Via Christi Regional Medical Center, Wichita, Kan.
A few key traits define superior healthcare nutrition. Chief among them are a focus on customer satisfaction, not simple patient feeding, and valuing food as social connector, not mere fuel source. At Via Christi Regional Medical Center, the line between institutional foodservice and commercial restaurants has all but disappeared under the leadership of Patti Dollarhide, director of nutrition services.
Run with a hospitality mindset, Via Christi has transformed the look, delivery and financials of its self-operated program. “People don’t get well if they don’t eat well. You must entice them with great food and service,” says Dollarhide.
Facilities: five campuses; four hospitals; seven retail foodservice venues
Total cafeteria transactions in 2004: 1,143,950
Average cafe check: $3.08
Licensed beds: 1,530
Full-time employees: 169
Patient meals served in 2004: 848,547
Total annual foodservice budget: $8 million
Annual cash-only revenues: $4.2 million
The Wichita, Kan.-based complex of five campuses, four hospitals and 5,000 employees raises standards of excellence in hospital food, according to the Ivy winners who nominated it. “Nutrition is what we do as professionals,” says Mary Kimbrough (Ivy ’98), corporate director of nutrition and hospitality services, Zale Lipshy University Hospital and St. Paul University Hospital, Dallas. “But Patti realized early the aesthetics of food: the flavors, textures, colors. She knows that food heals. Such spirit makes for signature foodservice.”
Jeffrey Dunham praises Via Christi as a successful business. “Patti, like others in self-operated hospital foodservice, faces huge restrictions. They get 85 cents to feed someone, and that doesn’t allow for plateware or presentation,” says the chef-owner of The Grove Grill (Ivy ’04), Memphis, Tenn. “She runs a business committed to quality. She has no blinders on. These days, just staying self-operated is an achievement.”
Dollarhide’s 20-year career began in 1982 as clinical dietitian at St. Joseph Hospital (now part of Via Christi). It took a sharp turn in 1990 when she was named to her current position. The job forced the Kansas State University graduate into the role of financial manager without benefit of business experience. Her goal, established then and still in place, was to improve the quality of patient experience while growing revenue. Her focus was culinary.
Today, she manages an $8 million budget with retail sales of $4.2 million. Her hands-on style is matched by a drive to learn, question and take risks. “She creates expectations of herself, then they rub off on us,” says Cyndi Martin, Via Christi’s director of environmental services and hospitality.
Managing Birthdays and Budgets
It’s hard to separate the Marysville, Kan., farm girl from the foodservice professional. When St. Francis and St. Joseph hospitals merged in 1995, she anticipated that employees might fear the change. To help calm their nerves, Dollarhide introduced a morning dance break. A portable CD player with Macarena tunes made the rounds for two years and helped build the positive attitude she wanted.
Weekend staff potluck lunches feature dishes from Cambodia, Mexico, South America, the Philippines, Vietnam and China, reflecting the diversity of her team. Employee birthdays or extra work on a project are acknowledged with a handwritten note. A holiday bash is an excuse for the boss to play her accordion.
But there’s more to Dollarhide’s success than good employee relations and great food. Over the years, she’s developed the keen financial skills required to balance a budget and remain independent. Know the numbers, understand food and labor costs; be accountable and never give away anything, she says.
“I focus on productivity and improving customer service. In commercial restaurants, that happens by spending more on staff for better customer service. In healthcare, funds are limited,” she explains. “Unlike departments in the hospital where reimbursement comes from Medicare, food has none.”
To offset expense and remain competitive, she cultivates catering as a business and shops for best deals when sourcing, according to Gail Williamson, a food executive who worked on the Via Christi account for over 20 years. “Patti is always looking for what’s new, then coming up with ways to use it.”
And Dollarhide manages to be creative without threatening the bottom line. “When numbers don’t match on orders and receipts, my phone rings,” says Williamson. “That girl has a hold on the bottom line.”
After the merger of St. Francis and St. Joseph hospitals, Dollarhide concentrated on running five campuses as one business, similar to a commercial franchise. She defined processes and set standards, consolidating purchases to reduce food costs.
She also re-energized retail venues. The first foray into restaurant business came in 1997 when nutrition services took over operation of Harvest Grill, a coffee shop on the St. Francis campus that had been outsourced to a local contractor. She replaced it with Garden Market, a mix of food-court convenience and restaurant sophistication. Today, Garden Market generates $2 million in annual retail sales. Half of the transactions are take-away.
St. Joseph Campus features Down Under Cafe and Bakery Deli, pizza and the hospital’s own Fresh ’n’ Lean concept where diners select fresh ingredients for a calorie-controlled meal, cooked to order. Annual retail sales total $1 million.
Catering Comes Through
Once retail outlets were running, job descriptions written and salary levels set, Dollarhide concentrated on growing the hospital’s catering business, planning to hire talent from the local hospitality industry. The idea to market Via Christi as caterer for campus and community events would enhance the department’s image and keep foodservice profitable. Today, the hub of activity is a production kitchen in St. Joseph’s, staffed with 40 employees. It produces for the medical complex and catering.
Executive Chef Linda Wenman caters a variety of clients including a Catholic school for 250 daily meals, a summer snack program for 1,000 children in Wichita, and one-off events such as a community auction, golf classic and dinner for 3,000. The initial investment, $50,000 for a truck and driver, has paid off. Cash catering sales hover around $500,000 a year and help subsidize patient meals. Food costs average 29%.
Benefits keep employees returning for on-site cooking classes, nutrition talks and weigh-in sessions with staff dietitians. Dollarhide’s sense of community service drives her goal to increase school catering. “It’s a way to help kids learn healthy eating habits early.”
- Balsamic Chicken-and-Vegetable Wrap
- Couscous With Chicken and Vegetables
A Taste of Via Christi Regional Medical Center
St. Francis Campus
Grilled chicken with pineapple salsa
Angel hair pasta with stir-fried shrimp
Mango curry chicken salad
Santa Fe flank steak
Strawberry shortcake with fresh berries
St. Joseph Campus
Thai peanut chicken with noodles
Honey-sesame chicken with rice
Kansas Twister Wrap
Key Lime cheesecake