Natchitoches Regional Medical Center is situated just a few blocks from the meandering Cane River, namesake of the medical center’s newly refreshed cafeteria, Cane River Cafe.
In 2019, Cura Hospitality worked with the medical center to begin an overhaul of the entire space, with new concepts, smallwares, and merchandising. They also added a new layer of technology to make meals more streamlined for employees, patients, visitors, and members of the Natchitoches community. They completed the final phase of the refresh early this summer.
The cafeteria is now an open-concept experience with an enhanced salad bar, a pizza station, a grill, a coffee and bakery concept, and a traditional hot line.
Since they made these changes, the average ticket sale has gone up by 16 percent and the prices of items sold has increased by more than 30 percent, according to Amanda Roberts, the cafe’s general manager. These gains belie a lower patient census and newly implemented flex scheduling that allows employees to switch from a five-day to a four-day work week.
The central feature: a revamped and expanded salad bar. The new frost-top bar is more visually appealing than their former system, with open stainless bowls and white squared-off containers that make the food more visibly appealing and salads simpler to compose.
The salad bar boasts 39 compartments with options that include four types of greens (iceberg and romaine lettuces, spinach and a mesclun mix), green and red sweet peppers, edamame, shredded carrots, two types of onions, four cheeses (including cheddar, feta and blue cheese daily), corn, cucumbers, ham, and much more. Patrons can choose from four dressings and a bunch of dry toppers, such as sunflower seeds, crispy chow mein noodles and pumpkin seeds. It also has a hot station at one end where they serve grits or oatmeal in the mornings and soup in the afternoons.
They’ve dubbed it “the largest salad bar in town.”
The pizza concept, Little Tomato’s Pizzeria, features a dedicated pizza oven and carries three options daily for single slices or whole pies: cheese, pepperoni and a rotating daily special. Specialty pizzas include chicken alfredo, veggie, sausage or hamburger, and bacon (a fan favorite).
The grill concept, WeBurg, offers five favorites including a steakhouse burger, a jalapeño barbecue burger and a chicken sandwich. Sides include crinkle-cut fries, sweet potato tots or a 50-50 combo.
Cane River Cafe is also proud of its classic, diner-styles milkshakes, which are hand-dipped and topped with whipped cream. Customers can order vanilla, mocha, or salted caramel shakes. (The latter is their most popular.)
After testing a number of coffee vendors, complete with an employee taste-test and survey, the medical center invited regional favorite New Orleans Roast to be the cafeteria’s coffee vendor. They serve coffee and espresso drinks, cold brew and other drinks, including a “blitz,” coffee and ice blended into a smoothie. The coffee station also offers a variety of baked goods.
BeWell is Cura’s healthy eating initiative that helps customers identify healthier options through educational materials, recipes, and events. At Natchitoches Regional, they highlight BeWell dishes with signage throughout the cafe. On their traditional hot line, they have an entrée and two sides daily that meet BeWell criteria. There are also stand-alone items, such as a Southwest chicken wrap, that get the BeWell nod.
Each station features a digital board that displays the menu, nutrition information, BeWell marketing, and other promotions. They also post an analog menu at each station.
Customers can order in person or online through the Zuppler app. They can also order through a QR code that takes them directly to the menu and ordering platform.
Roberts says online ordering is an extra convenience that eliminates customer queue times: once an order is ready, the app alerts the customer that it’s time to pick up their order; staff place completed orders on a designated shelf for pickup. The technology, though not yet widely adopted, saves customers time and has not cut into staffing needs.
It’s clear that sales — particularly espresso drinks — are up. It’s also clear that the salad bar is their biggest draw, not only for hospital staff and visitors but for members of the wider community.
“It’s a popular spot not just for lunch but for breakfast, too,” Roberts says. “We’ll do eggs to order. We make omelets that are super popular. We definitely see a surge in folks” who are choosing to dine at the cafe. Why? “I think it’s a good value for the members of the community.”