Imagine a hospital where the food could heal patients. It’s not such a stretch, according to administrators at the new Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital in Detroit, a $360-million, 300-bed facility with all private rooms that has been designed to revolutionize hospital foodservice by challenging the status quo.
For President and CEO Gerard Van Grinsven, once vice president of food and beverage for Ritz-Carlton hotels, the goal has been nothing less than exceeding the boundaries of the imagination in every area of the hospital.
Van Grinsven calls his post “an incredible opportunity to bring my expertise to healthcare. We could be the benchmark. We decided to challenge healthcare to become a community center for well-being and to bring back a focus on healthcare, not sick care. We have no freezers and no fryers.
“The facility will take on the nation’s obesity epidemic with education, teaching children and parents in its communities to buy and prepare healthy food. They are already coming to our café to buy fresh, prepackaged healthy food at attractive prices.”
Hospitality Services Administrator Sven Grieslinger, also a former hotelman, puts it this way: “Why is the word ‘hospital’ embedded in ‘hospitality’ and none practice it? We are infusing hospitality into our entire operation and linking it with wellness. Food must become a part of the healing process. Our customers tell us two things: ‘Finally!’ and ‘It’s about time.’”
Henry Ford West Bloomfield is the seventh hospital in the Henry Ford system. With the goal of totally changing the hospital experience, from the look and feel of the facility to the food coming out of the kitchen, architects created a building that looks like a lodge and has its own roof garden and boutique shops. It was built with LEED certification in mind. A greenhouse that will supply fresh produce is planned shortly. Currently 190 rooms are ready for patients.
The hospital is also developing what it says is the first culinary institution for healthcare with a curriculum to teach cooks to make the best nutritional choices at a gourmet level for patients.
“There is food that’s compatible with health conditions,” says Grieslinger. “Food with less salt, gluten free, etc., doesn’t have to taste bad.”
Today, he continues, chronic disease is known to come from poor diet. “We don’t use anything processed. We make it all fresh. The entire focus is on wellness, not sickness.”
To implement this philosphy, Van Grinsven recruited Matt Prentice, owner of south Michigan’s Matt Prentice Restaurant Group, as culinary director.
Prentice had a wake-up call some years ago when he visited a hospitalized friend recovering from bypass surgery. Horrified at the food and his friend’s refusal to eat, he brought him gallons of double-strength freshly made consommé.
“I realized I could heal as well as please with food. Food nurtures the body; food heals and keeps the body healthy.”
Initially, when Van Grinsven approached Prentice to explore his views about hospital foodservice, “he told me he wanted to have only good food and pointed out that the No. 1 complaint about hospitals is the food, and that needed changing, even though it could be more expensive from a labor standpoint.”
Offered the opportunity to lead the culinary effort, Prentice initially was wary, but he plunged into the task, designing the kitchen and learning from doctors, patients, staff and herbalists as he researched the role of nutrients in healing. “I wanted to do it right first and then look at the costs.” He ended up writing a 70-page book for staff use.
“The problem in the U.S. is the way we grow food and our diets,” Prentice says. Americans have taken minerals out of food and tried to replace them in diets with supplements that are hard to absorb, he says. “The feeding process is like a light bulb and minerals are the socket, providing the energy we need to heal.”
He lined up various foods by category according to how they affect the body. The “usual” went by the wayside as the project took shape. Traditional delivery carts for patient food were replaced with European-style “cloches,” saving $35,000.
Charged with the taking patient foodservice beyond traditional boundaries, Executive Chef Frank Turner found patient feedback helpful as he introduced menus focusing on lean meats and fish and whole grains.
“The American diet is pretty bad,” he says, “although it’s very socially accepted. I’m here to show them other choices.”
At first, he recalls, “we had a lot of people so entrenched in their diets that there was some pushback. We added healthy comfort foods, which helps. We were lucky we were able to get feedback while patients were still here.”
There was pushback from dietitians on staff as well, with many asking for menus with nutritional indicators such as the “healthy heart” symbol. “We told the dietitians that I’d do a consult with patients or send a staff chef, and if they weren’t happy, we’d make something special for them.”
He sees the medical community today “paying more attention to the foodservice component than ever before,” in part because of consumers who are concerned about health and wellness. “Those are very hot topics and hospitals are looking at the nutrition they deliver. We seem to be setting an example for others to follow.”
If hospitals can treat food “with the respect it deserves,” he adds, “we can deliver health at the same time. We’re trying to push the envelope.
“We’re also trying to make this a place of education for our patients, apprentices and the community. We do classes here on specific diseases to help people with diet challenges and enrich their recipe card files. In the old days, you cooked with the season’s bounty. It tastes better and it’s better for you because the minerals are still there. Our intention is to turn this into a teaching center and offer nutritional education to all chefs.”
In the employee and visitor cafeteria, called Henry’s Cafe, there are seven stations, each designed by one of Prentice’s restaurants. A deli station offers no-salt, Michigan-raised turkey and sandwiches on whole-grain breads infused with nutrient-rich ingredients.
Sushi and noodle and rice bowls are served at the Asian station while another does Mediterranean, African and Middle Eastern cuisine. Prentice’s chophouse chef does the American station. “It was hard to get him to buy into what we were doing, but now he is a world-class healthy, healing team chef with entrées that cost $1.25 to $1.40. Our Italian station serves pasta, pizza—our No. 1 one seller even with a ‘healthy’ dough—and risottos.
“The crowning factor is that the numbers make sense. Our retail sales are through the sky in Henry’s Café and this helps lower the cost per patient day. The coolest thing is that we didn’t look at the dollars until the job was complete. The first two months were very challenging. But our scores for the first month were 86.3 for food and 93 for service.”
Once all beds are available, the hospital’s cost per patient day could come in at around $27 conservatively, Prentice projects. “If all seven hospitals in the system adopt this, they’ll blow away the competition, because if you’re paying $2,000 a day in the intensive care unit, you don’t want canned fruit and Jell-O.”