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Center of Innovation Rex Healthcare
Staffers receive training from the Black Hat Chef program. With the Center of Innovation and Excellence, more training will be expanded to additional hospitals.

Health system launching Center of Innovation and Excellence

UNC Health Care is optimizing everything from staff training and recipe development to retail branding and purchasing.

In January, the University of North Carolina Health Care system will launch a comprehensive program to optimize its foodservice systems in six of the system’s 12 hospitals.

Jim McGrody, director of culinary and nutrition services at UNC REX Healthcare, says the Center of Innovation and Excellence will train more than 600 employees across locations and begin using a comprehensive structure that will link the participating hospitals under common practices. Hospitals under contract with contract foodservice providers will not participate.

Until now, all six hospitals have operated their food systems independently.

“As a team we decided we needed to work more as a system,” McGrody says. “The way healthcare is going these days, it’s more system-driven. So we started looking at ways we could really improve our operations.”

The center, run by a team of 10 drawn from participating locations, will reduce costs and provide a consistent level of service for dining and meal service at cafés across the system and for patients in a combined total of 2,061 beds.

Anchored by an expanded Black Hat Chef program (link here:, Rex’s well-established culinary training program, the center’s new optimization areas include food safety training and certification, a customer service academy, recipe development and database, a demonstration kitchen, retail branding, group purchasing and internal evaluation.

Trainings will be offered to employees in all areas of foodservice, from frontline workers and coordinators to managers and supervisors. All trainings will be offered at regular intervals and expanded to include an online option to make them fully accessible. Participating hospitals will register employees through an online portal.

The addition of the distance learning option is a boon for geographically distant hospitals or for smaller operations.

“Ideally, it would be great for everybody to be able to be hands-on,” says Sharon Cass, a dietitian and the director of nutrition services at High Point Regional, “but realistically, that’s not always going to be able to happen.” 

Online classes will give Cass the opportunity to train more employees than the handful she sends for in-person workshops. 

The center will also tackle recipe development, with an eye toward making food quality consistent and menu planning flexible across locations. 

Through the Recipe Development and Innovation Kitchen, a group consisting of one representative from each hospital will meet quarterly to develop and test recipes, which will be approved for nutritional content by chefs and dietitians.

Rather than oversee daily menus for patients and visitors at all hospitals, the center will maintain an updated recipe database that will be available as a systemwide resource. Each hospital will have the power to decide whether or not to put an item on the menu. Once they introduce an item—such as a chopped salad—individual hospitals will pull a ready-to-make recipe from the database that meets nutritional and flavor standards.

A front-of-house overhaul is also in the works, including new logos, packaging and displays. They will also remake a dozen self-branded food concepts, such as their Rajas brand of Latin-inspired cuisine. Once complete, hospitals will be able to launch their own retail programs using the program’s step-by-step manuals.

The center’s financial backbone is their GPO maximization module, which will have a huge cost impact on the group’s $14 million annual food bill. 

Shawn Dolan, executive chef at UNC Medical Center, says purchasing ingredients and supplies together will save about a million dollars annually. The group projects that they will save $80,000 on chicken alone.

The savings “didn’t touch quality,” Dolan says, “it just made us look at things in different ways, to be a little bit more efficient. 

The whole Center of Innovation and Excellence was conceived, developed and implemented by UNC foodservice professionals, not mandated from upper level executives.

“It’s a way of us getting ahead of the curve,” Cass explains. “This is what we’re doing as a group for the system.”

In some cases, standardization leads to lockstep conformity. But Travis Watt, director for nutrition and foodservices at UNC Medical Center, says the center is aiming instead to create a dynamic food culture throughout the system.

The Black Hat Chef program increased the quality of food as well as employee retention. Watt and the other directors anticipate an even more positive shift in employee engagement and patient and customer satisfaction because the quality of the food and the way it’s delivered will be vastly improved by future optimizations. 

“It’s something that can be a long-lasting training tool,” Watt says. “It will really bring us to the next level.”

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