When Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center decided to overhaul its outdated cafeteria, it was a no-brainer choosing the project’s collaborators: students from the local college. “Niagara University is deeply invested in the entire Niagara Falls community,” says Pat Bradley, director of marketing and public relations for the hospital. “We have enjoyed over the past several years a wonderfully productive relationship with them on other ventures,” and this was another opportunity to strengthen that tie.
The mission? To take the existing cafeteria, which was built in the 1950s, down to the studs and create a place where patients and visitors could find restaurant-style food in a relaxing space. “We were determined to create something special, a place with a non-institutional vibe that would be a restful oasis,” says Joseph A. Ruffolo, Memorial Medical Center’s president and CEO. With a background in foodservice, Ruffolo had a clear vision for how the café could better serve its western New York community.
The hospital mined the talent and insights from students in Niagara University’s college of hospitality and tourism management. Scott Beahen, a professor and director of foodservice operations at the college, headed that part of the initiative. He tapped attendees of his entrepreneurial class—who are focused on owning restaurants one day—to generate a mission for the new space, as well as recommendations for the look of the build-out and servery layout.
Those students met with with key players at the hospital and the project’s other partner, the local firm CannonDesign, which created the design, architectural and engineering plans for the new eatery. Beahen also tasked students in two of his menu design and production classes for a research report on healthy choices that wouldn’t compete with the hospital’s other on-site vendor, Tim Horton’s.
Following the students’ work, the concept for a farm-to-table bistro with international flair quickly emerged. The newly christened Tenth Street Café, which officially opened its doors January 15, offers carefully sourced dishes made fresh daily for the hospital’s employees, patients and visitors. Previously a traditional assembly line-style cafeteria, guests are now greeted with the kitchen’s centerpiece, a brick oven that turns out hand-pulled personal pizzas with tomato, garlic purée or green pesto sauces.
The surrounding U-shape format (retained from the original layout to take advantage of existing hoods and ductwork) offers a hot line on the right equipped with a grill, griddle, four burners and oven to turn out burgers topped with homemade barbecue sauce and crisped fried onion rings, as well as creative stir-fries such as orange ginger beef or apple bourbon chicken.
In front of the hot station are steam and sandwich prep tables. The center of the layout is home to the salad bar and soup bar, with a beverage line for roasted coffees and sodas on the other side. Food is made in front of and served directly to customers before they pay.
Though the layout is simple and straightforward, the menu and décor are not.
Menu Research, Future Plans
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“When you walk in, you don’t think ‘cafeteria,’” says Lamont Singletary, the café’s executive chef and manager—who, coincidentally, is a recent graduate of Niagara University’s hospitality program and was a student and teaching assistant of Beahen’s. Explaining that the menu’s sensibility combines coffee shop culture and quality on-the-go spots like Panera Bread, he used the menu research from Niagara University’s students to create the final lineup. “[Beahen] told me to create a menu that you won’t see inside a cafeteria,” he says, so he looked for ways to elevate popular staples.
For example, sweet potato fries get their own tequila lime butter dip, while the Monte Cristo sandwich—a house specialty—is served alongside a berry reduction sauce. Whenever possible, the bistro sources organic, free-range and antibiotic-free meat and chicken and fresh local produce.
Foodservice takes up the ground floor, while a second level holds the lounge and seating area. There, a mix of high chairs, restaurant-style seats and cozy lounges accommodate more than 100. A fireplace, two televisions and free WiFi add amenities with a personal touch—wireless charging stations will be added next. The café serves food from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, yet the lounge remains open 24 hours a day for visitors, and also sports a bank of vending machines with healthy snack options.
To help distinguish the space, Ruffolo suggested removing the doors that lead into the hospital and carrying the café’s flooring out into the nearest hallways. “It feels like you’re walking into a different place from the hospital,” Singletary says. “A hospital doesn’t usually mean vacation or joy, and this is an escape from that.”
The culmination of a nine-month effort, the Tenth Street Café gave some 80 students in three different classes at Niagara University the opportunity to gain hands-on, real-world experience—a cornerstone of the program’s philosophy. But the partnership doesn’t stop here. Plans are in place to offer internships at the café for job training opportunities and to continue to tap the students’ expertise in the classroom. “The school of hotel management will be working with us on bringing in best practices with customer service and patient satisfaction,” says Memorial Medical Center’s Bradley. “They’ll help us elevate our game even more in providing gold medal service to our patients and visitors.”