For years, diners at hospital cafeterias found their options limited to ordinary sandwiches and ubiquitous squares of gelatin. Today, however, those diners are indulging in such items as grilled salmon with red pepper coulis, wild mushroom enchiladas and beef tenderloin—usually at per-person check averages of $6 to $8.
Looking to grow retail sales and please increasingly sophisticated visitors, employees and patients, health care facilities nationwide are luring executive chefs from restaurants, hotels and country clubs to improve their culinary offerings and better compete with outside eateries in terms of service and experience.
“Providing food for employees and visitors is being looked at more now as a business,” said Lynne Ometer, director of food and nutrition at Emory Hospital in Atlanta. “As far as retail dining is concerned, depending on the philosophy of the facility, we’re hearing more and more about growing profitability. Customers are looking for the same types of offerings they’d find at least in fast-casual restaurants external to the hospital. There is a concerted effort to upscale the image, make it more modern and in touch with the times, like you’d find at the mall: a fresh market concept with display cooking prepared in front of the customer. As hospitals renovate their cafeterias, they are trying to get away from that dated, institutional look. Instead they’re trying to provide comfort and perceived value.”
A recent survey conducted by the National Society for Healthcare Foodservice Management found that approximately 55 percent of respondents considered more than half of the meals served at their facilities to be retail, and of that number, 57 percent said sales had increased over the prior year.
At Swedish Medical Center, a 690-bed facility in Seattle, Kris Schroeder, director of nutrition services, said her foodservice revenues are up 13 percent since she hired Eric Eisenberg, a Cordon Bleu-trained chef, three years ago as the hospital’s executive chef. Eisenberg has worked at several fine-dining establishments in New York, including the Manhattan Ocean Club and the River Café , as well as restaurant Michel Rostang in Paris.
According to Schroeder, Eisenberg brought a different perspective to Swedish Medical Center, which has annual foodservice sales of $3.9 million.
“That was a tremendous advantage in and of itself,” she said. “Someone coming from totally outside of the four walls of health care came in not only with a restaurant perspective, but with that broad depth of possibilities being endless.”
Eisenberg noted the facility’s upgraded foodservice is intended to appeal to the growing numbers of demanding baby boomers.
“Our patients are not mature geriatric patients any more,” he said. “Baby boomers are becoming regular customers now, and they are very savvy and have different expectations when it comes to food. Even in hospitals they want what they want. That’s why we treat foodservice here like it’s a restaurant. Obviously, we don’t have all the trappings; it’s just not feasible. But people know what they want and that is for us to create the same experience that’s out in the world.”
The influx of culinary creativity means greater opportunities for health care foodservice.
“We really are beginning to make the food in health care just as good if not better than what you get in a restaurant,” Schroeder said. “We’re busting that myth of hospital food all over the place.” For many of the upscale chefs entering the market, the ability to change that negative perception is a powerful motivator.
“Hospital food probably has been the butt of jokes for years,” said Gary Vorstenbosch, a former chef at Star Canyon Restaurant in Dallas who now is executive chef at Presbyterian Hospital of Plano in Plano, Texas.
Mary Spicer, director of nutrition services at Presbyterian, agrees, saying, “Most of the world has this misconception about hospital food, and we’re trying to break away from that stigma.”
Vorstenbosch added: “Even when I was getting ready to come here, my own chefs [at Star Canyon] told me not to do it, that I would waste my talent. Now many of them are working with me. And not only do they have a better quality of life, they know they can make a difference.”
At St. John’s Medical Center in Tulsa, Okla., more than 85 percent of the business at its four retail foodservice operations is employee-driven, and executive chef Joe Hamilton, who joined the facility nearly two years ago after completing a stint at the Tulsa Country Club, said he keeps customers happy by introducing change gradually.
“We’re doing a lot more things from scratch and moving in the direction of offering more healthful food, but there’s always going to be that percentage of the population that wants fried chicken fingers and that sort of thing,” he said. “The key is to not take something away, but offer something as filling and satisfying in place of it.”
To that end, Hamilton this year has added such items as coq au vin and seafood dishes, plus a number of vegetarian items. The changes have helped push sales to more than $3 million in the past year.
Improved menu items are allowing many hospitals to grow catering sales as well. According to the HFM study, at least 47 percent of respondents said they were preparing and selling hot-item trays, while another 62 percent said they offered baked-item trays and 78 percent said they offered fruit, vegetable and cheese trays. The survey further found that the catering trays were being purchased not only by hospital employees but also by visitors and outside customers.
“A lot of our catering is internal, and from an organizational point of view, we’re trying to minimize that because it is a financial strain,” Eisenberg said. “We’ve had to make some policy changes to keep catering habits at bay, but we are always trying to grow external business that comes our way. In 2006, for example, we did $1 million in actual revenue generated from catering. We do lots of conferences of national clinical organizations and pharmaceutical companies who come in to our facility.”