By Ron Leir
‘Way better!” That’s how Harrison eighth-grader Joseph Renderos contrasts the lunches being served up now at Washington Middle School with the bad old days when kids waited for food service workers to ship over meals prepared some six blocks away at Harrison High.
And classmate Luis Hurtado likes the fact that, “We got a lot more choices and there’s more space.”
Café Ole, as the students voted to call it, opened last week but the project seemed to be a recipe for disaster from the get-go, boiling over with construction-related pitfalls from the beginning.
“It’s been a nightmare – one setback after another,” acknowledged Superintendent of Schools James Doran, who cooked up the idea for café and managed to steer it through to a successful conclusion despite the obstacles. “We were trying to reconfigure a small space in a 50-yearold building into a state-of-the- art café in a building that was never built for one.”
The enterprise began in summer 2012 with the demolition of the old first-floor library and a small group instructional area; a new library/media center was created on the building’s second floor.
“Then, when they went to shut off the switch that controlled the building’s main power supply to tie in the electrical systems for the café – apparently no one can remember the switch being shut off since 1963 – Public Service told us, ‘we don’t use this type of switch anymore,’ so we ordered a new one. It took eight weeks to get here. Then when they did truck it in – it was eight feet high – it was damaged while being unloaded. So more delay.”
That set the tone for the rest of the project.
It took longer than expected to get the kitchen equipment and the flooring materials; there were issues with the drainage system; the original doors delivered weren’t the soundproof doors that the specifications called for, Doran recalled.
“We’re on our second set of LED (light-emitting diode) lights and there are still some that have to be replaced,” Doran said.
In the middle of all the complications, Hurricane Sandy struck, leaving the school without power. “That shut us down for a week,” he said. “And the door frames we’d ordered were in Staten Island in a warehouse that, because of Sandy, was under several feet of water.”
Finally, somehow, everything came together … four months behind schedule but at least it’s done.
“We have all the necessary permits for fire, plumbing, electric, mechanical,” Doran said. “Was the contractor [ARCO of Elizabeth] a little slower? Yes. Did he do good work? Yes.”
And, Doran said, the project came in at “just under $500,000,” which was the amount budgeted. The district used its own capital fund to pay for it, he said.
All the attendant aggravation was worth it, Doran said, because before the cafeteria, getting meals for the middle schoolers was a “hit or miss proposition and there was little or no variety. Now, the advantage of having meals prepared on-site is getting more and healthier food – kids can order a hot meal or a cold sandwich and we have a salad bar option, as well. Plus, when the weather is warm enough, they can eat outdoors on a small patio we’ve provided.”
Last Thursday, sixth- , seventh- and eighth-graders could pick from chicken parmesan with spaghetti or cold cuts and salad plus assorted milks and non-sugar beverages. Each grade has its own 20-minute lunch sitting.
A random sampling of student diners produced favorable reviews. One eighth-grader liked the set-up because it offered “a lot more choices and more space,” but confessed a love for “French fries.” And a classmate savored getting food “faster and warmer. They don’t run out of food and we get a greater variety of drinks.”
Mike Pizza (yes, that’s his name), food service director for Pomptonian, the district’s meals caterer, said the “most popular” dish is … wait for it… pizza, which is served on Fridays, while a “close second” is chicken nuggets.
“We’re trying to do more home cooking – foods made from scratch,” Pizza said. “Fajitas, pastas, lomo saltado (salted beef with red onions, tomato and parsley). Before, we had to cook at the high school and satellite it over.”
Pizza’s supervisor, Douglas Katz, added that, “Hotdogs and baconburgers – anything with bacon – are also proving very popular here, as is the salad bar. You’d be very surprised how much fruits and veggies the kids take – and even more at the high school.”
Among the hot dishes on the menu are chicken patties, meatballs and rice, and teriyaki chicken.
Fish isn’t a big favorite, according to the caterers.
Still to come at Café Ole – the last pieces of the project – are recorded music and TV programs that students can view on several flat screens around the room. “No soap operas or anything like that,” said Doran. All will be educationally-appropriate to the middle school level, he added.