Kitchen of the future

By 
Dana Moran, Managing Editor

ucmc kitchen interior

The scale, scope and purpose of the University of Chicago Medical Center’s latest renovation project were obviously much larger than any residential project. But the emotions surrounding the revamp were just the same, says MaryPat Severns, Aramark resident director of food services at the University of Chicago.

“The energy was higher than you might expect it—just as if you remodel your kitchen at home and you’re excited to use it, that was the atmosphere,” Severns says of opening day at the freshly renovated and expanded kitchen, which serves the hospital’s Center for Care and Discovery as well as Comer Children’s Hospital.

Ready, set, go

ucmc kitchen stainless

That high energy was only compounded by the fact that staffers had been heavily involved in the revamp process from day one, from the basic layout to storeroom design and tray line flow. Everyone from hourly staff to maintenance crews was involved in events to sign off on equipment and processes, says Daryl Wilkerson, vice president of support services for UCMC. “When you do employee surveys, one of the most important issues [identified] is, ‘My opinion doesn’t matter or isn’t asked for,’” he says. “We’re starting to erase that.”

But before the CCD kitchen could officially open for business, staff underwent two “day in the life” training simulations, acting out everything from scraping trays to emergency situations like a fire or an employee fainting, Severns says. Since the kitchen was unused during the remodel—orders were being produced in a temporary modular kitchen located in a parking lot—the space could be completely dedicated to trial-and-error testing. As a result, “Day 1 was one of the smoothest openings that I’ve done personally,” Severns says.

‘The proof is in the operations’

ucmc kitchen vats

Almost immediately after the revamped space—which included a T-shaped dual tray line—started service, order-to-delivery times dropped from an average of 40 minutes to 33 minutes. Feedback from diners and increased Press Ganey scores (which measure patient satisfaction) revealed that meals were showing up hotter and at a higher quality—without any change to the menu. “I think the proof is in the operations,” says Project Manager Elizabeth Lockwood.

Adjustments did have to be made, as the team quickly learned that some workflows needed tweaking to accommodate the added volume of 202 additional beds. The kitchen’s master cleaning schedule was rewritten o factor in the additional square footage, and reminders were issued about avoiding clutter in an unused corner.

One major aspect of the redesign has nothing to do with the physical production of meals. In its previous life, the CCD kitchen had been too small to host its own call center; now, it’s situated in the same space so workers can walk out and consult with cooks or supervisors for questions. But some separation between the two entities is maintained, Lockwood says. “At some of the places we looked at on field trips, [the call centers] were so embedded in the kitchen that you just opened the door and yelled at the cook,” she says.

The future: Technology vs. ‘that human touch’

ucmc kitchen ovens

With more than six months under its belt, what’s next for the kitchen—and the rest of UCMC’s foodservice? Equipment companies are making a big play with new technology, from multifunction ovens to smartphone controls that use Wi-Fi to remotely track a kitchen, says Connie Dickson, principal at Rippe Associates, UCMC’s foodservice consulting firm.

While UCMC is exploring tech that allows patients to order from bedside tablets or smartphone apps, the current audience remains happy with old-fashioned phone orders, Severns says. “[Diners] like that human touch, making sure their order is right,” she says. “It’s about looking at the patient of the future and what they want. Even if they’re tech-savvy, they’re still in the hospital because they’re not feeling well.”

“It’s probably a matter of options,” Dickson adds. “I think about Panera; you can order at the counter, order at a kiosk, you can order ahead and pick up. I think it’s generational preferences, to some extent.”

On to the next project

ucmc kitchen workspace

Though the CCD kitchen was just completed in October, there’s no rest for a bustling hospital campus. A kitchen originally built in 1949 is next on the docket as a different hospital tower is converted into a cancer center, Wilkerson says. With a load of about 190 patients, the kitchen won’t need a dual tray line like the one in the CCD project, but “when you look at post-World War II construction and equipment, there’s a lot of heavy lifting we’re going to have to do,” he says. This renovation project will follow the same lessons and plans from the CCD kitchen with regard to LEAN strategies.

Where does such an all-consuming project fit into an operator’s day-to-day responsibilities, which must still be completed? “At periods of time, you just have to do the extra work; that’s just part of the role,” Severns says. “The good news is, you have a team—a construction manager, [a consulting group], so it’s not just a person doing a project alone.” 

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