It’s a Comfort

Culinary diversity may be the trend of the day, but comfort foods still rule.

Trends evolve, fads come and go, but noncommercial foodservice operators know that comfort is always in style, and American classics are always popular, no matter what the market.

“We’re always looking for new ways to eat the foods we like,” says Harry Balzer, vice president of The NPD Group, citing such familiar staples of the American diet as sandwiches, chicken, burgers and breakfast foods. Balzer, who’s been tracking the nation’s eating habits for more than 20 years, resists calling such items comfort food (“I never saw anyone seeking out discomfort food,” he explains), but he definitely thinks there’s no end in sight to the appeal of familiar classics.

“This hospital pretty much runs on comfort food,” says Kevin Mahar, director of operations at Lancaster General hospital, a Sodexho account in central Pennsylvania. Serving six different healthcare facilities located throughout Lancaster County, the foodservice operation includes three different coffee shop/cafeterias as well as The James Street Café, which is used mostly by doctors and administrators. “Being in a blue-collar area, the folks here want good-size portions of foods they’re familiar with from home. It’s straightforward food, like chicken croquettes and stuffed chicken breast with bread ‘fillin’—that’s what they call it here, not stuffing.”

At another Pennsylvania business, maintenance-services company F. L. Smith Group, in Bethlehem, comfort foods are also de rigeur.

“If I don’t make their favorite foods, my customers get upset with me,” says Robert Gerichten, chef-manager at F.L. Smith Group for foodservice contractor Brock and Company, based in Malvern, Penn. “This is Pennsylvania Dutch country, and comfort foods really define what we do.”

To hear Gerichten tell it, the phrase “mashed potatoes and gravy” could really sum up what sells best. Nearly every day at the hot station there is an entrée like meatloaf, roast turkey, carved-to-order roast beef, or roast loin of pork, accompanied by a vegetable of the day, mashed potatoes and, yes, gravy—a mustard cream sauce in the case of the roast pork. Homemade soups and baked goods, as well as sandwich and grill items, grab-and-go, pizza, and a full salad bar round out the bill of fare at the facility, which employs about 1,000.

Serving about 400 breakfasts and 400 lunches daily, Gerichten has ample opportunity to get to know his customers personally, and he also actively encourages feedback and suggestions. “I don’t give them a chance to say they haven’t seen something in a while,” he laughs. He’ll also try out new things—and has come to learn that the idea of comfort food does not necessarily mean the same thing to all people. “I grew up eating stuffed peppers, so I made them a couple of times. They just didn’t go.”

Some persistence does pay off, however. A customer at Gerichten’s previous job had suggested he make pasties (pronounced pah-stees), a traditional stuffed meat pie from England, and the item became very popular. But when he tried them at F.L. Smith, people just looked and shook their heads. “No one wanted to be the first one to try it,” he explains. Believing in the recipe, however, Gerichten prepared them a few more times, and as more people tried them, they spread the word. Now he’ll sell 45 or 50 of the calzone-like pies whenever he serves them.

At 1,700-student Davidson College in Davidson, N.C., the student population is a little more worldly, but they still want comfort food. Director of dining services Dee Phillips and her staff have had tremendous success with such down-home concepts as a made-to-order chicken-and-biscuits station, which also offers a vegetarian option. “Everyone has pasta and stir-fries, including us,” says executive chef Craig Mombert, MCFE, CPFM. “Why not try something a little different?”

Mombert admits that the idea happened about a year ago “by mistake,” with a lot of extra homemade biscuits left over from breakfast. The mise en place includes chicken and vegetable stock-based sauces, as well as chicken, seasonal vegetables, tofu and other ingredients, which student can select to top their biscuits. “It’s really taken off for us,” notes Mombert.

Students at the University of Alabama, in Tuscaloosa, are also pretty enamored of comfort food. “Comfort food for ‘Bama’ students is ‘just like Mom used to make’,” says Greta Davis, marketing manager for Bama Dining, which is managed by Aramark.“It is what they grew up on, what Mom makes for them at home, and that is exactly why it’s so popular.”

To that end, all the food served at The Home Zone, a retail brand at the university’s food court, is comfort food. “As the name implies, this is a location where students can come to get that warm feeling from a home-style meal,” notes Davis. “Some of the favorite dishes are fried chicken, mac & cheese, meatloaf, cornbread, and bread pudding. In fact, many of our customers will tell you that the Home Zone has the best fried chicken in town!”

Because of the popularity of this type of cuisine, Bama Dining implements the concept in many locations across campus, adds Davis. “Each of our all-you-care-to-eat dining halls has a rotation of comfort foods every day. The Fresh Food Company has a whole line called the Southern Kitchen, dedicated to preparing and serving southern-style comfort foods.”

In 2005, the University of Alabama began a new phase by building multiple new residential communities on the north side of campus. With more than 3,000 students residing in this area, the need to provide foodservice in close proximity to the residential halls made sense, according to Davis. 

“The new Lakeside Dining Hall is a one-stop shop that includes an all-you-care-to-eat dining hall, a convenience store market, a coffee shop brewing Starbucks Coffee, and a late-night diner,” she says. The Dining Hall itself seats more than 500 students, more than double the capacity of any other dining hall on campus. “There is no other dining facility on campus with this mix of services and the ability to serve so many at one time. The Lakeside Diner has everything one might expect from a quick-order diner including burgers, waffles, omelets, hot sandwiches, milkshakes, desserts and more.”

What about the health implications of fried chicken and milkshakes? “Bama Dining works with a student organization called Healthy Campus to continually improve dining options,” explains Davis. “Students prefer to have healthy alternatives, and the choice between a health-conscious meal and the traditional recipes. We also implemented a program in which nutritional panels are placed on the serving lines so that students can clearly see the counts of calories, fat, fiber, etc in each dish.”