Focus: Feeding a need at Meals on Wheels

An increase in demand during the pandemic meant Meals on Wheels in Tulsa needed an expansion. Eli Huff FCSI tells Howard Riell about his work on the project and other non-profit organizations in recent years

A recently completed project to expand the headquarters of Meals On Wheels of Metro Tulsa in Oklahoma illustrates the expanded importance of – and the new opportunities for foodservice consultants presented by – the non-profit segment in the wake of Covid-19.

Eli Huff FCSI, the principal of S|F|G Consulting in Tulsa, recently completed work on the philanthropic organization’s new 25,000 sq ft, state-of-the-art facility. The $11.5m build-out contains what Huff, whose company served as the kitchen designer and project manager for the entire project, describes as a one-of-a-kind kitchen and facility.

Since the Covid pandemic, Huff explains, his firm’s non-profit work has tripled, including projects for the Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma and the Salvation Army. “Many of them are updating facilities… to keep up with the demand for the ever-growing unfortunate hunger gap.” Meals On Wheels “serves our aging population, and more and more at-risk sectors in our community who are living longer and will need our support to survive.”

“During Covid we had about 75% of our commercial work put on hold,” Huff recalls. “We averaged two to three non-profit projects a year, and six or seven commercial projects. During and after Covid our non-profit work jumped to six or seven projects, and of course our commercial work has now jumped back into full swing with 11 new projects per year.”

Two contracts

S|F|G began working with Meals On Wheels of Metro Tulsa back in 2015 when the consultancy was hired to remodel the group’s existing 8,000 sq ft facility. “Shortly after that project we realized they would reach capacity for meal output by 2019 and needed to start the process of locating a new piece of land to develop a new 25,000 sq ft headquarters.” 

Work on the project kicked off in 2017. Huff was awarded two contracts: one as owner’s representative/project manager, the other for the foodservice design. “This put our firm in charge of hiring the architects and contractors and managing the entire project.” Construction of the new headquarters was completed in September of 2022.

“The project’s goals were to design and construct a new state-of-the-art headquarters with a foodservice production facility, volunteer training center and administrative office complex,” Huff explains. “The target was to get the organization into a facility that could handle upwards of 1.4 million meals per year from their current output of 350,000.” 

Construction cost was $8.6m, while the foodservice cost was $1.5m. Furniture, fixtures, and equipment (FF&E) totaled $750,000, and audio-visual another $650,000. Selser Schaefer Architects served as the architects of record, Myers-Cherry Construction was the contractor, and the Salt Food Group (S|F|G) handled the foodservice design.

The facility includes the following:

  • A new 12,000 sq ft production kitchen with automated loading and receiving docks. 
  • UV-light-controlled air curtains and high-speed overhead doors. 
  • Pass-through Thermo-Kool bulk walk-in freezers and coolers. 
  • A third Thermo-Kool walk-in cooler in the cold breakfast packaging area to allow cold packed meals to be kept separate from hot food preparation. 
  • Three 20-foot CaptiveAire Systems ventilation hoods with core-self-cleaning systems. CaptiveAire utility distribution systems, which allow for real-time data to be monitored on every gas appliance.  Four roll-in Rational combi ovens. 
  • Two Electrolux thawing cabinets and a full-size Irinox blast chiller. 
  • Four 80-quart Groen tilting kettles.
  • Two Groen 60-quart braising pans.
  • A pair of Vulcan double-stack convection ovens.
  • Three cold salad-prep stations. 
  • A new warewashing scullery with a Meiko conveyor-type high-temp dish machine. 
  • One Power Soak three-compartment 
    pot-wash sink. 
  • A cart-wash room for bulk rack washing, with a SprayMaster power-wash hose system designed throughout the facility. Says Huff: “This system allows the operator to connect power-wash hoses to any of the six ports all around the kitchen and loading docks and wash down the floors and walls, and even the parking lot.”
  • Two Oliver bulk-food-packaging machines that assist with the packaging and vacuum seal for all food items set for delivery. 

Food insecurity

Katie Oatsvall, who took over as CEO of the city’s 51-year-old Meals On Wheels program in June, says it is currently feeding 1,800 to 2,000 clients per day, five days a week, and its operations cost just over $5m annually. She estimates that the need for Meals On Wheels in the city of Tulsa expanded five-fold during the first month of the pandemic. 

“Oklahoma ranks fifth out of 50 states in food insecurity and older adults are the largest-growing segment of our population,” Oatsvall explains. “By 2030, one in five Americans will be 60-plus. We are now positioned to serve over one million hot meals a year, ensuring that no senior is lonely or hungry. Our mission is to allow people to safely age at home with dignity and independence, remaining part of the neighborhoods they love.”

Meals On Wheels’ previous facility, the organization’s headquarters for 32 years, was a 6,500 sq ft converted tire garage. “Our new kitchen is 8,500 sq ft,” says Oatsvall, “making it bigger than the entire 31st Street building.” The new location is operated by a staff of 69, plus a kitchen team of 12.

Huff says that he and his team noted the “tremendous need” for non-profits during and after Covid, especially in the foodservice sector. “The Tulsa food bank’s new facility, where we are 50% into construction, has never been more important, especially now that the need to provide food to the under-served in our community has tripled.” The Salvation Army has seen the number of homeless double since Covid. “Everyone joined together to get through the pandemic, and I think we will continue to see this kind of support for growth in the non-profit sector.”

What Huff considers the most important takeaway from this project for himself and his 
fellow FCSI consultants is the knowledge that “we can make a difference through our work, especially with schools and non-profits, by providing optimal service and really learning what our designs will ultimately affect.” 

In addition, he notes, “And I’ve been saying this for years: the role of the foodservice consultant has changed, and we are more and more project managers. I mean this in the sense that we are the experts in our field and should not be afraid to offer additional services as project managers for the foodservice scope of work.”

Oatsvall suggests consultants working with non-profits such as hers “always serve with dignity. Ask questions, hear their stories. Just like in a traditional restaurant setting, unique people have unique tastes, but food is always the great equalizer. It should always be served with care and love.”

Howard Riell

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