This project by Spanish company Apitropik is a finalist for the Service Design Award 2017 in the category of Professional, Commercial.

How to move from serving food to designing an experience. This project was born in May 2016. The client, a catering company from the Basque country in Spain, named Askora, wanted to improve their services for school canteens. They saw that having a quality product was not enough. It was time to rethink school canteens in their entirety.


In order to design a complete canteen experience focused on people, the project lasted a year, and it has been developed in two major phases:

1/ Investigating and understanding the current perspective of canteens.

2/ Design solutions, improvements and test it in the real world, with real kids.

1/ Investigate and understand the current perspective of canteens:

The first thing we needed was to understand the ecosystem that surrounds the service, from the kid’s experiences, their parents, grandparents, teachers and the school in general, to the Askora staff: supervisors, nutritionists, canteen assistants, chefs, etc. So we could better understand the experience.

Getting to know experiences, opinions and current relationships with the canteen was fundamental. But there is a limit to how much you can learn from interviewing people, as experiences are experiential, and one must live them. To achieve so, throughout the month of June 2016 Alex was infiltrated” working for Askora, doing all the different roles within the team.

She worked as a kitchen assistant, canteen assistant, as well as being responsible for the cleaning of most of the canteens run by Askora. The aim was to understand first hand all the underlying needs of the team, understand the work pace, emotional flows and daily issues. For example, to understand that it is almost impossible to be in a good mood at work when one should wear a horrible uniform as the canteen assistants had to do. Understanding that when the service begins, it is a moment of great tension that predetermines the service etc.

After everything was analysed and developed, it was shared through different collaborative workshops with the Askora team. The last workshop of this phase worked on the definition of a new global concept linked to the results of the research. Everything was focused on the same direction, co-creation, designing with and for the eaters, as well as searching for a memorable experience. We often forget how important the relation client-designer is. This first stage was important to get to know each other and to learn to trust each other to be able to generate a shared reflection of the present and future. For the client, it was a moment to understand and trust the work process. Sort of like starting with a blank page to make the first drafts.

The definition of a global concept helped us connect in defining the new values and needs of the project. We wanted to change the service and co-create a memorable experience. Join the canteen and recess time as a single learning moment, look for the coherence, to make it a space belonging to the school, aligned with its values and with Askora’s values. At this point, it was clear that the project needed a second phase of devising and testing. The proposal was to continue the project with two pilot programs in two canteens.

2/ Design solutions, improvements and test it in the real world, with real kids:

The second phase consisted on taking our ideas into the real world and see how they work. The devising and testing was developed in two very different canteens, regarding the number of children, size of the canteen and the service style. One of them was in Bilbao, in a school in which 600 kids with a range of different ages eat in the same room. It was a place where everything was very systematized, and the flow of movement was not working, and the moment of clearing the plates was “catastrophic” and unfriendly. In this canteen, specially, the staff appeared very stressed.

The second canteen was in Donostia-San Sebastian. It was smaller, with 300 eaters, in a multipurpose room, where the room is set up and cleared every day to make it the entrance hall. During the service there was and endless coming and going like in a transit area, and nobody really payed attention to the moment of eating.

This work process was an excellent opportunity to test everything in the real world. Testing from a smoother and more responsible self-service experience to a table service that was more self-managed, collaborative and homely. It was a “laboratory” phase of trial and error in which everyone (children, parents, staff and school) was taking part.

During this phase, we redefined the roles of the whole ecosystem, the shifts, the times, the spaces, dynamics and even the uniforms. Always searching for a place where the kid could feel more autonomous and aware. At the same time, we worked on the restyling of the space in line with the needs performed by everyone, bearing in mind the new devised dynamics and roles.

We took advantage of the 15 days of Christmas break to radically transform the space and generate new routines and roles starting the first day of the following year. An example of one of the things we did is the following: throughout the investigation we observed how the first minutes of service generate a great deal of stress and tension. The waiting queue to get into the canteen was a moment of fighting, agitation and a lot of shouting. It was the only moment when the kid could let loose and express himself between leaving the classroom and lunch time.

Our proposal was to change the moment of entering the canteen. We suggested a new system, a transition between recess time and lunch time. In this new system/space/ moment, the children go in as small groups of 8 kids, they sit down, and they relax. They take advantage of this moment to discover the menu, define how the table is going to be organized, where they want to eat and can be aware and pay attention to the beginning of another moment related to food. It allows children to balance their emotions and be more aware of the moment, and get ready for the moment of eating. Now each assistant has less children to handle at the same time, allowing to improve the quality and attention of the first contact with the children.

When we presented this idea to the school principal where it was tested, he said that it was not going to work. He thought no kid would slow down their rhythm to focus and stop, being hungry and in a rush to eat. But, once it was set in motion, he saw how this moment/space of transition had positively changed the eaters and the canteen assistants. And that was one of the strong elements of the project. It generated a calmer environment, with less noise and less problems.

This was one of the things that we changed. But the fact that we were able to work on two pilot programs has allowed us to learn and adjust many more things. It has confirmed that doing research is not enough for a process of innovation focused on the people, but it is necessary to include them in the entire process, both the client and the final consumers. And so we did, through various workshops focused on the canteen. We gathered more information about these canteens, about their habits, routines, etc. We profited from these encounters to contrast the first ideas with all the people involved.

At the end of the testing, we began a phase of evaluation of the pilot programs. It was done at several levels regarding the client, the design team, the teams belonging to the schools where the pilot programs were tested, the parents and the eaters.The evaluation process enabled to see all the weak and conflicting points of the experience and allowed to readjust them. Additionally, we evaluated whether the pilot programs should remain or if it was necessary to return to the previous system.

It was definite. In both cases the pilot programs were evaluated very positively and they all decided to continue with them adding improvements. They realized that they were not capable of going back to the old system as they found it did not make any sense.

After these two phases, the final experience was defined, the one that Askora would sell and implement in other schools. It was a time to make important strategic decisions. We decided that the canteen could not be the same for all the schools. Of course, there is consistency between all the Mahi-Mahi canteens, as they share the same values and the same global design patterns. But that is not enough, we added guidelines for specific situations to perfectly adapt to each canteen’s needs, to each context and person. We improved the definition of the identity of the service. This was the moment in which we gave the name Mahi-Mahi to the experience, we defined its business model, performance and gave shape to the last details of the experience to make it saleable and so it can add value to each school.

Mahi-Mahi turned into a unique canteen experience for innovative canteens. It was defined as a way to work in order to make the canteen a unique space where the children, on top eating healthily they can have a fun and educational experience. It has allowed the eaters to live a more exciting eating experience, with more autonomy, generating a positive impact on all the persons involved.

With Mahi-Mahi, Askora has positioned itself as pioneer in human centered innovation within the school canteens in Spain. It allows them to offer their clients (schools) a new experience where they venture together in a project which is constantly evolving and growing. Initially, we started looking for a way to improve the canteen experience, until it was completely redesigned.

Currently the impact continues to grow through implementing Mahi Mahi in new canteens. The impact was also at an internal level, the changes made in the team are of no return, very positive. They have allowed to strengthen the team, raise awareness about the quality of the service, as well as allowing them to learn and grow as a person. They completely changed the approach to be more empathetic, co-creative and work more transversally. From the point of view of the school, it is the first time that the canteen is integrated as a continuity of the school. The moment of eating stops being a moment of rupture with everything else, and becomes another moment of the learning process within the school. It adds value to the school and enables it to use the canteen as a distinguishing element in its selling strategies facing the competence.

We also witnessed how the project had a snowball effect inside the schools. Now parents and children are more pro-active, awaiting new projects . Therefore, the school relies on this project to continue innovating. It has spread the desire to co-create and design focusing on the people, in other aspects of the school that need improving.

For the children, the canteen space is no longer a place solely to eat, but a space for them, open, calm, in which they feel more aware and responsible of the good functioning of the canteen. They are part of it, it is their space, and that is why they look after it better. Some of them, very proud, invited their parents to explain how it works. They have clearly understood that they can suggest and this space/time is for them. It is flexible and can be improved at any time, they feel comfortable with it.

In this project, it was not necessary to change the raw material or the cooking style. What was surprising and fun was that the global improvement of the service helped to change the children’s perspective of food. Now they say “ Even the food is nicer!”

Project Credits

  • Project Name: Mahi-Mahi Project
  • Category: Professional, Commercial
  • Service Design Award 2017, nominated project for Professional Award
  • Organisation: Apitropik
  • Clients: Askora Plus S.L
  • Project website:
  • Company website:

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