DRACUT -- Getting her first look inside the newly constructed walk-in freezer at the rear of the kitchen of the new Dracut High cafeteria, Cook Manager Darlene Sideman's initial reaction made the contractors working on the school's $60 million transformation project laugh.

"My comment was that, unlike our last freezer that was dark, I can see everything that's in here," Sideman said Wednesday as she and Food Services Director Michael Maguire gave a tour of the brightly illuminated freezer, kitchen and serving line, as well as its sunlit and spacious main dining area.

Dracut High junior Sarah Nickerson checks out the offerings in the lunch line at the school’s newly opened cafeteria on Friday. The dining hall, part
Dracut High junior Sarah Nickerson checks out the offerings in the lunch line at the school's newly opened cafeteria on Friday. The dining hall, part of the school's $60 million renovation, has staffers and students smiling. See a video at lowellsun.com. SUN / BOB WHITAKER

Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.
Two sides of the dining hall are lined by large windows.

"The biggest difference with the new cafeteria is it's a lot brighter and cheerier everywhere you look," said Sideman. "We still have a lot of work to do, but we haven't had any complaints from the students. They seem to love it in here. We're very excited."

Though the construction schedule did not call for the new cafeteria to be completed until the doors open for the 2014-15 school year in September, Maguire, Sideman and several other key staff members worked through April school-vacation week to give members of the senior class a taste of the new facility.

"The seniors have been very much affected by this renovation, and they've been terrific with it.


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So we wanted to give them some normalcy back before they leave for the final time in June," Maguire said. "Hopefully, it's more welcoming. The last cafeteria was a little bit clinical. This is brighter with softer tones and better seating. All in all, I think the kids are pretty happy with it."

Wednesday's menu, posted on a white board by the dining hall's main entrance, gave students their list of hot and cold food choices, including spaghetti and meatballs, turkey sub, chicken teriyaki with rice, tacos with nacho chips, barbecued fajitas with fries, and double cheeseburger with fries.

"The last cafeteria was a little bit clinical," Food Services Director Michael Maguire said as he showed off Dracut High’s new dining hall.
"The last cafeteria was a little bit clinical," Food Services Director Michael Maguire said as he showed off Dracut High's new dining hall. "This is brighter with softer tones and better seating." See a video at lowellsun.com. SUN / JOHN COLLINS

Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.
A variety of salads and fruits were also offered.

Two large milk coolers flanked the checkout station. Sideman pointed out a separate snack area with flavored waters available in drink machines. Ice cream and frozen yogurt machines will soon be added to the snack section's offerings, she said.

"Our goal is to serve the kids in an atmosphere that's like you've walked into a nice, inviting, enticing and affordable restaurant," said Sideman. "And working with this all-new equipment -- it's ideal."

When Maguire took over as food-service director 13 years ago, he said he could only dream about offering Dracut High students such a modern dining facility.

"It's a long way from the old checkered flooring with the white walls that I walked into.

"We really wanted to get the new cafeteria up and running to give the seniors the experience before the end of the year," said Dracut High Cook
"We really wanted to get the new cafeteria up and running to give the seniors the experience before the end of the year," said Dracut High Cook Manager Darlene Sideman. SUN / JOHN COLLINS

Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.
It's come a long way," Maguire said as he oversaw each of the school's three successive 25-minute lunch periods. "A lot of people had to make this happen, starting with the School Committee and Permanent Building Committee. To their credit, they made the case to the voters, who saw the need and decided to part with some tax dollars. People should get to see what they've invested in."

Maguire said he and Superintendent of Schools Steve Stone have discussed the possibility of hosting a cafeteria open house for town residents once it is fully operational, sometime this fall.

"We're proud of what we do, and we want the parents to see what the students are doing, what they're eating," Maguire said.

Students aren’t the only ones enjoying the new cafeteria. Staffers Amie Dalton, left, and Dawn Greenlaw work in the snack section Friday.SUN / BOB
Students aren't the only ones enjoying the new cafeteria. Staffers Amie Dalton, left, and Dawn Greenlaw work in the snack section Friday. SUN / BOB WHITAKER

Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

Shiny, new stainless-steel kitchenware, coolers, freezers and sinks surrounded Maguire, Sideman and other staff members as they went about their meal-serving tasks. Maguire predicted that one section of the new Dracut High cafeteria set-up that could see much heavier use in the years ahead -- depending on what laws may be passed -- is the dishwashing room.

"Even though we now use Styrofoam serving trays, it's very possible that in the near future some environmentally conscious legislators who are worried about the carbon footprint in landfills will probably say that we don't want to see Styrofoam plates anymore," Maguire said. "In that case, we can just go back to using the old lunch trays from the days we went to school, and wash them in here."

As second lunch ended on Wednesday, several seniors praised the new cafeteria's fare and surroundings.

"I like it. It's a lot more roomy. You can actually sit with your friends now," said senior Morgan Languirand, who was doing just that, sitting with David Caizzi, Meredith Conroy and Karina Shepard at one of dozens of standalone tables that still had empty seats available.

"It was cramped before, but now it's fine," Caizzi said.

The nearly completed cafeteria features "98 percent" of the elements he placed on his design and set-up wish list three years ago, Maguire said.

"After being here for more than a dozen years and knowing what the deficiencies were and ways to make it better, we put pen to paper three years ago and (Buildings & Grounds Director) Andy Graham and members of the Permanent Building Committee really came through," Maguire said. "We're very happy with the work that they did. They should be commended."

Follow John Collins on Twitter and Tout at johncolowellsun.