FE&S: So, we have to ask. What's the secret to providing fresh, quality food at such high volumes?
JJ: In our system we have about 40 formally trained chefs, and many have come from great restaurants so they knowhow to create a menu that can handle higher volumes. And it's true, we are very busy — we say we can get 2,000 customers through our main café in a 2 to 2½-hour window, even with many build-your-own stations, including customizable options at the grill, deli and pizza stations. Great design and technology play a huge role in this. We have six kiosks, three at each entry point, which allow guests to create their own order. We also have a chef's table, or rotating action station that changes frequently, a gourmet salad action station in addition to the salad bar, and we offer special events. For instance, we just had our "May the Fourth Be With You" theme with different characters in Star Wars costumes, and people were taking pictures with them throughout the day.
FE&S: I bet the community gardens you have on-site play a role in that.
JJ: They do. We conduct a lot of community outreach and health and wellness education through our gardens and different community programs. We have members of the community, students, culinary interns and hospital staff who volunteer to help out in the gardens and the patients who participate leave with bags of produce every week during the season from May until about October. We look at our job in healthcare foodservice as the intersection of food and nutrition. While our main job is to determine the patients' clinical nutrition needs and how we deliver that through food, the gardens offer a great learning lab for everyone.
FE&S: Being at the forefront of healthcare foodservice, what major changes do you see coming?
JJ: There have been many changes in the healthcare arena. From a business model a couple things are happening. Obviously, there is an uncertainty about reimbursement, declining payments for services, and additional regulations, so that has put pressure on our healthcare systems to operate very efficiently. Many healthcare systems today use a variety of consultants to evaluate how cost effective and efficient we are as an operation. About 5 percent of a healthcare system budget may be for food and nutrition services, so it does put us on the radar screen for review. Our goal is to operate as efficiently as possible but not sacrifice quality because our consumers demand more from us now than they did 10 years ago.
Secondly, the business changes in healthcare have a lot to do with an evolving vision to care for the health of the population, rather than just the individual. Healthcare facilities are trying to keep people well throughout their lives, and keep them out of the hospital, so there has been a tremendous amount of consolidation to create these diverse healthcare delivery networks rather than many stand-alone, independent facilities. Right now, everything comes down to cost and finding that balance of making sure you are satisfying patients — but not at a level where you're draining huge resources. In foodservice, we are not the ones doing the brain surgery, so we're more focused on trying to make sure we have the technology and systems in place to be more efficient with what tight space and dollars we have but are still able to provide an excellent customer experience.
FE&S: What are some food and nutrition trends you are currently seeing?
JJ: Healthcare foodservice is no different than restaurants or colleges — everyone wants to know where their food comes from, and they want clean ingredients, clean labels, transparency, and the ability to customize everything. Our kiosks really help with the customization, but we also print full ingredient labels on all of our grab-and-go packages and use digital menu boards to communicate other information about the food and the ingredients, especially if we are highlighting local foods. We also run some features on our internal website about the food, and our chefs make sure they are available to guests if they want to ask questions or learn more.
FE&S: I'm guessing this transparency and communication plays a huge role in working with patients and customers with special diets or allergens?
JJ: Definitely. On the patient side it tends to be easier to handle allergies and food intolerances because this information gets noted to their files when they are admitted and that data is immediately transferred to our system, removing those items from their in-room menu. In the café and retail outlets, we don't have a dedicated gluten-free or allergen-free station, as we don't have the space for that, but the chefs know how to work closely with those with special needs and there is a special process for preparing the food. We also offer many vegan and gluten-free items or substitutions, such as a lettuce wrap in place of bread, and we use symbols on our menu boards to highlight these options.
FE&S: Despite all the changes in healthcare, what is your vision, or mission for the future?
JJ: As a department, our vision is to deliver innovative food and nutrition services that positively impact the health, wellbeing and nutrition knowledge of the patients, customers and staff we serve. This challenges us to see ourselves as more than just food or nutrition providers — it means our job is to have a larger impact on those we serve. The only thing we can count on is that food and nutrition needs will continue to evolve and that we as the providers need to deliver services that resonate with and satisfy the expectations of our customers.