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CernerPizza2.jpg Photos: Company Kitchen/Cerner
The pizza station Novita turns out pies from a big wood stone oven.

B&I Innovator of the Year: Cerner Corp. Innovation Campus/Company Kitchen

Contract firm Company Kitchen has designed half a dozen upscale concepts fitted into an expansive dining space for healthcare tech firm Cerner Corp.’s cutting-edge Innovations Campus.

Healthcare technology firm Cerner Corp. is a major presence in the Kansas City market, with a number of facilities dotted around the metro area. The newest is the Innovations Campus, a sprawling 290-acre spread opened toward the beginning of 2017 that currently accommodates some 3,000 software engineers and support staff but is designed to expand to as many as 16,000 when a long-range development plan is completed in the next decade.

To provide quality onsite foodservice for this already sizeable army of associates, Cerner has engaged local contract firm Company Kitchen to operate a primary cafeteria and a number of micromarkets scattered around the complex. The dining area layout had been designed to accommodate an escalating number of employees through a series of self-contained serving station pods by Orlando Espinosa and Bob Appleton of the Orlando Espinosa & Associates design firm.

Six distinct concepts dot the Cerner Innovations Campus dining center.

The cafeteria is, of course, the centerpiece, a 70,000-square-foot eatery laid out like a massive food hall with six distinct restaurant platforms each with its own production equipment. To provide maximum convenience, all transactions are cashless, with diners making their selections and paying for them from 15 electronic ordering kiosk stations. Come next year, a mobile app will allow even more remote ordering from smartphones and other personal electronic devices.

Cerner has four campuses around the Kansas City area, but this is the only one where Company Kitchen manages the in-house dining operations, so they wanted to make sure it stood out.

 “We wanted to make it different for them, something they don’t have that would make the other employees [at the other area campuses] jealous,” laughs Ben Griswold, corporate chef for Company Kitchen whose duties include overseeing the Cerner Innovations Campus operation. He says Company Kitchen’s status as a smaller dining contractor “gives us a little more flexibility to be a little more creative and think outside the box.”

Diverse customer base

One challenge Company Kitchen had to consider in designing the dining mix was Cerner’s very diverse population at the Innovations Campus, where about half the staff is of South Asian descent, primarily from India.

To ensure that this part of the customer base is properly served, one of the six main entrée stations in the cafeteria, Swadesh (Hindi for “welcome”), specializes in authentic Indian dishes.

“It was very important to Cerner that we make traditional Indian food because in their other operations they had to outsource to Indian restaurants,” Griswold explains. “We didn’t want to do that because we thought we could give them a better quality and better perceived value if we could do it ourselves.”

Company Kitchen’s operations at Cerner Innovations Campus are manned by a staff of 40, including an executive sous chef who runs the catering program and six sous chefs who operate the restaurant concepts.

A four-month search resulted in the hiring of an Indian chef all the way from San Jose to man the station.

“He’s very comfortable with both northern and southern Indian food and likes to mix and match, with a little of both each day,” Griswold says. “He’s always got biryanis, a daal of some sort, and six or seven chutneys available.”

Because of safety concerns, the one thing lacking at the Swadesh station is a tandoor oven, so the breads are outsourced to a local bakery.

The attention to detail in ensuring authenticity has been impressive. For instance, it took about six weeks to find the right rice to use, Griswold recalls.

“That was the first time I’ve done a true rice tasting and learned a lot,” he laughs. “I always figured rice is rice, but…it is not!” The rice the team eventually settled on is imported from India through a local Indian food distributor.

As might be expected, meatless dishes are common though not exclusive at Swadash. Griswold says vegetarianism tends to be more prevalent among the older customers of Indian descent while the younger ones “will venture out and have a burger once in a while.” He estimates the Indian portion of the customer base is 60 percent vegetarian.

Butchers, bakers and custom flavors

Among the other stations, Pangea features international and regional American foods in monthly rotation. The Asian-themed month included dishes from countries like Japan, Thailand and China with a typical day’s selection offering customizable ramen bowls, yakitori (grilled orange-ginger chicken with vegetable fried rice), drunken beef (thinly sliced beef, garlic, ginger scallion, ponzu and vegetable fried rice) and gyzoa (pork belly or crispy tofu served with vegetable fried rice). Previous themes at Pangea included cuisine from the Deep American South and from Spain.

The Baker & Butcher station is “kind of a blend between a California surf sub shop and New York delicatessen,” Griswold says, explaining that the bi-coastal approach came about due to staff considerations.

“On my culinary team, we have a really die-hard California guy and another who’s a die-hard New York deli guy, so when we were designing it, we thought, ‘OK, let’s just do both.’ So what we’ve done there is put in a hot carved component that could have pastrami, corned beef, turkey or smoked salmon carved to order and made into a sandwich. And then we also have a kind of California sub shop with static menu sandwiches and a build-your-own option.”

The static menu generally features half a dozen sandwich selections, at least one of which is vegetarian. There is also always at least one turkey sandwich and one hot selection, with the Cuban being especially popular.

The station also makes its own chips and three different pickles: bread-and-butter, dill and spicy. A popular feature of Baker & Butcher is a flavoring station for the french fries and chips from vendor Spice Islands that offers half a dozen shakers of specialty spice mixes that are switched out regularly to maintain variety.

“We only lightly salt our chips, which come in this nice brown sack, and then they can go over there and add a jalapeno cheddar mix or a Korean barbecue mix and shake it up,” Griswold explains. “They can have a different flavor of chips [or fries] every day if they want.”

All that’s just the Butcher side of Baker & Butcher. The Baker side has its own pastry chef, and every dessert, cookie, brownie and other baked treat is made from scratch. It also spins its own ice cream and gelato, with three base flavors and three rotational seasonal flavors offered at a time.

“We can spin our own ice cream in about five minutes in an ice cream maker that came over from Italy, a really cool piece of machinery,” Griswold says.

Everything at Baker is displayed in a traditional pastry shop atmosphere using equipment like cloches and an old-fashioned bakery case.

An advantage of conjoining the Butcher and Baker outlets is the opportunity for suggestive selling, Griswold notes.

“As you come off Butcher after picking up your sandwich, you see this beautiful display of cookies, pies and other stuff, and typically one out of five people buy some sort of dessert or they come back for ice cream later.”

Novita pizzas range from Americano to Neapolitan.

Moving on, Novita is a pizza station with a big wood stone pizza oven at its center. The hand-stretched 10-inch pies generally include Americano (typical American choices like pepperoni and supreme) and classic Neapolitan-style selections on the static menu, plus a rotating special such as crab Rangoon or potato and sausage on which the station chef gets to be as creative as he wants.

Other offerings at Novita include dessert items like cannoli, cheesecake and tiramisu, all made in-house, plus flatbread salads that are made with a pizza crust flavored with garlic and Parmesan that is topped with a salad “so you have your bread and your salad all together,” Griswold says.

“At some point, we’d like to add charcuterie plates,” Griswold adds. “We’ll probably be testing that in the spring” to see how it goes over.

Novita also includes a pasta station component where the pasta is sautéed to order in front of customers. It has a static menu with a weekly special and an occasional pasta bake offering featuring mac and cheese, classic lasagna and eggplant Parmesan.

Meats and veggies

Founders Grill is a gastropub concept specializing in craft burgers made with ground beef, chicken or a veggie patty, complemented with a variety of sides ranging from relative standards like natural-cut fries and onion rings to sweet potato tots and Mediterranean faro salad. Standard combos that rotate through the set menu include the Dixie with frizzled ham, pimento cheese, bourbon mustard and chow chow (a regional slaw made with green tomatoes) and the Hulk Smash, made with onions, green chilies, pepper jack cheese and avocado cream (“the guy who runs the station is a big comic book fan,” Griswold notes in explaining the item name).

The station also has a sausage of the week—a recent example is the Area 51 Hot Dog with an all-beef stretch dog, pimento cheese and jalapeno spicy onion straws—and a signature grilled cheese such as one made with Brie, roasted grapes and honey almond spread on brioche. There are also loaded fries specials such as the 3-Alarm Fries made with firehouse chili, red onions, cheddar and sriracha sour cream.

Founders Grill features many meals including craft burgers with natural-cut fries.

Founders Grill also includes a popular spicing station created in partnership with local flavored sauce vendor Original Juan. “We’ve found that people are picking [Original Juan sauces] three to one over the traditional ketchup, mayonnaise and mustard,” Griswold says.

Greens and Grains is a “manned salad bar” where customers can either select from one of the set menu items or design their own from a range of ingredient choices. Recent set menu options have included one with roasted curried cauliflower, arugula, quinoa, shredded red cabbage, raisins, tomatoes and tahini yogurt dressing and one called Fall Harvest with shredded kale, spinach, apples, roasted Brussels sprouts, almonds and cranberry-maple vinaigrette.

The station has its own charbroil grill to make protein components for the salads like tri-tip, grilled chicken and arctic char for carnivores and meatless options for vegetarians.

Greens and Grains is also one of three stations that opens at 7 a.m. for breakfast. Its recently unveiled breakfast program, developed in partnership with vendor Chobani, is a selection of sweet and savory yogurt dishes with options like PBJ (natural peanut butter, grapes, honey Greek yogurt), Sultan (hummus, cucumber, tomato, olive oil, Greek yogurt) and Classic (seasonal fresh fruit, granola, Greek yogurt).

The station also offers whole seasonal fruits, seasonal chopped fruit parfaits, baked items like bagels and muffins and specials like hot steel-cut oats with dried cranberries, toasted pecans and honey.

“This is not a big sit-down breakfast crowd, so we have a menu section called Hand-Helds [at Founders Grill, one of the other stations open in the morning], which are different versions of the breakfast sandwich,” Griswold explains. Recent Hand-Helds selections include Pitmaster (pulled pork, folded egg and crispy onions on a cheddar-chive biscuit) and Charm City (crab cake, bacon, egg, Old Bay mayo and watercress on an English muffin).

Founders Grill also offers a breakfast program called Bowls or Rolls in which customers can choose to have their selection served in a bowl or rolled in a tortilla. They include the fairly traditional Outlaw (eggs, potatoes, chorizo or bacon, green chili and cheddar) or something more exotic such as Seoul Scramble (Korean barbecue beef, fried rice, kimchi, bean sprouts, egg and scallion). There’s also a daily special such as cranberry-pumpkin pancakes with apple cider compote, plus traditional selections in the Truck Stop Favorites section.

Breakfast counts at Cerner’s Innovations Campus average around 500 a day.

In addition to the set theme stations at lunchtime, there’s an occasional pop-up station, its activation signaled by an alert that is sent out 24 hours in advance describing the planned menu. The pop-up station is a handy platform to test potential new items for the other stations, Griswold says, and it also hosts local chefs who can strut their stuff in front of the large, sophisticated in-house audience.

Each of the six concepts has its own sous chef and its own production facility, made necessary if for no other reason that the stations are separated, located in different parts of the servery. There is a main production kitchen where some volume items are made, but the main cooking and finishing happens at each station.

Each also has its own distinctive servingware. For instance, Swadesh has a divided plate with four sections so meal components are kept separate, which seems to be the preference of that population, Griswold says.

“Each has its own look and we’ve tried to make each look like its own little restaurant. It’s a really cool place to come hang out, and we really didn’t want to have food being transported back and forth during service, so we designed each of these with their own kitchens.”

Just about everything served in the café is scratch made, Griswold emphasizes. In addition, each menu has to consist of at least 30 percent items rated as “better for you” by Company Kitchen and Cerner criteria.

Pre-order and 24-hour service

Because of the large population that can overwhelm even a sizeable café operation at peak meal periods, the Company Kitchen operation at Cerner Innovations Campus uses a preorder system currently based on 15 touchscreen-based ordering kiosks placed around the area. Rather than customers ordering at the stations, which can generate discouraging traffic around them as people wait for their orders to be prepared, all ordering and payment is made at the kiosks, though customers are welcome to come to the stations to view the food that’s available.

Each of the concepts can be called up at the kiosks and selections made. Pickup is at the selected station and payment is either through a commercial credit card or Company Kitchen’s own declining balance based CK Account platform that utilizes a biometric thumbprint-based login option.

“Millennials really dig it because they don’t have to come down with their wallet or their fob, they can just pay with their fingers as long as they have money on their card,” Griswold observes.

A remote ordering option based on a mobile app is expected to debut at the beginning of 2018, Griswold says, but the current kiosk-based system has worked fairly smoothly, with typical wait times of only a little over 10 minutes even at peak times. Lunch participation is running in the 75 to 80 percent range.

After the serving stations shut down at 2 p.m. daily, customers can still patronize the food hall area’s 60-foot micromarket, the largest of five such unmanned 24-hour service platforms located around the complex.

These are Company Kitchen’s own units, including its own software and menu items produced in the Company Kitchen commissary in Kansas City. All selections in the micromarkets are tagged red, yellow or green to indicate relative healthfulness, with about half qualifying as fully healthy.

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