Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s dining operations underwent major changes this spring in response to the coronavirus. But even at the peak of the crisis, nutrition services director Julie Meddles, MS, RDN, LD, strove to maintain some sense of normalcy—and keep offering satisfying food for her customers.
“We were always focused on speedy service and food quality,” Meddles says. “Now we had to shift our whole thinking. The new dynamic was how to not have them wait in line for long, keep them apart when they were in line and get them out of the space faster.”
That’s a tall order for an operation with 12 retail locations, the largest of which normally serves up to 5,000 meals per day. Even when the crisis peaked in mid-April and the medical center wasn’t allowing patient visitors, Meddles and her team had to take sweeping steps to promote distancing and reduce contact points in the dining spaces.
“Our focus was on caring for the medical staff—the caregivers,” says Meddles. “We didn’t want them to have to go back to their small break rooms to eat.” To create more space, Meddles and her team removed 50% of the chairs and tables in the campus’s main dining room and put up signage to remind guests to stay spread apart. Every other booth was closed, and masks and temperature checks were the norm from the very beginning.
The self-service stations—including soups, the salad and yogurt bars and desserts, were gone too. And while the proportion of grab-and-go food increased, Meddles was still determined to provider customers with fresh fare. “If we went to all grab and go without creative, quality menu items, our customers—largely our staff—would be short-changed,” Meddles says. “And since we were able to spread our staff out and everyone was masked, our epidemiologists felt that making homemade items in our central kitchen was doable.”
Meddles’ team began individually wrapping and packaging items like cookies, bagels, muffins and yogurt parfaits, making the effort to be creative when possible. “If we had tacos, instead of a taco bar, all of the individual taco components would be placed in bento boxes,” Meddles says.
They served items like soups and custom-made salads (ordered from kiosks), as well as beverages that were normally self-served. The existing served stations—which included the grill, deli, pizza and chef’s table—also remained open. Floor decals and stanchions were put out to keep guests distanced while waiting in line.
Chefs also took the opportunity to develop new menu items that worked around supply shortages. “Meat was our biggest adjustment,” Meddles says. “We utilized what we could purchase, and when certain seasonal items became more available we used those.” Fried fish tacos with black beans, rice and fresh salsa has been one recent hit.
Meddles found other ways to support customers working long, stressful shifts caring for sick patients too. The dining room began offering pre-packed grocery bags in mid-April, and soon transitioned to selling individual grocery items that customers could pick for themselves. “Bread, milk and berries have been top sellers, and now they want the grocery concept forever,” she says. On holidays like Mother’s and Father’s Day, take-and-bake casseroles that customers could reheat at home for their families also proved popular. “We did pasta bakes, gluten-free options, and even breakfasts for people finishing shifts in the morning,” says Meddles.
Things have changed as restrictions have started to ease. All of the dining booths have opened back up, but are separated with plexiglass. Customers can pour their own coffee, but staffers still hand out disposable coffee cups and lids. “We’re cautiously optimistic that we won’t have to go backwards, however patient, customer and staff safety is our top priority so we will always do what’s best for them,” Meddles says. “We’ll never risk safety to keep things normal.”
That means continuing to encourage distancing where it’s needed, especially as visitors are back allowed in the hospital and customer volumes go up. A recently debuted mobile ordering app should help. “Transactions have increased 17% in the last two weeks,” says Meddles. “We feel the app is coming at a good time to offer another option to limit customers in our spaces.”
In some ways, the fluid nature of the crisis makes it hard to plan ahead. But it’s also influencing how the medical center might approach foodservice venues in a new patient tower in the works. “It’s five years away. I hope we’re not facing this then, but we’re thinking about it,” Meddles says. “For instance, our current dining room doesn’t have moveable booths. But should everything in the new tower be flexible and moveable?”