Even operators who swear by scratch cooking use convenience as a savvy survival strategy.
The foodservice speed zone extends from the back of the house to the front of the house, thanks to pressure from the do-more-with-less mandates of the real world. Today’s kitchen staff size is typically smaller and perhaps less skilled than in years past, and budgets are tighter. However, customers still expect a wide range of tasty choices, consistently prepared and at an affordable price. Many operators find that the judicious use of prepared products is not only a “no brainer,” but, in fact, a savvy survival strategy.
Michael Hoptay, manager of foodservice at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas in Richardson, understands this all too well. Ever on the alert to reduce or eliminate production labor without sacrificing quality, he finds that purchasing fresh, pre-cut fruits and vegetables suits his needs in serving more than 1,780 customers daily in the main cafeteria. “Now, people are assembling instead of doing prep work,” he says.
Fresh cut fruit is set out each morning for the breakfast catering trays and salad bar. “It cuts our prep by about an hour and 20 minutes, plus, there’s consistency of product,” he explains. “Now, if there’s a loss [of unusable product], it’s a loss at the supplier end. This allows our people to do some salads that are higher dollar items, and that drives higher check averages.”
It’s in the bag: By purchasing as much pre-cut vegetables in five-pound bags as possible, Hoptay has eliminated the need for staff to wash, sanitize, cut and place vegetables into storage containers.
Aside from bread puddings, banana puddings and carrot cakes, Hoptay has eliminated the production of all made-from-scratch biscuits, muffins and other pastries by turning to a local baker. Now, the recipes are “healthy”—made to his specifications—and delivered fresh daily. There’s no need to thaw frozen coffee cakes, since they’re delivered fresh from the oven and pre-cut for consistent portion size.
“Biscuits go right into the oven so there’s no wait,” he adds. “Currently, we have one part-time person versus a fulltime baker and assistant in the bakeshop. When we quit baking muffins and some desserts, I contacted a baker here in Dallas and now he’s baking a healthier and better product to our specs and at a lower cost.”
Ahead of the curve: During the mid-1990s, Sodexho’s healthcare division began to develop its own convenience concept, Cuisine Components, as part of a “kitchenless kitchen” initiative aimed at taking labor out of production by purchasing as many convenience foods as possible. However, it proved to be ahead of its time. In one prototype there were three bags in a box—one protein, one vegetable and one sauce—all intended to speed stir-fry prep. “You got consistent quality but at an exorbitant price,” notes David Martin, director of culinary services and national executive chef for the Gaithersburg, Md.–based contractor. “It didn’t save us any labor dollars—a bit of prep was saved but not enough to count. Manufacturers would come and say, ‘This is great for convenience,’ but my customers don’t accept it if the quality isn’t there—and a lot of pre-made entrees don’t cut it.”
Where Martin does find convenience products work well is in the categories of soups, desserts and pre-cut vegetables for the salad bar. “The soup industry has risen to the occasion; frozen soup today is very good—like the salad dressings of two decades ago. And we can make about 10 different soups by using Campbell’s cream of potato soup—it can go into a Canadian cheese soup, or four or five different chowders, or stuffed potato soup—so it creates only one SKU in the distribution system. The products cost more but you’re redirecting labor, getting more consistent product and it refines your procurement issues.”
Bag the can: Like Martin, Alice Pollard, RD, LD, director of central production, PHP (Premier Health Partners) nutrition services, Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, Ohio, and the facility’s executive chef, Michael Loprete, find that canned tomato soup is a fine convenience item and one that even has a place in their production center. “It doesn’t pay to create a jazzed-up version of tomato soup,” Loprete notes. “Canned tomato soup is a comfort food.
This is unique in our repertoire of soups, sauces, stews and casseroles produced in our cook-chill system.”
Here, the reconstituted canned tomato soup is re-packaged in one gallon bags, handled and shipped in the same fashion as the operation’s signature homemade soups. “This provides for a consistent process and saves time for the tray line personnel as well as for other food prep staff,” Pollard asserts.
The products produced by PHP’s central production facility are shipped to six sites as meal components for approximately 15,000 meals prepared daily, serving acute care patients, assisted living residents, outpatients and retail customers.
The central food production facility consolidates production labor so other sites require only support personnel for dish room duties and for service. Pollard also cites the central production benefits of consistency and the ability to produce products not readily available from suppliers. “Our turkey, pot roast and pork are lower in sodium than commercially prepared products. To prepare pot roast, for example, we buy the meat, add the mire poix and seasoning and, after it’s cooked, we slice it per [site] specifications in 3- to 4-oz. portions and ship it sliced—or they can slice it themselves. For speed of prep we cook and chill most of the vegetables, soups [except tomato], sauces, gravies, meats and starches for our partners.”
As dean of the School of Culinary Arts of Kendall College in Chicago, Christopher Koetke, CEC, CCE, aims to make the learning experience for his 550 students as close to the real world of foodservice as possible. Ever since the culinary school—located on the Kendall College campus in Evanston, Ill., since 1984—moved to downtown Chicago just two and a half years ago, much of what has been developed for the program has the feel of being new. Three “living classrooms” afford students the opportunity to run all aspects of The Dining Room at Kendall College, an open-to-the-public venue recently dubbed “the best fine dining value in the city;” The Café, a food court comprising six stations serving students and staff; it provides students with an introduction to volume feeding, and a storeroom where, among other assignments, students are responsible for weighing all items upon delivery.
Preparing for the real world: Well aware that in foodservice, “it’s not reality to do everything from scratch,” Koetke and his staff have designed courses—most notably the pastry program—to provide students with the skills to be able to determine when using prepared products is the best choice.
“Our first idea was to make the course difficult, but our second thought was to go in the whole other direction,” he says. “It’s not just about high-end dining or restaurants. We’re preparing students for work in the industry, so we said, let’s go the other route and look at convenience items and the labor-savings aspects in the field of baking pastry.”
Initially, students were taken aback, Koetke admits, but under the direction of Chef Mark Kwasigrock, a longtime baking expert, the class has become one of the most popular offered. To encourage critical thinking, students are taught how to prepare convenience products and then prep a similar item from scratch. Next, they track the amount of labor and ingredient cost associated with each. Finally, with the finished products side by side, there’s the taste test. Explains Kwasigrock: “We ask, ‘So what do you think? Is there a big quality difference? Did we save money using one or the other? What would you do?’ It’s all a process to help our students solve problems.”
Creating signatures: Under his direction, students learn to make mixes and par-baked items, sometimes transforming them into signature creations. “When I teach this class, the one thing I make clear is that what we do in the class is to supplement or complement your signature items,” Kwasigrock says.
From his experienced perspective, cake mixes are not just for layer cakes with fruit slices, but for coffee cakes, quick breads, waffle and pancake batters. Frozen muffin batters can also be used for pancakes, waffles and quick bread. With the addition of egg whites, you can create a soufflé-type cake.
As Koetke points out: “A demi glace is a thing of beauty, but not everyone can afford it or has the space to prepare it. We want students to graduate understanding there’s not just one way to do things. For the food court pizza station, for example, they’ll compare the use of frozen Italian bread dough—you can roll the dough again and produce pizza, calzones, focaccia, spinach cheese and garlic swirl bread—versus our homemade product, so they’ll see we use convenience items when labor is tight. There’s not a ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ They have to understand that there are better and worse products out there.”
‘Keep It Simple’
Keeping true to her Connecticut roots, albeit with an overlay of professional culinary training and varied restaurant experience, Foodservice Director Julie Clarke believes in providing simple, hearty fare for the approximately 275 hungry, athletically involved students attending the all-male St. Thomas More School in Oakdale, Conn., plus faculty. Preparing meals from scratch is not something Clarke is going to give up, but utilizing some streamlined Betty Crocker recipes, like those our mothers favored, plus the occasional convenience product—as well as making large batches to freeze ahead and use as needed—help make her operation at this Flik Independent Schools by Chartwells account as speed-efficient and sustainable as she can make it.
“As long as the temperature is above 30°F, we try to cook outdoors on our patio twice a week, every Wednesday and Sunday, with a rain date—we’re grilling by May and on through the fall. We grill pork and chicken and keep it simple with fresh herbs. Or, when the weather is warm but we’re cooking indoors, we use smaller cuts of meat that bake quickly, versus larger cuts that need to be braised—so our staff doesn’t have to hang out too long in a hot kitchen. Roast pork loin takes hours versus pork chops that take about 20 minutes, so it really cuts energy costs, too. Students really enjoy barbecue ribs with our own barbecue sauce, as well as teriyaki center cut pork chops. For pork chops, I order boneless pork loin, we cut it into portions and marinate it overnight. Plus, we’ll grill squash, zucchini, red peppers and even roast potatoes, and they cook up fast.
"Of course, the students love pizza and we do it from scratch, but it only takes 12 minutes in the oven. Sometimes we use pre-made dough, but not par baked; I find it’s dry and it seems pre-fabricated, without a homemade feel to it.
"In the winter we spend a lot of money on protein, but in summer the emphasis is on vegetables and fruit—cherries, pineapple, two types of apples, blueberries, strawberries—it’s in every single corner of the dining room.
"They love it and the faculty comments on it. But it’s quick, simple and no cooking is needed. If I do a cake, and some are box cakes, I’ll use fresh fruit and whipped cream to top it off.
"Even doing an orange chiffon cake is not extremely difficult to make from scratch and it can be done in large quantities: bake, remove from the pans, wrap tightly on cardboard cake circles, double or triple wrap them in plastic wrap, and they can last up to a month in the freezer. Since students like to eat bananas [only] when they’re perfectly ripe, we take those that are too ripe and bake a lot of banana bread from scratch and freeze it. The prep for ‘quick breads,’ like banana bread, is done quickly, they’ll bake quickly, and they will last in the freezer.
"We try to put an emphasis on sustainable seafood and the kids love blackened tilapia with sautéed spinach, shrimp-stuffed mushrooms and the wild rice mix from Uncle Ben’s. Wild rice can take a long time to cook but this product works very well.
"Blackened tilapia is very simple to prepare. We mix equal parts Cajun seasoning and light brown sugar and coat the fillets with that mixture. We do cook the fish on the flat grill indoors, with a bit of canola oil on the grill. You want a high temperature in order to cook it quickly for the blackened look; grill with the presentation side down first, then flip it once. It’s simple, delicious—and sustainable.”