the fire, we had to upgrade all of the equipment in the servery as well because it was too damaged to be repaired.”

The new dining area was vastly improved and enlarged. “We made some modifications to the dining area to make it larger, more aesthetically attractive and more environmentally sound,” he said. “We added a focal point in the room. Instead of being an eight-sided gazebo, on two of the sides we filled in the gazebo so that it touched the existing building. We added these trapezoidal areas on both sides close to the servery that ended up giving us more than 100 more seats inside the building. One of our thoughts was, ‘If we are going to rebuild the building, let’s do it a little bit bigger and plan for future expansion. Let’s carry out what we were doing on the inside through this project.’”

The table sizes and shapes were changed. “We have some 72-inch round, 6-person tables and 48-inch round, four-person tables,” Lindner said. “We had some high-top 2-person tables. We also had 4-person rectangulars.”

With Pennsylvania seeing a lot of snow in winter and the area being a little gray at times, they avoided conservative colors. “We went with four different color chairs for all of the tables,” he said. “The tops of the tables are bamboo green with bamboo grain in it with bullnose around the side. The colors of the chairs are brown, orange and yellow. There was a lot of color brought into the space. The thought was to make the dining room — between the carpeting and the tables and chairs — feel as lively as possible. Sometimes you don’t always get that from the outside.”

In addition to the inside changes, a special events room with an outside terrace was built. “The room seats about 70 people,” said Lindner. “We put this room on specifically for catering events, but primarily we were looking to creating a room where we could do more events for Residence Life. We can have floor meetings or student groups. They can come in and use the space, where they can have private meetings and meals through the dining hall service or through catering services. The room that we built is a full-technology capable room.”

After all of the construction and temporary dining facilities, the new Dobbins Hall opened in August of 2010. “There’s more space. It’s brighter, bigger and more welcoming,” he said. “The students like the new atmosphere in the dining area. Our diners and our employees are ecstatic with the new operation.”

About our temporary dining facility company

Kitchen Corps is a Small Disabled Veteran Owned Business that is expert at temporary dining facilities. Its mobile fleet can design, build and deliver a mobile kitchen, dining facility, dry storage, freezer, cooler, warewashing trailer, and more to clients in Pennsylvania, PA, Illinois, IL, Michigan, MI, Texas, TX, Colorado, CO, New York, NY, or anywhere else in the U.S. Clients such as universities, military bases, correctional facilities, hospitals, disaster relief organizations and corporations count on Kitchen Corps for a wide range of customizable mobile and permanent kitchen facilities which include kitchen production, refrigeration, bathrooms, and many other food service needs. Kitchen Corps temporary kitchen units can be customized to meet any unique project and challenge in professionally customized semi-trailer units.