A New Home for Meals on Wheels

In San Antonio, the headquarters for the nonprofit blends an industrial kitchen producing thousands of meals a day with staff services and an adult day care center.

Meals on Wheels San Antonio is best known for preparing and delivering 10,000 meals a day to vulnerable senior citizens in the region. But their headquarters serves many roles beyond food services, also providing a home for administrative spaces and Grace Place, a nonprofit Alzheimer’s-specific adult day activity center.

When Meals on Wheels recently moved to replace its cramped 50-year-old facility, the design process started with a collaborative deep dive into the nonprofit’s operations, goals
and larger challenges.

“LPA was very aggressive to learn as much as they could about us,” says Vinsen Faris, CEO of Meals on Wheels San Antonio. “They jumped into the programming phase with full force.”

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Pre-engineered metal panels and a structural steel frame create an economic and energy-efficient wall system.

The new 45,000-square-foot facility, built in partnership with Joeris General Contractors, addresses the group’s complex needs, blending the logistics of the massive food operation with the desire to create open, supportive spaces for patrons and donors. On the 6-acre site, food services, Grace Place and the administrative offices each have their own entrances and identity. Existing oak trees were preserved, helping to create comforting outdoor environments while also creating a circulation pattern to the building’s rear entrance for the 18-wheel trucks used to deliver supplies to the kitchen.

The design focused on economical, effective and energy-efficient materials, with a structural steel frame and an insulated metal wall panel system. The panels are essentially a sandwich, with two metal elements on the outside and high-density foam on the inside. The exterior 20-foot-tall, textured, colored panels fit together “like Legos,” says LPA Project Manager Brittany Haberstroh-Baker, and give the largely industrial kitchen facility
a welcoming façade.

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The 20,000-square-foot kitchen prepares 10,000 meals a day.

“We deliberately varied their colors and interpolated windows to ensure it didn’t seem like a refrigerated box,” Haberstroh-Baker says.

The heart of the new facility is the 20,000-square-foot kitchen, which includes a bulk cooler and freezer and other elements essential to safely produce thousands of meals a day. LPA brought in a food service consultant to ensure the operation met the organization’s standards, and space was maximized for efficiency and safety. To optimize operations, storage and cooking areas are located at the center of the building, and packaging areas are near the rear entrance to ensure a smooth distribution process.

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The facility had to meet health and safety standards for food preparation.

During the design process, the teams worked with Meals and Wheels staff to learn more about their day-to-day work habits, the needs of the senior community and the organization’s relationships with its community supporters.

“LPA was patient — they were teachers and they were learners all at the same time,” Faris says. “Once we were into the design phase, it was fun and engaging to watch the design evolve with our input listened to and accepted.”

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Designers integrated Meals on Wheels’ process into the layout, including the final distribution center.

“LPA was very aggressive to learn as much as they could about us. They jumped into the programming phase with full force.” — Vinsen Faris, CEO of Meals on Wheels San Antonio

The design addressed the importance of blending the different functions of the facility, while maintaining clear separations between the uses. A hallway lined with large windows divides the food preparation and administrative halves of the building, providing easy views of their work processes to visitors and donors, without a need for hygienic measures required to actually enter the kitchen. Corridors are straightforward and provide easy visibility and are floored with vibrant carpet patterns.

“They deliver meals to people who have mobility issues, so they wanted to create this concept of movement throughout the building,” says LPA interior designer Cecilia Gutierrez. “Everywhere you look, there is some sort of nod
to movement and motion and wheels turning.”

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The major circulation spine connects and separates the facility’s different functions, while highlighting the group’s many roles in the community.

The adult day care center required a different sort of focus, including the need to meet the state’s regulations for care facilities. The design creates spacious, flexible areas filled with daylight. But there was also a need to limit exterior visibility.

“It needed to be at the front of the building where people could get to it easily,” Haberstroh-Baker says. “But the clients sometimes may get confused when they see people arriving and leaving, so we also shielded the clients from being able to see too much of the entrance.”

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The facility plays an important community role as an adult day care center.

A year after opening, the building is living up to expectations, and it is designed to accommodate the organization’s growth. Two additional production shifts could be slotted in, which would allow the facility to produce about 30,000 meals a day, triple its current output. The building is also saving on operation costs. Coupled with photovoltaic panels on the roof, the efficient envelope and carefully selected mechanical systems helped reduce the facility’s fossil fuel use by 79% from an industry benchmark.

“The entire design process was fascinating, and we were kept up to speed at every step,” Faris says. “Once it was all said and done, we have had no instances of second-guessing our design decisions.”