On June 2, Angel Richter stood behind the entrée station in the cafeteria at ProMedica Toledo Hospital, serving up baked chicken breast, mac and cheese, collard greens, cornbread and caramelized sweet potatoes. The prep cook, who has worked in the food industry for 20 years and at the hospital since 2012, developed the entire Soul Food menu. It’s comfort food for her, the taste of home.
“My grandmother was from the south,” a display near the station quoted her, “and her cooking reflected her heritage which funneled down to my mother and I.”
Over a span of five weeks, the hospital featured meals developed by individual members of nutrition staff to highlight the diverse heritages of people on their team. On five consecutive Wednesdays, starting in early May, they offered one of these special meals in addition to options from their panini, pizza and grill stations.
The program kicked off with a Cinco de Mayo menu, featuring albóndigas (meatball soup) and elotes street corn. Febe Yapregigur, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico in 1974, developed the menu.
Photo: Sabah Kashen, who immigrated from Lebanon in 1979, developed a Lebanese menu that included majadra, a dish of lentils, rice and caramelized onions, beef biryani and Greek spinach pie.
Sabah Kashen, who moved to Toledo from Lebanon in 1979, has worked in food service throughout her career and for ProMedica since 2011. Kashen’s Lebanese meal included beef biryani, lubia (rice with ground meat and green beans), hot potatoes, Greek spinach pie and majadra (a layered dish of lentils, rice and caramelized onions).
Providing a platform for staff members to share foods from their respective cultures and for customers to taste and enjoy prompted the nutrition team to embark on the program.
The nutrition team started talking about the idea at the beginning of this year and filled the Wednesday slots simply by asking for volunteers. Each participant developed the menu, oversaw its preparation and helped serve the meals to customers. They had no problem sourcing ingredients through their usual channels.
The program “is a culmination of everything that’s going on around us with diversity,” say Steve Fogle, director of nutrition at ProMedica. “We do have a very diverse staff within our hospital…and our [nutrition] staff wanted to be able to showcase their talents” and celebrate their heritage.
Photo: Angel Richter, a prep cook at ProMedica Toledo Hospital since 2012, developed and served a Soul Food menu that included mac and cheese, collard greens and caramelized sweet potatoes. She says her grandmother’s Southern roots influences her cooking.
Mary Grace Smith, who works on the room service line, developed a Filipino meal of pork adobo, beef mechado and lumpia. They also served a Polish meal, that featured pierogies, kielbasa, sauerkraut and stuffed cabbage.
Richter’s Soul Food meal was the finale—for now. Through the summer, they’ll serve barbecue on Wednesdays. But in the fall, they plan to start up the Melting Pot again, structuring it according to the number of staff members who opt to participate.
All five spring participants would like to be featured again. A few other cooks may join them. Participants will decide whether to run the same menu or introduce new dishes.
The program has been immensely popular; cafeteria sales increased by 35 percent between week one and week five of the program.
Out of the 800 lunches they sell, on average, each day, they sold 127 Polish meals, 163 Lebanese meals, and 178 Soul Food meals.
But the program is about more than the numbers.
They center their marketing on the stories of the featured staff member. The communications staff interviews employees. For each meal, they create a flyer that includes the employee’s photo and a brief story about their menus and the meaning of the food holds for them.
Nutrition services circulates the flyers on social media and, on the day of each meal, they post it on a digital display that hangs above the station. For about a week afterward, they display a copy of the flyer in the cafeteria to educate customers and raise awareness of the program.
Photo: Over a span of five weeks, the hospital featured meals developed by individual members of the nutrition staff to highlight the diverse heritages of people on their team.
“I think food is its most meaningful when there’s a story behind it,” says Sodexo’s Ron Dorchak, system director of ProMedica Nutrition Services. “And this allows the customer to not just sample the food but also to hear the story that makes it more special than usual. I think that’s our main reason for wanting to do this more in the future is it allows us to connect more with our customers.”
One frequent “VIP” customer, an employee at the hospital, had a special connection with one of the meals. Nicole Syska, the hospital’s retail operations manager, recalls his excitement after he ate a plate of Polish food.
“That’s his heritage,” she says. “He was very happy to be able to come down and get some comfort food from when he was growing up.”