Sodexo operates onsite dining services for 15 hospitals in the Memorial Hermann healthcare system in Houston, including the massive 1,000-plus bed Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center (TMC), one of the country’s largest hospitals. To serve Memorial Hermann’s thousands of employees and visitors with dining options that are not only tasty, fresh and nutritious but also conveniently accessed, Sodexo has supplemented its traditional onsite cafes with eight micromarkets ranging in size from 150 to 1,100 square feet. The company works with vendor Atlantic Equipment Specialist Inc. on the designs so that each individual store is customized to fit its location and environment.
“As a healthcare system, our goal is to get the food closer to the staff because they usually only have limited, 30-minute lunch breaks,” explains Karen Simon, Sodexo’s director of retail operations for the Memorial Hermann Health System.
With those time constraints, accessing a dining outlet that requires a long walk and an even longer wait in line isn’t practical. Nor is keeping traditional manned cafes fully open into the late hours to serve the limited number of third-shift personnel. The micromarkets help alleviate both those concerns.
Not all of them are small-footprint, automated spaces, either. Located in the TMC complex is Red’s Café on the Go, a 1,100-square-foot store situated in what was formerly office space. “With limited space available on campus it took six-plus years to get the space,” Simon notes. With a layout that emphasizes quick flow-through and décor that projects a modern, trendy feel, Red’s operates round the clock seven days a week but, unlike traditional micromarkets, remains manned at all times.
The Red’s staff operates the store’s hot food section, which is centered around a Turbo Chef Fire oven that can turn out a fully cooked 14-inch pizza in 90 seconds or a pair of the store’s signature 5-by-9-inch flatbreads in two minutes. Selling for $6.99 to $9.99, they are among the most popular of Red’s offerings.
There is only one manual checkout station as the vast majority of transactions, especially those by hospital staff, are effected at the two self-checkouts. These accept only credit cards and payroll deduction, so cash sales—from visitors mostly—must be done at the manual checkout. To facilitate quick, automated checkout, everything sold in the store, including the flatbreads and the specialty sandwiches, is labeled with bar codes so they can be scanned quickly by the customer.
In addition to the flatbreads, Red’s offers a couple of daily fresh soups, upscale, freshly made sandwiches, parfaits and salads in its Simply to Go grab-and-go section, freshly made baked goods from a bakery case and a variety of vendor-packaged snacks sorted into salty, sweet, wellness and gluten-free sections. The bakery case is supplemented by a Starbucks unit featuring the chain’s Black-and-White program.
Red’s opened about a year ago to booming demand—it generated some $50,000 in sales its first week, a rate that has decelerated somewhat to about a $30,000 weekly average take. The high volume requires a staff of a dozen to clean, cashier, prep and constantly replenish just this area alone.
However, the volume of business has also allowed Red’s to justify having some pricey equipment: the Turbo Chef Fire unit cost about $5,500 and the store’s F’Real branded smoothie machine twice that, but “they pay for themselves,” Simon observes. “The key to any operation like this is finding the right equipment that is cost-effective, durable, simple for staff to use and that can produce a high-quality product.”
Certainly the F’Real machine pulls its weight, averaging between 800 and 1,000 transactions a week.
Four of the Houston area Memorial Hermann micromarkets are traditional 24-hour/seven-days-a-week unmanned spaces with badge-activated access, an inventory of grab-and-go selections, reheatable meals, snacks and beverages, and Nextep scan and pay self-checkout kiosks designed for quick visits by busy associates.
“People badge in, get what they want and do a 10 to 15 second checkout,” Simon says. “Everything is labeled to make it as easy as possible.”
Occupying a niche between these fully automated/modest-footprint micromarkets and the larger, staffed Red’s is a hybrid store that sits in the lobby of Memorial Hermann’s The Woodlands Medical Center. This outlet is staffed daily from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and open to the public that streams by all day. At 9 p.m., however, the store’s main door is locked and access is limited to employees, who can patronize the now unstaffed space over the late evening and night hours for grab-and-go meals and packaged goods.
During the day, the Woodlands micromarket operates a Starbucks station and a gourmet deli offering upscale sandwiches. A preorder kiosk in the store lets customers submit and pay for deli and Starbucks selections, then shop while their order is prepared.
Two traditional challenges for micromarkets everywhere are replenishment and security.
At the Memorial Hermann locations, to keep the stores adequately stocked, especially in the fresh-food intensive Simply to Go grab-and-go cases, staff is rotated in to check and restock two or three times a day as needed.
Security is effected through a combination of controlled access for unmanned locations and security cameras bolstered by careful inventory monitoring. Also, there are no microwaves inside the stores, where some customers might be tempted to heat and consume meals without paying. That is also the reason seating is limited to areas outside the stores.
None of this is to diminish the importance of the traditional cafes in the dining mix, and these remain busy despite the other options.
For instance, the main café in the TMC generates some $25,000 a day out of an 8,000-square-foot space, “so you can imagine the lines and waits no matter how much you staff it,” Simon offers. A new 32,000-square-foot replacement is scheduled to open next year, complete with a large kitchen to make it easier and more convenient for staff to prepare and restock fresh products in the servery areas.
Meanwhile, the micromarkets have been a boon, especially for time-pressed Memorial Hermann staff, who comprise the vast majority of the customers—about 80 percent, Simon estimates—and who can’t always get to the cafes.
“We have all these different food options so people don’t have to walk as far to get something they’ll like,” Simon notes, “but adequate space for food venues still gets challenging for us the bigger the campuses get.”