Like just about every onsite dining operation across the industry, the foodservice program at Saint Francis Healthcare System (SFHS) in Cape Girardeau, Mo., has had to cope with issues caused by the coronavirus pandemic. In the case of SFHS, the major problems had to do with supply interruptions and retail service limitations, explains Asha Faulkner, director of food service.
“There are a lot of things we are unable to get,” she says. “Today I was short 14 different products, so I have to do a lot of substituting. It varies. These are things you usually take for granted [but now you can’t]. Tomatoes! I couldn’t get sliced tomatoes. I never know what will show up.”
She blames COVID and the impact it has had on her vendors’ operations rather than the vendors, who she says were perfectly reliable and always showed up on time with everything ordered before the pandemic.
Photo: A recently introduced new revenue stream for the retail dining program is a family meals to-go program that offers a different complete meal for four—including entrée, sides and salad—each day during the week.
Credit: Saint Francis Healthcare System
The result has been an ad hoc approach to dining at the hospital’s Tuscan Sun Restaurant, where, she says, “I tell them, ‘You know what? Just come down and you’ll see what we have.’ We used to have a menu two weeks in advance. I took that down because I’d be lying to my customers to tell them I’m going to have [something] and when they come down it’s something else.”
There is less impact on patient menus, where most items aren’t substituted even if they haven’t been delivered. “If we have to go out and get it at regular stores, we’ll do it,” Faulkner says. In the few cases where a substitution or deletion is unavoidable or not worth the extra effort—a side component like a packaged juice, say—the change is communicated when the order is taken, something made simpler by SFHS’s room service-based patient dining program, “so we are able to tell them right then and there what we have on that particular day so it’s not a surprise. Because the menus describe everything on the plate, we have to communicate any changes, such as [switching] iceberg lettuce for romaine on a salad.”
COVID’s ravages on operations are of course not limited to supply interruptions, or even the limit on visitors that has reduced retail sales to that customer base. In Tuscan Sun, ordinarily bustling with activity at five food stations under normal circumstances, “my salad bar is gone,” Faulkner relates, and only the grill and entrée station remain operative. “We have a lot of grab and go but no sandwich bar or deli area,” she adds. “That is gone. No refill cups either now. Before we used to have foam cups with an emblem that said St. Francis, and employees got a discount when they came in to refill it, but we don’t allow that anymore, so each time you come in, you have to use a fresh cup to keep everybody safe. As for seating, it’s only one person at a table now so we encourage grab and go. We use [disposable packaging] so everybody can just take their plate and go eat in their office, their car, outside, wherever they want to go.”
That “everybody” consists almost entirely of in-house staff as visitors are few. No one is allowed on the premises unless they are either visiting a patient—and only one is allowed at any one time per patient—or are themselves accessing clinical services, so outside traffic is almost nonexistent, though visitors recently have been given permission to enter Tuscan Sun. Previous to COVID, it was a popular community hangout.
“It was said that we had the best salad bar here in Cape and everybody used to come down to eat here, but now we don’t’ have that,” Faulkner laments.
Photo: Grab and go has become the staple of the Tuscan Sun retail dining operation in the COVID era, with packaged salads substituting for the venue’s traditionally popular but now shuttered self-serve salad bar.
Credit: Saint Francis Healthcare System
Some extra business has been generated with increased sales of microwaveable meals complete with entrée and sides designed for night staff to pick up before Tuscan Sun closes at 7:30 p.m. Otherwise, the only food option on the premises until the cafeteria reopens at 6 a.m. is vending machines.
Other new revenue streams come from a pickup catering service for hospital staff holding events such as birthdays and baby showers offsite—“If you buy it, I’ll make it,” Faulkner quips— and a recently introduced family meals to-go program. The meals are designed to feed four and come complete with entrée and sides, such as, meatloaf with mashed potato, vegetable, salad and four dinner rolls. Also popular are meatless meals such as pasta Alfredo and veggie wraps made with freshly grilled vegetables like squash, zucchini and red peppers.
“We have a menu for a whole week, with different selections—one per day—each day [Monday through Friday} and also pizza every day where you can have the kind of pizza you want,” Faulkner explains. The orders, which must be placed the day before either online or by a faxed form, are boxed and ready for pickup every afternoon for staff to get as they leave.
“That’s really picking up,” she offers. “We sell 15 to 20 on a typical day.”