After two decades, Skyline Café at Jersey City, N.J.’s Christ Hospital was showing signs of age. It’s no surprise, then, that renovation was a top priority when Sodexo signed on to operate the eatery in spring of 2020.
Rather than taking a unilateral design approach, Sodexo’s design team asked the hospital staff for help shaping the café’s look and menu. The makeover, promoted as a “You Spoke, We Listened” project, was meant to recognize the dedication and responsiveness of the staff throughout the difficult challenges of the pandemic.
Computers set up in the space presented patrons with a survey asking for feedback and wish-list items on everything from the focus of each station and menu favorites to the physical space. “A lot of the comments related to seating areas and wait times,” says Randall Totten, general manager of food and nutrition at the hospital.
The renovation, which involved gutting the space, addressed several pain points. One wall was knocked out to allow more sunlight to stream into the once-dark site. The galley kitchen, which had caused bottlenecks, was less than ideal in terms of traffic flow, so it was reconfigured. Before, the grill, deli and hot entrees sat on one side, a salad bar on the other. Now, the layout groups the grill, entrees, deli and salad bar, followed by beverages. A “simply to go” area sits across from the stations to streamline the traffic flow—one side for browsers, the other for patrons looking for a quick bite or meal.
The menu also took on a fresh look, with a stronger emphasis on plant-based foods. About 40 percent of items are now plant-forward, Totten says. Besides the salad bar, at least one soup, one entrée and one deli sandwich special are vegan or vegetarian, and a veggie burger is available from the grill station. New digital signage also supplies a nutritional breakdown of the menu items.
“Jersey City is very diverse, so we had a high number of requests for vegetarian or vegan entrees in the survey,” Totten says. Many of the items are culturally inspired, taken from Sodexo’s database of more than 300 plant-based items, including choices such as jackfruit carnitas tacos and red pepper corn chowder.
Among the menu items, a new line of sandwiches that can be served cold or toasted have won fans, and house-made soups continue to be popular choices. “People love our soups,” Totten notes.
In the post-pandemic era, a higher numbers of patrons are picking up food to go. Delivery isn’t an option, but the café has introduced an app that allows staff to preorder deli or grill items, pay through the app and pick up orders in a specially designated area.
On the other hand, “A lot of people have returned to having a traditional lunch with a coworker,” Totten says. The dining area was outfitted with new tables, chairs and lighting that makes it more inviting. Tables are smaller, seating only four diners, and a soft seating area was added as well as a community table with room for about 10 people. Some of the tables overlook the New York City skyline (thus the name).
Other post-pandemic tweaks include a new floor that is easier to mop and sanitize, a new ceiling in the server that can be wiped down and new LED lighting. The last item “brightens up the space and lets us know we need to clean things,” Totten notes. Because it’s a hospital, patrons are still required to mask up.
Skyline Café’s hours have changed to reflect patrons’ wishes as well. In the past, the café closed for a mid-morning break, but now it stays open from 6:00 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., with grab-and-go beverages and snacks available during slower times. A newly installed 24-hour micromarket offers fresh vending, where employees can access salads, sandwiches, snacks and bottled beverages.
During the throes of the pandemic, Skyline Café was closed for a time and remained off-limits to anyone besides hospital personnel. It shut down during the renovation. Since its reopening, visitors, patients and area residents have started to trickle back in. “There’s a small community of retirees who like to come here to eat,” Totten says. “They’ve come back.”