Bringing the Farm Indoors

New cafe spotlights farmers' market, healthy choices

By Becky Schilling, Editor

The cafe was designed to look like a farmers' market.

YPSILANTI, Mich.—A new café opened last month at 537-bed St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor. The new St. Joe’s Market Café is a $1 million renovation of the old cafeteria, which Jim Tripp, manager of retail services, says enabled him to create a healthy café designed around a farmers’ market concept with high interaction between staff and customers.

The start of the renovation project was moving the café’s operation under the retail umbrella and out of foodservice’s purview. “We separated the back of the house,” Tripp says. “Nearly all of the café’s menu is produced at action stations by trained chefs. The change began because the administration's vision for the café changed. They wanted to shift the café from traditional foodservice to a more customer-focused retail operation. We were not able to move on this idea with the old-style kitchen. By updating the kitchen we were able to start producing more appealing health-conscious meals.”

Tripp says the old cafeteria hadn’t been updated in nearly 30 years, and with the cafeteria’s current equipment it was impossible to offer the kind of healthy, made-to-order options the hospital’s administration wanted to serve.

On the farm: The new café was built off a farmers’ market concept. The hospital has its own farm on campus, including two hoop houses. The farm provides some of the produce used in retail operations. “We took it to the next level and we tried to make a market,” Tripp says about the new café. “We said, let’s just extend the market to the servery.”

The hospital has a weekly farmers’ market every Wednesday. Currently the market is not being held in the café, but Tripp says it will soon move into the café. “One of the things we’re going to start doing is if you come up to our salad station and today we’re making our Oriental sesame salad, we’re going to have recipe cards and we hope we’ll have the ingredients for sale so that if you want to make that salad at home you can just go get the ingredients,” Tripp says.

The café uses a lot of wood to give off the farm feel. There are wooden barrels in the middle of the servery, offering items like bottled water and soda.

Following a market’s design, the café is broken up into five stations. The first station is a carvery, where a fresh-carved protein is offered, along with another protein, starch and vegetables. Station two is the chef’s special, which serves comfort foods like a burrito bowl. The third station is a salad station, where customers can either select the salad of the day or build their own salad. Station four is a sandwich concept, which offers a sandwich of the day or a build-your-own sandwich, much like a Subway. The fifth station offers soup.

In addition, there is a sushi area, where an outside company makes sushi every day.

Tripp calls the stations “plug and play” and says that because all of the equipment is movable, if a particular station isn’t working he can take out that equipment and move something else in.

All of the stations are action stations, manned by one of seven new chefs hired to operate the new café. One of those chefs, Ryan Kendall, is the executive chef, a new position for retail services. Kendall was lured from Google’s Ann Arbor location.

Healthy choices: Setting up the servery with action stations not only provides the chefs the opportunity to intermingle with chefs, Tripp says, but it also helps with the café’s educational philosophy. “When we say action stations, we also are working with our dietitian and our chefs that they can and say, here’s where we are trying to eat healthy but also give choices,” he says. “Like a French dip sandwich. It’s going to be listed on our menu as healthy. The menu lists the nutritional values. Underneath that on the menu board customers are going to have the option of adding au jus to make it a true French dip. If you choose to have it without the au jus, you’re fine. It’s going to be a whole-wheat bun and a lean meat. If you decide to add the au jus then it’s going to say be careful because that’s going to add 500 milligrams of sodium. But you still have the choice to do that. We’re educating our chefs to have that conversation with the customer. That’s where we feel the interaction is going to be involved.”

Tripp says the old cafeteria tried to offer healthy options, but because of the equipment, it was not as successful as the hospital’s administration had hoped for. “We tried to go healthy with an antiquated kitchen, so we made the decision to completely revamp or kitchen and servery,” he says. “We serve roasted chicken at our carvery because we have a rotisserie chicken at our carvery. But we didn’t have a carving station in the past so to serve something like a pork tenderloin, which is so easy to do, was just impossible.”

With the new café and the addition of the chefs, there have been changes to preparation methods. “We’re trying to season with little or no salt,” Tripp says. “We still use it on occasion, but we’re using more herbs and mustards. We’re experimenting with some coffee and tea seasoning. We’re trying to do a little more creativity with the spices. We’re working with one of our tea companies that have come up with some different rubs. Everything is made from scratch. Our dressings our made from scratch. We’re cutting out some of the sugars and replacing it with olive oils, which is a healthier fat.”

The chefs also are doing more batch cooking. “Instead of cooking 200 entrées [at a time], we’re cooking on the line and we’re cooking 20 or 30 chicken breasts at a time,” Tripp says. “We’re producing food that is only 10 minutes old or hot off the grill versus sitting in a steam box. We have no steam boxes. It goes from the grill to the servery to the serving line. I think that enhances the flavors as much as anything. The food is hot. We served a burrito bowl, something like what Chipotle serves. It was made fresh with fajita chicken, rice and beans and it was piping hot. I think that’s one of the biggest things we’ve done. Instead of making a burrito, wrapping it up and putting it in a steam table, we are building it in front of them.”

Unlike other cafés, St. Joe’s Market Café doesn’t name its station. “I think it’s important to know that we numbered our stations one through five,” Tripp says. “What we tried to do, rather than put up a huge diet board with our monthly menu and the nutritional facts, we tried to make it simple for [customers]. They can come in and look at the board. It’s a good, better and best board. If you’re looking for low calories, good is station one, better is station four and the best is station five. That tells you to go to station five if you’re looking for low calories.” Other categories on the good, better, best wall are fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbs and protein.

There is also a new pricing system in the new café. “Strapped with the old equipment, it was too costly to make the new menu, and the prices in the old cafeteria reflected that handicap. We made the commitment in the new café that we were going to offer our entrée, vegetable and starch for $4.50 every day no matter what it is. We are not serving 6 ounces of french fries. We are serving four to five ounces of potatoes. We were serving by the pound for salad, and people were paying $8 and $9 for a salad. We’ve come up with one price. It’s $4.25 with four toppings. They pick the dressing, and we’ll top it and serve it for them. Sandwiches used to be weighed, and people would pay $5 or $6 for a sandwich. We have a $3.95 sandwich and we’ll build it for you. We’re trying to be more streamlined.”

Tripp says he is in the process of redoing the dining room as well. During the renovation for the new location, the café was shut down for four months. During that time customers could purchase food and beverages from one of the coffee shops in the hospital. “We serve one million customers a year. We have a huge retail environment here,” Tripp says.