Healthcare Operators Focus on Keeping Costs Down and Quality Up

Directors must provide appealing, good-tasting meals while keeping an eye on the bottom line.

Elmhurst Memorial Healthcare has been able to improve quality
while driving costs down.

As food prices continue to climb, healthcare operators are tasked with finding innovative ideas to keep customers satisfied and budgets under control. At Elmhurst (Ill.) Memorial Healthcare, Dave Reeves, director of hospitality services, says that his hospital actually improving overall quality while driving costs down. With 65% of meals prepared sold for retail, “we really looked at the retail end and now include a lot of made to order, cooked fresh and quickly in front of customers,” says Reeves. A salad topped with sizzling chicken, shrimp or steak gives the perception of freshness, and it's also a way to easily control protein portion size.

People are willing to pay more for protein, notes Reeves.

Executive chef Jim Roth has come up with cost-savings ideas that are also tasty, says Reeves. Pasta is portioned in small casserole dishes, baked individually with sauce and cheese and served fresh and hot. “We know we’re not serving more than what our food cost is,” says Reeves. Because the past is served in individual casseroles, foodservice knows exactly how they are selling and what it is costing to prepare.

 “To maintain food cost, I focus less on reducing quality and more on reducing portion sizes,” adds Roth, noting what’s served alongside the main dish makes all the difference. Chicken tandoori typically sells for $3.50 for a 3-ounce kabob and a side of yogurt dipping sauce. By serving that same dish on a bed of rice pilaf, Roth charges $3.95, covers his food cost on the rice and drives up his average transaction. “We believe it’s a win-win formula,” he says.

At the carving station, Roth opts for a smaller, marinated charbroiled bottom round or flank steak rather than strip loin. He uses those same cuts to make steaks that he marinates, grills and serves with fresh chimichurri sauce. “We sell gaucho steaks and a side for $4.75; my food cost is well under 33%,” he says.

At Lexington Medical Center in West Columbia, S.C, foodservice staff have adapted wording on the menu to allow for change and flexibility in the products used. For example, rather than specifically list “tilapia,” the menu now reads whitefish, notes Steve Howell, director of nutrition services.

Howell also works closely with his primary vendor to find alternative products and CMA agreements, which potentially saves thousands of dollars.

Focus on purchasing: “You need to develop a purchasing program, know what your price goal is, have strong inventory control and set out your quality,” says Jerry Miller, director of food and nutrition services at Garfield Medical Center in Monterey Park, Calif. Miller emphasizes that the plan should be simple and easily comparable so you can see losses. Garfield’s system of checks and balances helps strict accounting of purchasing and use. “We weigh and count everything that comes in and we separate who orders the food from who weighs it,” Miller explains.  

Garfield also gets volume discounts by participating in MedAssett, a large group purchasing organization for hospitals. “It’s all voluntary and you’re not locked into anything, and it’s allowed me to consistently reduce cost,” Miller says.

A winning combo—healthier and cheaper: Miller uses escalating meat prices as a reason to provide healthier, less expensive menu choices other than beef, offering cheese enchiladas, more tofu and Chinese vegetarian dishes instead. It fits in well with the hospital’s wellness initiative, which includes counting calories and reducing meats and fried foods. To support these efforts, the facility practices both Meatless Monday and fryless Fridays.

Miller’s chef also offers a variety of salads, such as chicken Caesar or Mediterranean, as entrée items. “The cost is lower per serving that than a whole chicken entrée,” says Miller.

Don’t rule out local produce as an option, advises Roth. “Although the cost is typically higher at local markets for fresh produce, I utilize other ingredients to stretch the more expensive yield,” says Roth. He cites wax and green beans as examples, combining them with onions, peppers, shallots and carrots, some lime, cilantro and scallions for a wok stir-fry.

Know what works: Howell suggests not trying to do too much but sticking with what works best. “We don’t offer a large extravagant or costly menu, keeping our inventory to a minimum,” he says. “Concentrate on what you do well.”

Countering assumptions with reality is also recommended. Foodservice staff at Lexington Medical Center assumed that the physiicians required luxurious menuing in their somewhat luxurious lounge. But after surveying the doctors, “we found that their expectations were not as high as we thought,” says Howell. “They like hot dog bars and finger foods!”

Reeves notes that hiring a chef can save you a significant amount of money. “We’ve saved his salary and additional food costs by having him come in and look at the way we purchase, produce and serve things,” notes Reeves. "It will save you money and significantly improve the quality of the food you’re serving. It’s a no-brainer for an ROI.”