Updated cafeteria has Mebane students lickin' their chops

A.L. Mebane Middle School eighth graders get lunch during the grand opening of the school's newly renovated cafeteria Monday, Jan. 9, 2012.

Doug Finger/Staff photographer
Published: Monday, January 9, 2012 at 6:11 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 9, 2012 at 6:11 p.m.

David Escalera bounded to the front of the lunch line at A. L. Mebane Middle School in the city of Alachua. As a sixth-grader new to the school this year, he hadn't known the cramped space that was there before, just that he had forgotten ketchup for his fries.

Despite several months of setbacks, the renovated cafeteria and kitchen space opened on Monday for students.

The project, which cost nearly $2.5 million, updated the aging cafeteria space, which had become cramped through the years.

Students and faculty ate out of a makeshift cafeteria in converted classroom space after construction began in February 2011.

Even that cafeteria was nicer than the previous space, said Mebane Assistant Principal Antwanique Edwards.

The former cafeteria and kitchen totaled just more than 6,600 square feet. That area was remodeled as the new cafeteria. A nearly 5,400-square-foot addition was built for the kitchen.

Dave Hamblen, dean of students, directed students on how the new lunch routine would work.

"I think it's outstanding," he said as he looked around the cafeteria. "It gives students an opportunity to socialize in a more open environment."

And that socializing is welcome. In the old cafeteria, Hamblen said, "the volume was just out of control."

The new cafeteria includes specialized acoustics to dampen the noise level with ceiling tiles that resemble waves.

The project hit several setbacks and was at first scheduled to open in September. Alachua County Public Schools facilities director Ed Gable said some construction delays came because of the site itself being an occupied space.

The construction also included considerable underground utility work and equipment purchases, he said.

Kayla O'Neal, a sixth-grader, said she hoped that other students would take care of the new cafeteria better.

Students and employees are enjoying the new cafeteria more, said Eunshil McKenna, food services supervisor for the district

"One student said, ‘The food even looks better,' and we haven't changed the food yet," she said, laughing. "I think it's the environment and the lighting."

Employees spent much of the day trying to get comfortable and familiar with the new space, McKenna said. Students filed through two different lines single file.

"Because it's so well-designed, the flow is better," she said. "It's more inviting."

The new cafeteria was a while in the making, said Assistant Principal Edwards.

"They say good things come to those who wait," she said, "and this was worth waiting for."

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