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The Tray Line: Movin' On Down the Line

High-volume operators use tray lines to make up many meals at once and to clean afterwards.

At Grand Island Veteran's Home, Grand Island, Neb., Foodservice Director Kathy Jensen faced a challenge in providing high-quality tray meal services for the state-run facility's extended-care residents. “Because our five dining locations are spread out, time, temperature and distance were considerable hurdles in providing good meal service. After meals were plated and delivered from our central kitchen, hot food did not stay hot, and cold food did not stay cold,” Jensen says. “I realized that a new cook-chill operation, including the associated refrigerated tray line assembly and retherm system, was the answer for our foodservices.”

After Grand Island gained state funding to support the conversion, and received a matching grant from the Federal Veteran's Administration, a process that took several years, lead designer Al Moller of consulting firm Ricca-Newmark Design took control of the project. “He was able to plan the renovation in stages, which was necessary for us so that we could remain up-and-running throughout the process,” Jensen says. The conversion took approximately two years and was completed last fall. Jensen credits her staff with the success of continuing service throughout the renovation, as they were sometimes required to work in extreme ambient temperatures in production areas.

The production kitchen for Grand Island Veteran's Home, equipped with bulk prep equipment such as kettles and a blast chiller, and the cold plating room for tray assembly, are separated by the refrigerated food bank walk-in, built to provide access from both sides. Staff assembling trays in the cold plating room can easily access food pans containing bulk, pre-prepared product by using the pass-through window to the food bank. A coordinator organizes the pans in the food bank, making them easily accessible from the roll-in storage carts.

The cold plating room, which retains an ambient temperature of 50 °F., contains a custom-built 40-foot tray assembly line. The tray line is equipped with a microphone to call out computer tickets for each tray's items and to check on its final assembly so corrections can be made easily. A built-in carousel conveyor carries trays from one station to the next. Stations include a hot food section with drop-in wells for food that will be cart-rethermed and served hot, a cold food station, beverage station and dessert station.

The tray line includes sections that accommodate add-ons such as an air curtain storage area, a cold-brewed coffee urn station and a milk dispenser.

Staff load cold plated trays ready for meal service into refrigerated transport carts that upon delivery roll into computerized, refrigerated retherm carts installed at each dining location. Then, 45-to-60 minutes before mealtime, the programmed retherm carts automatically switch on to heat hot food and beverages for service. This system features adjustable inserts that retherm only the hot menu items when they are paired with cold ones on the same tray.

“We are still tweaking our new tray delivery system, and have added more retherm carts so that we can actually produce and hold service trays one meal ahead of time,” Jensen says. “The new system provides numerous advantages over our old one, including efficiency in serving all meals at the same time, and in serving meals at proper temperatures. One challenge we confronted in our conversion was to find new adaptive service plates that could stand up to the new retherm-time process. We found the best items for our needs by trial-and-error, after shopping around.”

At Maine Medical Center, Portland, Maine, the facility's two kitchens — centralized production and finishing — support two types of tray delivery systems: cook-chill production and central tray assembly line. Besides the traditional patient tray service, a room service-style meal delivery system, allowing some patients to order meals when they feel like eating, is increasing patient satisfaction while reducing food waste, according to Mary Keysor, director of nutrition services at Maine Medical Center. “We chose to combine a bulk cook-chill food production system, using kettles, cook tanks and blast chillers, with a batch, cook-to-order preparation style for patient menu support, to accommodate our two tray service styles,” Keysor explains. “Our shortened patient length of stay results in high turnover and rapid diet order changes, increasing our need for flexibility.”

About 1,000 patient meals go through the tray line each day on the main campus. “The built-in flexibility in our kitchen production equipment and tray line equipment is crucial to our foodservices' successful daily operations,” Keysor adds.

The tray line in the Maine Medical Center kitchen utilizes induction heating technology to heat pellets for transport of hot entrées. Staff place china plates on top of the pellets as a variable-speed conveyor carries trays along the line for menu assembly at four to six food and beverage stations, depending on daily menus. Thermal domes cover the completed plates.

Cryovac bags of bulk food pre-prepared in the cook-chill production area are rethermed as required in a hot water bath, steam jacket or combi oven. When the bagged food reaches the proper temperature, it is then placed into stainless, drop-in hot-holding wells in a steam table station on the tray line, ready to be dished onto plates for service. Staff can move air-curtained refrigerators on wheels to different locations on the tray line, depending on cold-holding requirements for daily menus. An adjacent cooking deck using four combi ovens, a broiler and a griddle for batch cooking of some menu items supports the tray line. For example, combi ovens can prepare fresh fish, a staple of Maine Medical menus, for service with rethermed menu items that were bulk-prepared in the cook-chill production kitchen.

The kitchen at Maine Medical includes a designated tray dumb-waiter delivery system, capable of vertically transporting a roll-in cart holding 14 prepared trays at a time to hospital floors for immediate patient service. The tray delivery system does not require satellite retherm carts or use hospital elevators to transport meal tray carts.

“The heat-on-demand induction pellet system works extremely well for us in our foodservice operation,” Keysor says. “Also, because we have that flexibility in our tray line equipment configuration that allows us to plate up our patient trays immediately prior to service, we have greatly reduced waste in throwing out uneaten food.”

For years, the Aramark-contracted cafeteria in Reynolda Hall (called “The Pit”), at Wake Forest University, Winston Salem, N.C., operated as a retail food court-type dining option for students. Last year, students voted for a dining membership board plan, signaling a cultural change in dining at Wake Forest. Aramark responded with a complete renovation of the Reynolda facility to support their Fresh Food Company, a marketplace dining concept now found on about 20 campuses where the operator has contracts. The exhibition-cooking-driven servery includes 12 stations, including a Mongolian grill, pizza station and bakeshop, according to Dan Burns, Aramark's foodservice director at Wake Forest.

“Because the Reynolda dining facility was formerly a retail, take-out-style operation, food was served in disposable paper or foam containers, and the tray collector was needed only for service trays,” Burns explains. “With the return to customer service on melamine plates and tumblers, a new, back-of-the-house continuous tray line accumulator was an integral part of the new equipment package installed in the renovation at Reynolda Hall.”

The new tray handling system features a drop-off window where customers place trays into the rotary tray accumulator, fabricated in vertically stacked slots in groups of four to accommodate up to 64 trays. The trays then move to the dismantling, sorting and scrapping area. This station includes three spray hoses for rinsing and a waste trough and disposal unit for food scraps, equipped with a time delay as a water conservation feature. Trays and dishes then continue on a flat conveyor into a flight-type dishmachine for washing and rinsing, followed by a blow-dry assist.

“Tray handling systems such as our new unit in Reynolda Hall have been installed by Aramark in some other recent facility renovations, such as one at The Ramshead at UNC, Chapel Hill, where they have proven to be clean and fast,” Burns says. “The tray accumulator can accommodate up to 20 people dropping off trays at once because the drop-off window displays four or five tray-slot groupings at any given time. The vertical design also provides for an efficient use of space, which is an advantage when dealing with the space limitations common in renovations such as ours at Wake Forest.”