Linda Lafferty: Hospital Director in a Rush to Grab Sales

After a 34-year-long career, the last 19 or so spent in the same location, Linda Lafferty, winner of the Silver Plate-Healthcare, has a new and "very cool" project to tackle-overseeing the design and construction of a brand new retail cafeteria at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago (which has a current census of 550) where she's director of food and nutrition services. It's a project that may not come to fruition for three to five years and that might be a conservative estimate.

At A Glance: Linda Lafferty
•Director, Food and Nutrition Services
•Rush University Medical Center, Chicago
•In foodservice since 1971
•Daily Meal Volume: 5,400+
•Facilities: Patients, cafe, two kiosks, club
•Foodservice Budget: $9.5 million annually
•Oversees 200 full-time employees
•Her wish is to have a new cafeteria up and running in three to five years


FoodService Director - Silver Plate - Linda Lafferty - Rush University Medical CenterAfter a 34-year-long career, the last 19 or so spent in the same location, Linda Lafferty has a new and "very cool" project to tackle-overseeing the design and construction of a brand new retail cafeteria at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago (which has a current census of 550) where she's director of food and nutrition services. It's a project that may not come to fruition for three to five years and that might be a conservative estimate.

  The current cafeteria, which now serves approximately 3,000 to 3,500 customers daily, will be eliminated as will the kitchen that serves it. "We'll produce from our new central kitchen that's been operational since January 2001," Lafferty explains. "Although the old one was an award-winner in 1980, it hasn't been infused with any capital in 25 years. The new venue will feature some display cooking as well as a more central location."

This new cafeteria project is but the latest opportunity for Lafferty to apply her expertise in production operations management, honed over the years in the field since she earned her Ph.D from the University of Missouri in food systems management. It also allows her to exercise her savvy sense of current customer needs.

Location, location: Now that plans for the new cafeteria are taking shape, she realizes that she gave Au Bon Pain the ideal location when she brought it on board in 2003 at a time when her operation experienced capital constraints and was in need of a new facility. The partnership provides service 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and enabled her to reduce labor by 11 full-time employees, saves approximately $400,000 per year, and generates annual rent and commissions which go straight to the bottom line.

"Our new retail location should be in that location, more or less," she laments. "We will do this very carefully-Au Bon Pain is open 24/7 and that's very important to me. But our new retail operation must be located where it's convenient for customers and near my central kitchen."

Lafferty, who also serves as director of dietetic internship as well as associate professor at Rush University, oversees five diverse operations including the central kitchen which services three kitchens; the employee cafeteria; Remedies, a quick-service kiosk near the patient care area; In A Rush, a quick-service kiosk near the cafeteria; and Room Five Hundred, a private club and dining room. She also manages the Searle Conference Center. But what Lafferty has noted, and measured, is that customers-albeit sophisticated in their foodservice expectations-want grab-and-go options above all else. Therefore, in the new cafeteria she plans to go beyond what she's already providing, drawing, once again, upon her staff of credentialed culinarians.

The mandate for ‘fast': "Traditional cafeteria fare truly represents a small part of our sales," she reports. "Customers want items such as sandwiches, salads and self-serve pizza by-the-slice. It has to be fresh and reflect some interest in nutrition, but we'll never take off fried chicken wings and pastries. We'll have display cooking since that will serve to put a filter over the customers' eyes so they'll experience the ‘wow' of freshly prepared items and appreciate our skilled staff. But the interaction with the server is not the focus. They don't want anyone in their face. The server should be efficient and effective, but customers don't want to spend time with them. The food is the experience."

After all these years, Lafferty still finds that the beauty of Rush is that it's a medical center that has a university rather than the other way around. And, for her, it continues to provide a rich environment for creativity. With approximately 7,500 employees, it's a private university dedicated to the medical profession. "All managers and clinicians here are not only practitioners but are involved in teaching and research," she points out. "As an operator, you better be up on what's new because you're teaching it."

On demand: Registered dietitians and culinarians, most with prior hospitality experience, collaborate with nursing in each patient unit in order to develop menus and meal delivery concepts. For example, a same-day modified spoken menu is used in obstetrics, oncology and surgical units. While many healthcare facilities are moving to a hotel-style room service model, Lafferty's team provides service on-demand in addition to conventional meal times.

"Nutrition is essential, but food quality is the litmus test to determine if a recipe is served," she says. And her team aims to tailor menus to specific patient populations with an emphasis on moderation and variety. They even provide a breakfast cart-although not budgeted-for parents of children on the pediatric floor since a child's consumption increases when they're encouraged to eat with their parents.

Appreciation of the team is central to Lafferty's mentoring management style in interfacing with her more than 200 full-time employees. Even though hers is a highly unionized workforce, quite a few of the management staff have more than 30 years on the job.

Based on what employees said they wanted, supervisors now recognize and motivate staff with weekly cards signifying a job well done. Notes Lafferty proudly: "This is not a one person show-it's truly a team!"