The Difference Between Commercial & Noncommercial Food Service

by Devra Gartenstein
Commercial restaurants can be gathering places, while noncommercial eateries are geared towards efficiency.

Commercial restaurants can be gathering places, while noncommercial eateries are geared towards efficiency.

Although virtually all food service operations must be financially solvent to survive long term, it's more important for independent operations than those playing a supporting role in other institutions, such as schools or hospitals. Commercial food service includes full service and fast food restaurants. According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, these eateries make up 77 percent of all food expenditures away from the home. Noncommercial food service includes school and hospital cafeterias, and its sales make up 23 percent of the dining out of the home.

Profit Versus. Nonprofit

Commercial restaurants operate on a for-profit basis. Although institutions hosting noncommercial foodservice are usually operated as nonprofits, the food service operations themselves may be for-profit companies. This is especially common when franchises such as McDonald's and Pizza Hut open locations in schools or hospitals. These operations tend to be hybrids, combining established and tested menus, systems and business models with the special considerations inherent in noncommercial food service. For example, speedy service at noncommercial operations, such as university cafeterias, is even more critical than at fast food restaurants, so layouts and serving stations must be comprehensively designed and stocked to save time and movement.

Financial Viability

A commercial food service establishment, such as a fine dining restaurant, may aim to provide an elegant dining experience that expands customer awareness of culinary possibilities, but if the endeavor doesn't make money it will go out of business. Noncommercial food service ventures should be financially viable as well, but they may have more leeway if they serve the ends of the institution as a whole, especially if funds are available to subsidize them. Schools and hospitals need cafeterias. If a school cafeteria is losing money, the administration will look for ways to reverse the loss, but it is unlikely to close the cafeteria.


Commercial restaurants are usually privately owned, whether as independent operations, chains or franchises. Noncommercial food service operations may be owned and operated by their affiliate organizations. This occurs most frequently with independent institutions such as private alternative schools, which treat food as part of their overall educational message. Large food service companies such as Sysco and Marriot often run large, streamlined noncommercial food service operations, and chains and franchises such as Burger King and Taco Hut may operate their own sections of noncommercial food courts.

Beautiful Food

Respected commercial restaurants are often passionate about their food, providing fine fare and memorable dining experiences. Despite the stereotype of hospital and school food service operations serving bland, industrial food, some noncommercial food service venues put attention and care into their offerings and provide meals that rival restaurant meals. Museum cafeterias, in particular, often work to create a dining experience that complements its art. Some school and hospital cafeterias have also begun making the connection between fresh, healthy food and the pursuit of overall well-being that shapes the missions of these institutions.

About the Author

Devra Gartenstein has owned and run a variety of food businesses for more than 20 years. She has published two cookbooks: "The Accidental Vegan" and "Local Bounty." Gartenstein holds Master of Arts degrees in philosophy and English literature.

Photo Credits

  • Steve Mason/Photodisc/Getty Images