The mobile cart program at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago not only solved a number of problems—such as putting a largely idled catering kitchen to work, reducing congestion in fixed location dining outlets and providing busy staff with a way to get healthy, fresh food—but did so while adding a highly successful component to the onsite dining program. What began with a single cart was so successful that a second was added and a third is being considered even as the program covers its implementation costs after only six months and garners the highest quality rating among all food options on campus in a recent employee survey.
The mobile units bring upscale hot and cold prepackaged meals and weekly specials as a convenient food option to frontline staff using sleek, food-safe merchandising carts, a quick payment method and personalized service.
The cart program was originally developed as part of a three-pronged initiative to make use of the Rush catering department and its conference center kitchen—which had been largely idled by the COVID pandemic—to fill a need for more food options as the cafeteria and the onsite branded Au Bon Pain and Subway locations were only providing limited services.
In addition to the mobile food carts, the program also created a takeout option and a restaurant concept in the large catering dining room, each with a different price point and cross-utilizing labor and ingredients to control cost while extending the range of meal options for customers.
Of these new platforms, the carts have been especially successful in meeting the needs of nurses, doctors and other care providers who are challenged to get off the floors during the day and often resorted to grabbing something not especially fresh, of high quality or healthy simply because it was quickly available. Created to bring fresh, quality food options to these units, the carts allow staffers more time to enjoy their breaks and less time going to the cafeteria and then waiting in line.
However, convenience is only part of the value of the cart program as the selection isn’t merely some easy-to-grab items like chips but a variety of options that include hot and healthy choices brought up to the units in a safe and quality way and intended to provide a viable alternative to the cafeteria to help decompress lines and encourage continued social distancing.
The concept uses 2.5 FTE equivalents cross-utilized with the other two catering concepts and so required no new labor to operate. The other costs associated with launching the program were the purchase of the Cambro carts and the hand-held POS devices, which integrate with the in-house POS system.
The carts offer a core menu and weekly rotating hot and cold entrees that bring excitement and variety to customers. The menu is posted on the Rush intranet site and the specials are updated weekly.
The program debuted on December 7th, 2020 with a single cart, which has now expanded to two. They run from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday with each travelling a designated path during the breakfast and lunch slots so that customers know when to expect them at their unit. After making their selections, customers can pay with credit card, ApplePay or AndroidPay.
The team evaluating the different cart options chose a new Cambro cart that was being advertised for the University setting because it offers product visibility and a safe way to store, move and display product on the units. The NSE carts, which are wrapped with the Rush logo for a professional appearance, have swivel casters to transport product easily through doorways and five full-size food wells that hold standard hotel pans with chill packs underneath to keep food cold, plus a clear protective sneeze guard, open base storage that holds hot or cold insulated units, back up product and sundries.