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Q&A with Eric Eisenberg, executive chef Swedish Health Services, Seattle

FE&S chats with Swedish Health Service's Eric Eisenberg about the evolution of healthcare foodservice, the foodservice equipment driving execution in this segment and more.

In the late 1980s, when Eric Eisenberg was training to become a chef in Europe, he didn't picture himself working in the hospital foodservice segment. When his training was complete, Eisenberg first worked as a chef in a fine dining restaurant. Ultimately Eisenberg achieved what he thought was his dream of owning his own restaurant — addressing patient dietary needs couldn't have been farther from his mind.


Expectations for hospital foodservice continue to rise. Operators like Swedish Health Services, seen here, try to offer a high level of foodservice to help drive patients to their facility. These efforts include high quality food prepared to order.

It was only after Eisenberg married and had children that he realized the benefits of working regular hours. "I didn't want to raise my kids in the back of a kitchen," he said. "I wanted a more regular schedule with a normal lifestyle."

After joining Swedish Health Services six years ago at what he thought would be an interim job, Eisenberg soon realized he'd found the perfect fit. "It's been great from a personal standpoint in terms of more regular hours, but it has also been wildly challenging," he said. "This is exactly what I should be doing at this stage of my life." Eisenberg initially worked as chef at one hospital, but in just a few short years his responsibilities have expanded. Now he's heading what will soon be a five-hospital system, the largest organization of its kind in the Puget Sound area.

Swedish Health Services' self-operated foodservice program provides room service in all locations for its patients. Eisenberg also manages nine retail outlets that include multiple live action stations. FE&S spoke with Eisenberg about the evolution of the hospital foodservice segment, his operations and the challenges he faces on a day-to-day basis.

FE&S: How has your operation changed in recent years?

EE: We've changed our retail operations dramatically. When I joined we were a three hospital system with foodservice run independently at each of the campuses. Two of the campuses were self-operated and one was under contract with Sodexho. Right after coming onboard in 2005, we created a corporate structure where I oversaw culinary operations for our main hospital and our small community hospital. In 2008 we presented a cost savings proposal to take over operations for the management of our third hospital from the contractors. Leadership accepted this proposal and now we are an entirely self op operation.

Now we're expanding again: our fourth hospital will open in July and a fifth hospital, already in our system as of Sept. 2010 but still operating independently, will become part of our corporate foodservice structure later this year. We've been able to add layers of services at each stage, without having to reinvent the wheel each time. We're now hitting our pace in terms of understanding how to do this efficiently.

FE&S: How have your kitchens and menus evolved?

EE: Each of our four hospitals has a separate kitchen on site. Our cafeterias are all similar, with live action stations providing a variety of options for clientele. We try to have a corporate structured menu on all campuses.

We recently swapped out all of our traditional ovens for combi ovens. We removed steamers and deep fryers from the patient services line. Instead of deep frying, we produce items that we can cook in the combi ovens. This equipment also is used for all of our production. It has been a culture shift for our chefs, since they're now dealing with more technologically advanced units that require more trust. Food doesn't do what you expect it to in a combi compared with a conventional oven.

FE&S: How have you changed your approach to service and menu development?

EE: In terms of services, we changed the way we organized our dining rooms. We took the approach of focusing on healthful foods and operating environmentally friendly kitchens. While we can't just provide sprouts and tofu, we scratch cook as much as possible and use local produce as often we can. In doing this, we've made the customer service aspect of our stations more high end.

For example, our salad bar is now a tossed-to-order custom salad station. The serving line no longer has steam tables, but instead focuses on local, organic and sustainable products made from scratch. We've added a taqueria station with tacos and burritos. We transformed the deli, which is still basic, to offer custom, made-to-order sandwiches. We use natural and organic products and ingredients whenever possible. As a result, we've created a sustainable, better-for-you program.

FE&S: What are the most pressing day-to-day issues in the hospital foodservice segment?

EE: Operationally, my biggest challenge is providing freshly-prepared food quickly and in large quantities. At our new hospital, all food is prepared to order. From a management standpoint, the engagement of staff and my customers is a challenge.

Hospital cafeterias have evolved over time. Customers used to have very limited food choices. There was then a period of time where these operations were highly customized and too many menu selections were offered. This wasn't an effective way to run a business. People who work here or visit us every day have a vested interest in what we do, but the reality is we can't provide everything to everyone every day. We try very hard to please everyone, especially since we have a captive audience, but we need to remain a viable business that is economically responsible.

FE&S: Discuss the evolution of your hospital foodservice program.

EE: We started room service 14 years ago, and it was the first of its kind for a hospital of this size. Over time, this program has continued to really morph into a variety of different techniques. There are many types of room service programs. Everyone has their own unique way of doing it. Some hospital programs have patients ordering whatever they want from their bed, while others provide only two or three entrée choices at the bedside. There is also a pod concept, where food is prepared to order from a limited menu. Our hospitals provide a variety of menu options and 24-hour room service at our main hospital. Room service programs are now becoming the norm.

FE&S: Have expectations changed? Please explain.

EE: Baby Boomers who are coming into the aging bracket have grown up in an era where they are all about consumption. Expectations are very high. Even from a medical center standpoint, there is an opportunity to satisfy patients and drive business. One example of this is our kosher program. We're fortunate to have partnered with a nursing home nearby that has a full kosher kitchen. Consequently, we can offer a high level of foodservice for kosher patients, so these patients seek us out. In this business, it's about utilizing foodservice as a way to drive patients to your facility.

FE&S: When buying foodservice equipment, what attributes do you look for?

EE: I focus partially on innovation. I want to know about new technologies that can help us be more consistent. Also, ease of use and reliability are key. I understand that equipment breaks down but at the very least I want to know that I can get problems fixed quickly. Buying domestically is something I'm focused on for a variety of reasons, but mainly because parts and service are more accessible.

FE&S: What are the equipment innovations that have had the biggest impact on your operations?

EE: Part of our recent project was installing a utility distribution system with electric, water and gas feeds that runs down the middle of our new kitchen at different intervals. Everything can be plugged in based on the way the kitchen is designed, but if we need to move equipment around, units can be easily and quickly disconnected. This whole system is controlled by a single control panel, so we can either shut off all utilities at once or individually. We also are able to monitor pressure and temperature.

Also, we do a fair amount of catering, and I'm really excited about our induction countertop. We installed two at our new facility in place of chafing dishes and sterno. It has made setting up for catering so much easier. I also have the opportunity to use a variety of attractive pots and pans.

FE&S: What makes the hospital foodservice segment unique?

EE: Obviously, we have the element of patients and therapeutic diets that need to be followed. We are responsible for people getting the right food in different situations. Yet, we produce more food at the retail level than we do for patients. The challenges are the same if your operation has a captive audience, but more so than in schools or B&I, there tends to be employees that work in hospitals that are very diverse. Culturally and age-wise, universities have a similar demographic. Even in the workplace, there is a span of people that is not the same as in a healthcare setting. This diversity makes it hard to please everyone, but we do our best.

FE&S: What do you predict for the future of this segment?

EE: We're installing a new computer system that will integrate all of the back- and front–of-house functions at our campuses. Currently, we use a variety of systems that are not compatible. With the new program, we will be able to track inventory and sales more efficiently. In terms of the foodservice equipment at our new facility, we have no deep fryers or soda fountains in keeping with our healthful lifestyle focus. We also plan to continue cooking to order.

Because our new facility will be geared to drawing in people from the surrounding neighborhoods, and not just hospital staff and visitors, we have added a wood-fired oven for a take-out pizza and chicken program. We will offer a curbside pickup area for the café, so people can call their orders in for takeout. Our goal is to have people seek out our restaurants because the food is good, not because they are hospital patients or visitors.