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R&IEditorial Archives2002 — August 15 — Business

Independent Means
Quick responses drive self-operated foodservice’s success

With contract-management firms competing to expand their shares of noncommercial markets, self-operated foodservice has to be nimble to survive.

Self-ops account for as much as 80% of healthcare foodservice to as little as 5% to 15% of the college/university market, according to Chicago-based consultants Technomic Inc. Where independents believe they have an edge is in their ability to understand local needs, anticipate changes and craft rapid responses. If they lack the conglomerates’ resources, they also are without the bureaucracy. Self-ops can make decisions without teleconferences and seize opportunities when presented.

When Orlando-based Florida Hospital Medical Center (FHMC) acquired several hospitals and added staff, Shawn Noseworthy recognized an opportunity. Administrative director for nutritional services, Noseworthy did not fear growth but worried about potential loss of communication among FHMC’s 433 foodservice employees. Using new technologies to strengthen communication not only tightened the team but turned the group into a computerized and tech-savvy department.

Noseworthy invested in pagers, digital cameras and cellphones. In addition, employees were encouraged to use e-mail, FHMC’s intranet and take advantage of computer training programs and software packages available to the hospital. Staying in touch with co-workers in the cafeteria line, in the kitchen, on loading docks and in hospital corridors encouraged teamwork, improved delivery of food and services, and raised standards for a department with total annual retail and catering sales of $10.9 million.

“My responsibility is to ensure that everyone has the information and tools necessary to do a huge job well,’’ says Noseworthy. The team that provides food and service to 1,696 beds in seven hospitals works as one strong unit, she says. “They’re sharp.’’

At FHMC, computerization simplifies menu management and point-of-sale tracking. A pager system with wireless messaging capability enables staff to quickly obtain answers and make changes. Attendants delivering room service, for example, are able to correct tray orders on the spot. Cafeteria-line staffers are connected by cellphone to workers in dining areas to address any challenges. If there’s a problem with a delivery or vendor, employees can resolve it with minimal headache. “Everyone has instant access” to one another, Noseworthy explains.

A pair of recently purchased golf carts helps catering personnel quickly navigate the campus. Digital cameras serve as training tools and contribute to employee recognition, she adds. The efforts of top employees are honored with photos posted on the hospital Web site, intranet and bulletin boards. “It’s great for morale,’’ says Noseworthy.

Annual meal-plan revenues for Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, total $25 million, putting the 16,000-student school among the country’s largest self-operated university facilities. With size comes a need for flexibility and innovation.

Students can use meal cards at all 23 campus outlets, ranging from buffet and la carte to self-branded concepts with extended hours and convenient locations. Another perk is the opportunity to dine once a week in the upscale faculty dining room.

“Being innovative attracts students,’’ says Bill Moloney, director of student dining services. He annually promotes the school’s dining options and flexible meal plan to 13,000 prospective students by inviting each applicant for a complimentary meal during a campus visit.

Miami’s flexible meal options entice students to stay on campus to dine and work, according to Maloney. One basic plan includes unlimited portions on all meals, except for special-occasion menus. Another popular plan includes a snack allowance of up to $140 per semester, with any balance carried over to the next semester.

Direct mail keeps incoming freshmen informed of foodservice activities such as the opening of a 44,000-square-foot production facility. Parents of new students attend a 45-minute talk and video presentation by foodservice managers and are invited to eat anywhere on campus for $5, with the same reduced rates extended to siblings and friends.

Moloney’s department keeps in close contact with students throughout their stay at Miami. Monitoring food trends and delivering what customers want keeps the college competitive with schools of similar size. A 65-question survey devised by housing and foodservice managers is distributed to the student body each spring. Moloney says about half respond, with feedback on foodservice likes, dislikes and desires generating ideas that are tested and polished during the summer and introduced in the fall.

Last year, students indicated they needed a 24-hour dining outlet, and they got it. Tuffy’s Traditions, a coffee shop in the student center, introduced 24-hour service. Business is great, adds Moloney. “It does 450 transactions between 1 a.m. and 7 a.m. daily.’’

Corporate cost-cutting has put the squeeze on many self-operated employee-feeding operations. Corning Inc. is no stranger to downsizing and belt-tightening.

“We’ve had our share this year,’’ says Michael Sweet, director of dining services. He estimates the Corning, N.Y.-based company’s foodservice operations—five corporate cafeterias plus two off-site outlets and a new, 30-seat public eatery, The Cantina—will gross $4 million in sales this year, down from approximately $7 million in 2001. His staff of 60 serves 4,000 meals a day.

Sweet says a key advantage to self-operation is the ability to shut or retool underproducing operations to meet budget. One way he maximizes efficiency and resources is with an annual audit of all accounts and food-safety control points conducted by an outside agency. Inspectors’ notes are entered into handheld computers on location. “We get instant information from the audit sheets,’’ he says. Corning takes immediate steps to correct any food-safety violations. The foodservice team gains full access to all data after it is downloaded to a central database.

Sweet says independence also allows quick rollout of menu and recipe changes. A grilled turkey-and-dressing sandwich he enjoyed in a local restaurant appeared within days on company menus while a recipe for spaghetti sauce from a corporate security officer was reformulated for foodservice preparation within four weeks. And when budgets dictate, lower-cost ingredients readily substitute for costlier ones.

“We can accurately forecast our sales and labor,’’ Sweet says. During tight times when Corning reduces its workforce, he relies on his core foodservice team. When necessary, he contracts with a personnel agency for temporary help.

“We have fast turnaround times that enable us to serve our customers while protecting the company,” he says. “In good times, you offer expensive items. In slow times, you react. If an outlet isn’t profitable, we close it.”

Maintaining staff morale and team loyalty is critical to the success of Corning’s self-op. “You set goals and keep people informed on department business and corporate news,” Sweet says. “You must guide and teach, and report things, good or bad. This way, I can be sure everyone is marching to the same tune.’’

Being a locally respected company helps Milwaukee-based Aurora Health Care recruit and retain top employees. With 75 care sites in eastern Wisconsin, Aurora successfully taps a skilled labor pool for its self-op foodservice program.

“We, not the hospitals, hire our foodservice employees,’’ says John Riegler, regional director for Aurora’s foodservice management. “We skip [hospital] human resources. They know what to look for in skilled medical personnel but we’re better at interviewing chefs or kitchen assistants.”

Healthcare foodservice is attracting professional chefs from the hospitality industry who want more flexible hours than those offered by many restaurants. Riegler recently hired a French-born chef from a Milwaukee restaurant to innovate foodservice menus and training.

Because he controls hiring and training, Riegler can create opportunities for continuing education. “Employees are encouraged to network and participate in healthcare- and foodservice-related activities, whether it’s a cooking seminar, health lecture or exercise class,’’ he adds. Creating learning opportunities results in better morale. And thanks to adequate staffing, he says employees are not stressed by demands of working overtime to attend classes or seminars.

Riegler purchases for five hospitals and one 400-bed assisted-living facility. Because Aurora Health Care belongs to a cooperative hospital buying group, he is able to command better prices, higher quality and more substantial rebates than can single self-ops.

As a member of Aurora’s management rather than an employee of an outside contractor, Riegler says he has access to the company’s chief executive, facilitating decision-making and change. Recent improvements include a new deli at Aurora Women’s Pavilion in West Allis, Wis., and expanded coffee service for 717-bed St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee.

Last April, a new system upgraded room service at St. Luke’s. To guarantee patient satisfaction, Riegler included an “atonement” policy: “If the patient’s meal is incorrect, the hostess gives a small gift as an apology,’’ he explains. The idea for the pen, key chain or fruit basket gift was inspired by porter service, a perk offered by an international hotel chain.

“Hospitals have to compete on customer service too,’’ he says.

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