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Institutional Dining: Hennepin Healthcare Caters to Diverse Staff

Attending the IFMA award banquet receiving their Silver Plate Award for healthcare, left to right: Antonio Sanchez, executive chef; Matthew Sweet, operations manager; Anna Hensel, manager; Bill Marks, director; Nicki Binczik, manager; and Isaac Owens, operations manager.

When William Marks, director of food, nutrition and environmental services at Hennepin Healthcare, signed on as a customer with US Foods, he says they wanted to assign him a dietitian as a sales rep. That would make perfect sense for most food directors of hospitals, but “I told them I want the guy who’s selling to the restaurant down the street,” Marks says. 

Sure, the facility formerly known as HCMC has a captive audience in its employee cafeteria and hospital beds, but its competition isn’t other hospitals, according to Marks: “It’s the restaurants down the street.” 

To keep the staff and patients happy, “We offer a wide variety of foods, which makes it challenging,” he says. “When you have a captive audience you have to constantly change.” And because the medical staff is from all over the world, the chefs add dishes from locales such as Somalia and Tibet into the rotation. The kitchens are open 365 days a year from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. with an hour break between breakfast and lunch to reset the stations. In addition to US Foods, Sysco is also a broadline distributor for them.

What also makes it challenging is that they serve 1.8 million meals a year between their retail operation, patient dining and catering. And yet, he adds, his departments consistently have one of the highest employee-engagement ratings in the facility.

On the day we visited, medical staff and visitors were lining up early for the 11 a.m. official kickoff for lunch. Some headed toward the made-to-order sandwich stations, while others waited patiently while a chef prepared individual servings of Cajun shrimp and rice. When quizzed by Marks, the chef estimated that around 120 of the entrée would be served between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. that day.

A hospital setting needs healthy, comfort food, but it also needs a pricing strategy that ranges from low to average for the guests, while staying within budget. “We’re a hospital so we have to be frugal,” he says. For instance, the salad bar is 39 cents an ounce (in comparison, Lunds & Byerly’s charges 56 cents an ounce for their salad bars), and a spring salad with a grilled chicken breast and fresh strawberries was $6.99. The following day that station may be selling bowls of pho or transformed into a taco or burrito bar. The only two consistent stations are the deli and the grill.

Staff takes pride in the meals they prepare, so glowing notes returned on patients’ trays are posted in the kitchen for all to enjoy. 

Marks stresses the quality of the food. The turkey is real turkey meat, and there’s none of that fake crab salad. “I’m from the East Coast so I know seafood,” Marks says. “If we can’t do it right, we don’t do it.” On the patients’ menu, the mashed potatoes are real potatoes, not the instant variety from the box. And warming plates keep the food hot on the journey from kitchen to hospital room. 

When the pizza oven isn’t being used for pizza, it cranks out oversized chocolate chip cookies that are served warm for $1.20.  Last year, they sold 63,000 cookies. “When the pizza oven broke, we got approval (to fix it) within an hour when they realized it was used for cookies,” Marks says, grinning. But that’s because the cookies are popular with staff, not just for their revenue-generating ability. 

Marks shows off his cafeteria and kitchens like a proud father introducing his kids. While touring the kitchens, Marks absentmindedly picked up a discarded napkin or straw paper in the halls and employed the sole of his shoe to rub out scuffmarks. He’s been at this job for 10 years and he likes to joke with the staff as he introduces them. “I’m not my own island,” he says of his departments. “We’re an integral part of the hospital. We have each other’s backs.” 

While the cafeteria upstairs is the more visible operation, the kitchen downstairs that cranks out patients’ meals three times a day is the more intriguing. Marks and Executive Chef Antonio Sanchez have it down to a science. “We do cook/chill,” Marks says. For instance, “we serve chicken soup every day, but we make it 12 times a year,” he says. Bags of homemade chicken soup, which ironically look like giant IV bags, have been scanned into the system before being stored in the walk-in refrigerator. 

The process of cooking and storing food has been carefully implemented. “Patients have reduced immune systems so we have extra precautions,” he says. “We’re big on sanitation and food handling.” For instance, cutting boards are replaced every year because they get scarred up, leaving crevices for bacteria to grow in. The refrigeration system, which is crucial to food safety, has an alarm that connects with cell phones. Marks laughs as he recounts that once he was vacationing in Spain when his phone alerted him that the refrigeration system needed attention. (And no, he didn’t fly home, onsite staff handled it.)

Marks pointed out the smoker—loaded with salmon filets that day—that ups the quality of the food. As Sanchez opened the door to show it off, Marks comments, “It’s a great toy we saved up for. It’s the little things that add up for us.”

Sanchez is charged with developing the menus, but he says the department does tastings as well as relies on family to help test out things. They’ve even gone so far as to have a hospital bed in the kitchen to test eating their food from the patients’ vantage point. Marks’ wife’s brief hospital stay made them aware that sometimes the first meal a patient wants is soup or a milkshake. Milkshakes are premade and nurses can run down and grab one for a patient whenever needed. 

They tested the meat substitute known as the Impossible burger, but “we didn’t like it as a burger, but it worked as a ground beef substitute,” Sanchez says. 

Executive Chef Antonio Sanchez shows off the smoker loaded with salmon filets on this day. 

In addition to their two core areas, the kitchen staff also caters hospital-sponsored receptions. 

It’s obvious that both Sanchez and Marks are heavily invested in not only how safe the food is, but how good it tastes. Want to spoil a good walk around the kitchen? Mention the common theory that hospital food sucks. 

“First of all,” Marks says, getting a bit riled up. “You’re sick. You’re in bed and the doctor says ‘no salt.’ Wars have been fought over salt!” 

Fortunately, for Hennepin Healthcare, staff receives a bouquet of notes returned on trays from patients thanking them for the wonderful meal. The notes are displayed on a large bulletin board in the kitchen. Comments range from “you should open up your own restaurant” to the less glorious, “I wouldn’t feed that to a dog.” They can laugh at that last one, because everyone knows dogs think any people food is great.

Patients’ families have requested recipes and one patient liked the beef stew so much that when he left the hospital, staff sent him home with a couple of gallons of the stew.

But don’t take our word for their excellence. Marks and staff just received the Silver Plate Award for Healthcare from the International Facility Management Association at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago this May. “It was a great weekend,” Marks says of the experience. “It’s one of those you wish you could do over because you know what to expect.” 

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