Taking a Healthy Walk

By Paul King, Editorial Director

More and more operators are making healthful dining a major part of their menu mix, and customers are actually buying it..



healthy menuThere was a time, not too long ago, when customers would come to cafeterias complaining that there weren’t enough healthy options. But when operators complied by rewriting or augmenting menus with low-fat, vegetarian, vegan and organic items, the foods often wasted away on serving lines as customers opted for the familiar cheeseburgers and fries.

That era appears to be passing. More and more operators are finding that customers really do want healthy, that they are willing to "walk the walk," and operators are responding. Not only are they adding menu items, in some cases they are creating entire units devoted to healthful dining. They are even making healthy food to go, meaning that “fast food” no longer means a burger in a box.

The Poly Fresh Market: At California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, the Poly Fresh Market is the latest entry into the campus’s Green Campaign, which began more than a year ago. Poly Fresh Market, which opened this fall at the Bronco Student Center, serves primarily organic and natural foods, according to George Rankin, director of Foundation Dining Services, the university’s not-for-profit foodservice organization.

"We are committed to making healthy choices more available in order to promote the health of the campus community," says Rankin. "Having these types of foods available in one accessible location makes it easy for students, faculty and staff to find a wide variety of healthy and organic foods. We tried to offer these products at multiple locations on campus but found they got lost in the regular inventory. I think it is important to create a separate identity and location for this segment to maximize their sales."

Rankin adds that Poly Fresh Market was the brainchild of Bret Roth, one of Dining Services’ managers. It replaced a standard convenience store and has, in Rankin’s words, "a very contemporary, sleek look. It’s not at all farm-y, but much more contemporary. Associated Students helped us with the marketing and by designing the logo."

Poly Fresh carries a variety of packaged and prepared foods such as sandwiches, granola and other cereals, dry snacks, and beverages. Brands include Naked Juice, Amy’s Kitchen, Stonyfield Farms, Kashi, Eden Foods and Barefruit. In addition, Poly Fresh sells items grown on campus by the agriculture department and marketed through the department’s Farm Store.

"The Farm Store had its own product line, and we sell some of their packaged products," Rankin notes. "We are moving more and more for the board plan to emphasize healthy dining, and we’re working with the ag department to move more in that direction all the time." Rankin admits that there was some trepidation about Poly Fresh as opening day loomed.

"Part of our fear was, were we too far out on the cusp?" he recalls. "Were we too early, too far ahead of the market? We have been pleasantly surprised. The first week we were behind what the c-store had done in sales. In the second week, however, we pulled even and now we are several hundred dollars a week ahead."

Now, Rankin notes, the key to success will be to keep on top of what customers are really looking for.

"We have to be ready to modify and change constantly," he says. "Nobody really knows what the market should be, so we have to make sure we always know what our customers are demanding."

Core: Several hundred miles to the east, in Tucson, Ariz., the University of Arizona has responded to the increasing interest in healthy dining by creating a 120-item salad bar in a 1,000-square-foot facility. Called Core, the unit features custom-built salads along with prepackaged salads, wraps, organic sodas and milk. Many of the items on the salad bar are organic, and the design of the salad bar makes Core a vegan’s heaven.

"Every fruit, nut and vegetable known to man is laid out on the bar," says Dining Services Director David Galbraith in only a slight exaggeration. "Kids are telling us they want healthy, and now we are seeing them really going forth and putting their money where their mouth is."

The "core" of Core is the salad bar, where customers can fill up a bowl with as many types of non-protein items as can fit, for a base price of $4.95. Then, for an additional price, customers can select a variety of protein and upscale items such as mesquite smoked turkey, albacore tuna, applewood smoked bacon, sautéed shrimp and grilled sirloin.

They then can select whether to have their items served hot over white or brown rice or cold over a mix of salad greens. Cold salads can be tossed with one of 24 types of salad dressings.

"There are over two million possible salad combinations," says Galbraith. The facility, which is completely carry-out, was built for $150,000. The name, logo and design layout was done by a Visual Communication class project headed by Dr. Jackson Boelts.

"He made it a class challenge," Galbraith explains. "We would give $2,000 to the winning entry, and he got 20 submissions." The entries were put to a campus-wide vote, and Acacia Betancourt, a junior majoring in visual communications, was selected as the winning designer.

The concept has been a huge success ever since it opened. Galbraith notes that the response "shocked" him.

"There are times we have lines out the door and 40 feet down the corridor," he says. He adds that Core has provided a benefit to students suffering from food allergies because they are in total control of their selections, and also has provided an education for some students.

"There are students here who have never seen an artichoke before, or a dried fig," he explains. “This is pretty exotic stuff to them.”

healthy menuHayden Dining: At New York University, where many of the 25,000 students can be very vocal about topics like the environment and nutrition, Dining Services recently renovated a resident dining facility to reflect a commitment to both healthy eating and sustainability. The menu at Hayden Dining emphasizes nutritious foods, and offers a number of vegetarian and vegan options. In addition, the salad bar features locally grown produce that has been raised using sustainable farming methods, and meats served at Hayden come from livestock that are antibiotic free.

"The concept has been overwhelmingly well received," says George Hellen, resident district manager for Aramark, which operates the foodservice at NYU. "Customer counts are up in excess of 50% over last year, and we’re already hearing positive comments from students about the salad bar, the food bar, the variety of products and the focus on vegan foods and wellness."

Owen Moore, dining services director at NYU, said the healthy and sustainable effort at Hayden was an opportunity that presented itself because of a need to renovate the facility.

"The dining needed to be upgraded," says Moore. "There was some historical charm to Hayden, which we enhanced, such as by refinishing the original woodwork, rather than tearing it out and replacing it with laminate. But the furniture and lighting had to be updated. That was the first phase."

"The second phase, which I considered the most important phase, was the menu, the culinary aspect and the sustainability," he adds. "We really liked what was happening in markets like Whole Foods. There has been a big increase in the availability of and desire for organic and sustainable products, and we certainly wanted to capitalize on that."

To make the culinary shift happen, Aramark brought in Jermaie Garlick as executive chef. Garlick, a native of London who also grew up in Lyon, France, was once the personal chef of President Ronald Reagan.

Among the changes he has made have been the addition of fresh baked organic breads for sandwiches every day, whole wheat organic crust pizza, hormone-free beef, lamb and chicken, and an array of local products that rival the variety found at the Greenmarket in nearby Union Square.

"It has been a very interesting and exciting challenge, seeing the different kinds of products that are available, and being able sometimes to go off the beaten track a little to find new and unusual items," says Garlick.

Moore explains that Hayden has become a test site for the viability of local, organic and sustainable products. "We get to measure the impact financially on our program," he notes. "Do students actually like it? Will they use it? It is a compliment to Jeramie and his staff that students already are saying, ‘They’ve made healthy exciting, and now I want to eat healthy'."

Spa Food: The University of Connecticut, in Storrs, hasn’t dedicated an entire facility to healthy dining. But Dining Services has created a line of healthful packaged foods that are being sold in retail outlets across campus.

Called Spa Food, the items were developed by Dining Services last summer after studying menus offered at various spa resorts around the country. Dining Services Director Dennis Pierce says Spa Food was created in response to students’ desire for healthful food that could be carried out.

Some examples of Spa Food are the Fruity Tuna Wrap, which is lemon curried tuna, red grapes, sliced almonds and dried cranberries in a wheat wrap; Citrus Bean Salad, made up of black beans, red kidney beans and chick peas tossed in a citrus vinaigrette with mandarin oranges, and Turkey Wrap with Honeyed Apple Cabbage, which contains sliced Granny Smith apples, marinated with a honey vinaigrette, tossed with shredded cabbage and wrapped in a wheat wrap with thinly sliced turkey breast. Most items contain less than 300 calories and as little as two calories from fat.

Spa Food is sold at five retail locations on campus, and busy resident students can get Spa Food items as a box meal option. To drum up interest in Spa Food, samples were provided at a recent health fair staged by the university.

Hemisflavors: Sometimes, the desires of a new client can lead to a new take on a concept like nutrition. Such has been the case at Parkhurst Dining Services, the contract arm of Pittsburgh-based Eat ‘n Park Hospitality Group. Earlier this year, Parkhurst was hired by MEDRAD Inc., a manufacturer of high-tech medical devices.

MEDRAD’s corporate procurement manager, Eddy Guarascio, says the company hired Parkhurst because of its commitment to health, which has been embodied in Parkhurst’s Whole Body Cuisine program.

However, after discussions with MEDRAD’s executive chef, Jacob Croston, Parkhurst executives announced plans to replace Whole Body with Hemisflavors.

"Where Whole Body concentrated on numbers and calorie counting, Hemisflavors will be more about healthy eating in general," says a company press release. "Parkhurst aims to utilize foods from all different regions of the world, such as North Africa, Southern Asia, the Middle East, and India. These areas have been found to have healthier eating in general, using many varieties of fresh vegetables, beans, legumes, lentils, whole grains and fresh seafood, with abundant amounts of herbs and spices."

Hemisflavors was scheduled to be unveiled by the end of 2007.

Prairie Mediterranean: At Avera Heart Hospital, a 55-bed specialty hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D., Foodservice and Nutrirtion Team Leader Joanne Shearer has created a variation on the Mediterranean diet. Shearer calls it "prairie Mediterranean" because it combines the heart-healthy foods of that Middle Eastern region with local foods such as beef, corn, soybeans and flaxseed.

"Our recipes use very lean meats and natural foods from our area, combined with the best of the Mediterranean," says Shearer, who adds that she realized that equipment like deep-fat fryers were incongruous with the mission of a hospital dedicated to cardiac care.

Employees and visitors to Avera Heart’s 85-seat cafeteria won’t find very many unhealthy items, Shearer notes. "I subscribe to the 90-10 rule, because with any diet there always have to be ‘splurge’ foods," she says.

One reason Avera Heart’s cafeteria menu leans so heavily on health, Shearer adds, is that "although in the last five years we’ve seen a cultural shift toward healthy eating, if you want people to eat healthy you have to give them mostly healthy choices. If you offer a patty melt against a pasta primavera, more people are going to choose the patty melt."

Still, Shearer says prairie Mediterranean has been a success. "We get the usual ‘hate’ e-mails about the menu," she acknowledges. "But for every one of those, we get 10 compliments. But the obesity epidemic didn’t happen overnight, and I think it’s going to take another generation at least before healthy eating is the norm."