Steal This Hotel Idea

UNC Healthcare’s answer to room service draws on its own retail expertise.

An egg sandwich is among UNC's breakfast options.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—Angelo Mojica, director of nutrition services for UNC Healthcare, has taken a page from such hotel chains as Holiday Inn Express to craft his version of a room service program that is popular and cost-saving.

Called Restaurant Delivery, the program allows patients to order their meals from among 13 retail foodservice outlets on the hospital’s campus. Patients are presented a binder with menus from all 13 concepts, and they place their orders to a call center.

The binder is similar to what guests who desire room service might find in hotels that do not have on-site restaurants.

“For the last seven years I’ve been trying to get room service into our hospitals, but it’s very labor-intense,” says Mojica in explaining his program. “You need a lot of extra delivery people and production people and you need a call center. We’d been unsuccessful, with the economy being what it is, in getting room service approved.”

So last year Mojica decided to give up the ghost. Instead, he would approach the idea from a different angle.

“I was thinking about it and I said to myself, ‘We make such really good retail food,’” he recalls. “‘What if we were to serve retail food to the patients?’”

Test run: So Mojica instituted a trial on two floors, a trauma unit and a cystic fibrosis unit, where Press Ganey scores historically lingered in the mid-20s. After coming up with an early idea of stationing delivery people at each of the four venues in which retail foodservice is located, he ultimately opted for a centralized approach.

“Logistically, it wasn’t going to work,” Mojica says. “What if you ordered one thing from one restaurant and one from another [at a different venue]?”

The answer was to go back to the point of production, the main kitchen, and, as Mojica says, “leverage the labor that is already there.”

“For example, if you’re making 350 portions of an item for Bandolero’s”—UNC’s Mexican concept—“making an additional 20 portions wouldn’t kill the cook. So for every area we just [estimated] 5% incremental production. It would be like having a really busy day. We’re offering more variety and we’re bringing our food together as one, rather than one menu for retail, one menu for patients. It’s leveraging our purchasing and our storage, and we’re doing it for significantly less labor than room service.”

So Mojica set up a call center and created the 20-page menu binder, which offers patients 90 different entrées. The menus are complemented by professional photography of some of the menu items, heightening the menus’ appeal. The plan worked.

“For the year, scores on one floor were in the 95th percentile, and on the other they reached the 98th percentile,” he says. “We knew we had something there.”

A world of concepts: Among the restaurants UNC patients have at their disposal are Cosmo’s, a pizza/pasta concept similar to Sbarro; The Lighter Side, which features healthier entrées; Red Ginger, a Pan-Asian concept; Mezza Luna, a create-your-own-salad unit; and Carolina Chicken Co. Patients can even order sushi, although no raw fish is available.
Mojica notes that on their menus, the only designation an item might receive is that it is approved for heart-healthy diets.

“We decided not to identify any foods as healthy or not, except for heart-healthy,” he explains. “The only reason we do the heart is we don’t want someone to come into the hospital and see fried chicken and fried shrimp and barbecue and say, ‘I can’t believe a hospital is serving all this unhealthy food.’ But every menu we put out has ways to build a meal that is lower in fat and sodium.”

But ordering from a restaurant menu doesn’t mean patients can get whatever they want, he cautions.

“When you call our call center, our software identifies you and tells us what diet you’re on,” he explains. “Our call center people will talk you through what you can and cannot have. But the way we do it is to tell you what you can have. Instead of saying ‘No’ about 20 times for all the things you can’t have, we will say, ‘Hello Mr. so-and-so, I see you are on such-and-such diet. Here are some recommendations for you.’

“So it’s also an education piece for us,” he adds. “It’s a chance for us to talk people through their diets, but the patient actually makes the decision.”

The other beauty of UNC’s room service program is that it deals wonderfully with patient diversity, Mojica says.

“There is something for everyone on the menu,” he notes. “So it’s not us just giving patients a few choices and catering to one type of customer.”

Technology at work: The next phase of Restaurant Delivery is to use sous vide cooking for chicken, salmon and hamburgers. Mojica says he hopes to launch this within the next couple of months.

“We’re doing this for a couple of reasons,” he says. “One is for quality and the other is for speed. From scratch is wonderful, but it takes 12 minutes to cook a piece of salmon from scratch. So we struggle with getting it cooked properly and hitting our delivery times.

“With sous vide, we can cook the salmon ahead of time. At the time of service, we open a bag, put the salmon on a charbroiler to get a little color on it and some grill marks. Now we’re talking about two minutes instead of 12.”

Another pilot program in the planning stages is a delivery service for staff. Mojica says he believes this could boost retail sales significantly.

“We do $35,000 a day in our retail venues,” he says. “But we’re maxed out. We can hardly fit another body in there at times. On pay week, it can get so busy you don’t even want to go down there.

“We’ve had people tell us things like, ‘We really love your shrimp and grits, but it takes too much time to go down there to get it. But we’d be willing to pay $2 to have food delivered to us.’ So we’re going to see if that is really true.”

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