Not Your Average School Cafeteria

Posted on 05 September 2012

When the Bridgehampton School’s brand new eating space opens during the second week of classes, you might want to think twice about calling it a “cafeteria.”
Administrators at the school call it a “café,” and for good reason — It really won’t much resemble the sort of cafeteria that serves up mystery meat and canned green beans. Instead, students are much more likely to dine on homemade quiche and thin-crust, whole-wheat pizza.
“We’d rather call it ‘café’ than cafeteria, because it’s kind of quaint,” said the school’s head chef and manager, Dan Pacella. “We don’t serve cafeteria food.”
Earlier this summer, the Bridgehampton School began renovating its old kindergarten classroom into the new café, which should be completed next week.
According to school district superintendent Dr. Lois Favre, the renovation “was suggested by the administrative team last year, as the [old] café was a bit small.”
In addition to seating an additional 15 to 20 people, the new café will feature a greatly improved kitchen in what used to be the coat closet of the kindergarten room. And with a new electrical and plumbing system, commercial gas range and exhaust hood with a fire suppression system, the district’s business administrator, Robert Hauser, believes it will be a more modern and energy-efficient space.
Bridgehampton’s budget for the construction project was $175,000. According to Hauser, the district is “on target” with that budget and will probably end up spending less money than allocated.
Redesigned by the architectural firm Chaleff & Rogers Architects P.C., the school’s architectural team and building and grounds advisors, the café keeps the original character of the historic classroom. The dining area features a window-laden rotunda with built-in wood seats, as well as an existing fireplace, which is decorative at this point.
“It’s been a kindergarten since the 1930s, and there were people who were very sentimental about the room,” Hauser said, explaining why the school sought to keep as many details of the old room as possible.
The school has even preserved some of the kindergarten’s original murals, cast iron radiators and oak wood trim not only for posterity’s sake, but to keep renovation costs down.
However, the café will feature brand new tiling to replace the original red-and-cream tiles which featured illustrations of ducks, bears and other animals. About 15 of the tiles were saved during demolition, and they will be displayed on the café’s walls.
Furthermore, the new café will free up space on the gym/auditorium stage, which had been used to house cardboard boxes of food, a sink for dishwashing, refrigerators and other appliances. According to Hauser, the school hopes to refinish the stage by next summer.
Cooking will also be easier for Pacella, who did not even have a stove in the old café. Instead, he made everything from tomato sauce to chili in a small oven or on a hotplate.
“I can be a little more creative now,” he said.
The old café — which will continue to serve food up until construction on the café is complete — will revert back to its original function as a classroom.
The renovation project comes at a time when Bridgehampton has opted to provide its own food for its students, rather than employing the outside food service provider, Whitson’s, which it had been using previously. However, Pacella, who used to be an employee of Whitson’s, has now been hired as an employee of the district.
The decision to self-operate the café, Dr. Favre said, has “further solidified the board of education’s commitment to health, wellness and East End sustainability.”
While the school has its own greenhouse and has been a longtime advocate of the Slow Food movement, the school plans to provide healthier and less processed meals, as well as more vegetarian options, this year.
Pacella, who serves between 80 and 100 meals per day, will continue to incorporate items from Bridgehampton’s garden and greenhouse into the cuisine served to Bridgehampton School students. He is looking forward to cooking with tomatoes, beans and herbs from the greenhouse, as well as with the sweet potatoes and squash that will be harvested in October.
“It’s great — you can just pick it and cook it,” he said.
According to Hauser, self-operating the café should also save the district money — perhaps as much as $50,000 annually, he estimated. Last year, the district spent about $20,000 monthly in food service. This year, Hauser hopes that will be only $15,000 per month.
With a $5,000 savings each month, Hauser estimates that the $175,000 construction project will have paid for itself in less than four years.

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