A cafeteria, commonly called a canteen outside of the US, is a type of food service location in which there is little or no waiting staff table service, whether a restaurant or within an institution such as a large office building or school; a school dining location is also referred to as a dining hall or canteen (in American English). Cafeterias are different from coffeehouses, although the English term came from Latin American Spanish, where it had and still has the meaning “coffeehouse”.
Instead of table service, there are food-serving counters/stalls, either in a line or allowing arbitrary walking paths. Customers take the food that they desire as they walk along, placing it on a tray. In addition, there are often stations where customers order food and wait while it is prepared, particularly for items such as hamburgers or tacos which must be served hot and can be immediately prepared. Alternatively, the patron is given a number and the item is brought to their table. For some food items and drinks, such as sodas, water, or the like, customers collect an empty container, pay at the check-out, and fill the container after the check-out. Free unlimited second servings are often allowed under this system. For legal purposes (and the consumption patterns of customers), this system is rarely, if at all, used for alcoholic beverages in the US.
Customers are either charged a flat rate for admission (as in a buffet) or pay at the check-out for each item. Some self-service cafeterias charge by the weight of items on a patron’s plate. In universities and colleges, some students pay for three meals a day by making a single large payment for the entire semester.
As cafeterias require few employees, they are often found within a larger institution, catering to the clientele of that institution. For example, schools, colleges and their residence halls, department stores, hospitals, museums, places of worship, amusement parks, military bases, prisons, factories, and office buildings often have cafeterias. Although some of such institutions self-operate their cafeterias, many outsource their cafeterias to a food service management company or lease space to independent businesses to operate food service facilities. The three largest food service management companies servicing institutions are Aramark, Compass Group, and Sodexo.