Five Questions for: Valerie Langbein

FoodService Director - Five Questions for Valerie Langbein - Maine Medical Center - sanitation renovationLast fall at 412-bed Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, the dishroom was renovated as part of a three-part foodservice renovation. What was supposed to be a three-month renovation took seven. FSD talked with Valeria Langbein, director of nutrition services, to find out how the staff continued to serve its customers while keeping morale up.

Why was the dishroom renovation needed?

It’s part of a bigger master facility plan to renovate our operation. The big issue is our cafeteria serving area is about half the size it needs to be. In order to get to renovating our serving area, we had to do a couple of other renovations first. One of the pieces that we needed to do was renovate our sanitation area. It wasn’t just the serving area that was driving this. We had an old dish machine that we literally had to use a crowbar to keep moving. It was pretty bad. It would break down regularly.

The dishroom was the second step. The first step was we converted the roof over our emergency department into a new dining room. Our cafeteria was built for a population base that is half of what the actual population is. We are very crowded in our cafeteria. In order to expand the serving area in our cafeteria we had to expand the dining room. We did that a couple of years ago. The next phase, I hope, is going to be the serving area. I don’t have a timeline on that yet. I’ve learned that “no” means “not yet.” I’m very persistent. If it doesn’t happen today it doesn’t mean that I’m going to give up and not try tomorrow.

What were some of the challenges during the dishroom renovation?

We worked with Paul Hysen of the Hysen Group to do the renovation. One of the things he asked us early on in the planning stage was if this pillar that was in the middle of the room could be moved. When we investigated before construction, we were told it had to stay were it was. We had to work around the pillar. When we started construction, we found out that the drawings were not as complete as they could have been because the pillar was movable. So what was supposed to have been about a three-month project turned out to be about a seven-month project. It was really hard for the staff because it kept going on and on.

One of the things we discovered early on was the temporary dishroom was not designed to control water, of all things, well. So there was a lot of flooding. The dish crew worked with the contractor to make some changes and we got control of the water situation.

How did the staff respond during the project?

One of the best things that came out of this project was the morale of the staff who were directly affected was amazing. They had every right to complain, but they didn’t. They were a great team. We didn’t close down anything during the renovation. When you are trying to do renovations and keep business going as usual it is really trying. 

What we ended up doing was, we built a temporary dishroom in the middle of the kitchen where we would normally store carts. We got an interim safety agreement, and our local fire marshal allowed us to store our carts in the hallway. We had a really tiny, postage-stamp size dishroom in the middle of the kitchen. We were used to a machine that could handle multiple racks at a time and we ended up going with one of those little guys that take one rack at a time.

One of the fun things that we did was we turned it into an employee recognition event. The dishroom crew has inspired us to have a golden crowbar award, which we award on a quarterly basis. We have a crowbar that we painted golden. It is hanging up in the main kitchen, and we put up a picture of the award winner next to it.

We finished in late July. We had a demolition of the temporary dishroom and the crew got to knock it down with mallets. It was very symbolic. We are really pleased with the end result. I am so glad it’s over.

What changes did you make to the menu and serviceware during the renovation?

We went to as many disposables as we could in the cafeteria. We went to almost 100% for the duration. On the patient side, I really didn’t want to do that. We were pretty choosy about which items we were going to use disposables for and which ones we were going to continue to use china. Obviously, food temperature issues were a concern so we stayed with china for the hot items. We changed the menu a little bit. We made quite a few more cold plates than we would have otherwise.

What advice would you give to other directors who are planning a similar renovation?

What we did right from the word go was we involved employees in the decision making because it affected them as much as anybody. We wanted to make sure that their needs were heard. They helped create the schedules, workflow and design of the temporary space. I was very clear that I didn’t want to get anybody burned out. I had budgeted temporary staff to come in to help ease the burden. In the beginning the dishroom crew said they didn’t need any help. They probably would have been fine if we could have finished in three months. By month four, I had a chat with one of the guys and I said, ‘It looks like you could use some help.” That’s when I brought in temporary employees to help out in that area. It worked really well. I think communication is key.

The other thing we tried really hard was to let people see what was going on. It’s hard with a construction project, but I tried really hard to let employees go in and observe and see the progress being made.

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