At the Dauphin Island Sea Life Estuarium’s cafeteria kitchen, the steel pots and tiled floor look rather vintage. That’s no accident.
“This was an old military base,” said Darren Harbison, the executive chef. “My service line is still the same as it was in 1950. We don’t even have a refrigerated area — everything’s packed on ice. But we work well with it.”
Harbison has been slowly modernizing the eatery since arriving a few years ago at the cafeteria — “bringing it into the 21st century,” he said. It’s one kind of quirky setup you may find at a zoo or aquarium café, where some craft meals from scratch — as Harbison’s team does — and others heat up frozen favorites. Zoos may serve 50 guests a day, or 500.
What they all do rely on is a system to keep things running smoothly. Dauphin Island’s infrastructure may be antique, but the fryers, stovetop, grill and ovens are standard tools for churning out 300 kids’ meals at lunchtime, Harbison said. “With kids, we have a lot of allergies, so we don’t do a lot of premade stuff,” explained the chef, who relies on giant vintage soup pots for volume meals. “We have to know what goes in it.”
Each day, the cafeteria serves between 100-200 local college students as well as estuarium guests; along with multiple entrees, there’s a soup and salad bar and dessert and drink stations.
The wartime layout actually helps with cleanup afterward, Harbison noted. “There’s lots of room, so we’re not running over top of each other,” he said. “We’ve got these old tile floors that are easy to clean.” After the regular team goes home, the estuarium engages several work-study students to sweep and mop on weeknights.
Tile and stainless steel are easy surfaces to rinse down and squeegee dry at the end of the night, agreed Steve Vice, executive chef at Downtown Aquarium — An Underwater Adventure in Denver, Colo. With 1,000 guests at the restaurant on an average weekend, “everything here is streamlined,” Vice said. “We have a real simple setup — stations for broil, dessert, salad. Each cook has a ticket; things get plated, then the expediter gets it to where it needs to go.”
A similar assembly-line approach works for the kitchen at The Overlook Restaurant at Rolling Hills Zoo in Salina, Kan. In the center is a prepping station; a flat-top oven has an open-flame grill beside it for burgers and hot dogs, as well as convection ovens for pizza and pretzels.
“To get ready for the rush, we cook and put food into our warming drawers until it’s ready to go out into our warming windows, where customers grab what they want, then go to the register and pay,” explained Restaurant Manager Brandy Marrs.
Most guests grab familiar zoo fare like burgers and French fries through the warming windows, along with pre-made salads and fruit cups. For daily specials, like Tuscan garlic chicken pasta, Marrs’ team plates portions for each customer.
After a typical meal rush — up to 50 guests on a busy day — the Overlook team moves everything into a dish room, where a three-tier sink and stand dishwasher take care of cooking and tableware. Washed items go on drying racks; sanitizer buckets are set throughout the space.
The setup is more minimalist at The Alaska Zoo in Anchorage, where the café shares space in a converted house. “So it’s a house kitchen,” explained Café Manager Jamie Gagnon. “Nothing extravagant.”
The café itself consists of four tables in the living room; with only a heat-and-serve license, the menu sticks to basics like hot dogs. Gagnon heats up cheese for the nachos and pretzels in a crock pot, and serves a steady stream of espresso drinks.
“Then at the end of the day, we don’t have anything to break down,” she said, noting that dishes are washed in a three-compartment sink. “We just have to clean the crock pot and wipe everything down.”
Even small operations sometimes need more space. Then they might get creative, like the team at African Safari Wildlife Park in Port Clinton, Ohio, who decided to switch the ice cream shop and the restaurant kitchen. “The kitchen was too small and crowded to deal with efficiently getting food to all those people,” explained Interim Operations Manager Kendall Stevens.
Having relocated the creamery — which serves popular local scoops from Tost’s Dairy — to the former kitchen, the Safari restaurant team is in the process of streamlining the menu to maximize their new space. “We’re going to have just five menu combo options and two snacks — nachos and soft pretzels,” Stevens said. Some of these items come precooked and can be stored neatly in freezers.
Stevens expects cleaning to be a breeze in the new kitchen. With a giant sink and just a few items to clean between shifts, like the popcorn machine and grill, “it allows for a lot more space, with a lot more stuff up and off the floor,” she noted.