When Carl Bowen, director of nutritional services for Adirondack Health (Saranac Lake, N.Y.), came to the hospital four years, he was tasked with transforming the foodservice operation.
“I came in with the attitude that hospital food doesn’t have to be tasteless in order to be healthy,” says Bowen, who has more than two decades of child nutrition experience and was previously with Mountain Lake Academy (Lake Placid, N.Y.). “Administration supported that mindset and challenged me to improve Adirondack’s program in all aspects.”
Unfortunately, the kitchen Bowen inherited didn’t support the same philosophy. Built in the late ’60s and better suited for mass feeding, the kitchen needed to be updated. Bowen crafted a detailed, three-year master plan that prioritized equipment- and physical plant-related needs first. But as the first renovation began, the dominos started to fall.
“It quickly became apparent that it would be far more cost-effective to completely gut and rebuild the kitchen right away instead of renovating it piecemeal,” says Bowen.
Administration and the board agreed, and the scope of the project multiplied as nearly every element was replaced from electrical and plumbing to HVAC and equipment. It took about one year to complete the renovation with foodservice operating from a temporary kitchen built in a break room.
“We focused the new kitchen design on efficiency, safety and ease of cleaning,” says Bowen, who has renovated a number of kitchens over the course of his career. “We also purchased equipment that supports the kind of food we want to serve.”
During the shopping process, Bowen met with local repair companies to learn more about what equipment they have found to be most reliable. “This really helped us to choose pieces that would provide the greatest value for the long haul,” he says.
How Adirondack delivers freshness
With a new kitchen and equipment now up and running, the menu possibilities have significantly expanded. Freshness and quality are the primary focus.
“We’ve reduced processed foods by 80 percent,” says Bowen. “We went from serving precooked chicken and burgers to fresh chicken and burgers—and the difference in taste and quality is profound.”
In order to source better quality ingredients, Bowen has been hard at work building relationships with local farmers and other distributors who can better meet the hospital’s changing needs. As a result, food costs have increased by 2 percent, but Bowen has made up the difference by being more frugal with chemicals, paper products and other non-consumables.
“I’d rather offer better food than more expensive paper plates,” he says.
Going forward, Adirondack Health will focus on consistency and making healthy food available to patients, staff and visitors. Staff training will play an important role. Quality and locality will also drive the program.
“We are now regularly visiting farmers’ markets and building new relationships,” says Bowen. “We just partnered with a local creamery where we can purchase yogurt to use in our parfaits. Our customers love the yogurt so much that we’re going through about 15 gallons of it a week.”
Made with strawberries, blueberries, a housemade granola and sweetened with local honey, the parfaits are now one of the operation’s biggest sellers.
“We are being very cost-conscious, especially about our healthier items” says Bowen. “Our customers can’t always afford to spend $8 on a sandwich, so we are finding ways to make healthful meals—like a salad, sandwich and a drink—available for under $5.”
Adirondack makes this work by doing a lot of volume. “We’re pushing between 400 and 550 meals out per day,” says Bowen, who is also discounting more healthful beverages such as water, milk and tea.
The hospital is taking its healthful food philosophy beyond the cafeteria by positioning refrigerated, fresh-food vending machines next to traditional vending machines to offer better grab-and-go choices.
“We see that if our customers have the opportunity to make a healthier choice, they will,” says Bowen.