Technology has eased labor burdens in and out of the kitchen, and innovations continue to make foodservice operation easier and more efficient for those facilities that can afford upgrades. Staff at a Texas hospital know this well.
Cafeteria sales at Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas have been on the rise since the installation of new cash registers and some much needed equipment such as a bigger grill, refrigerators, fryers and steamers. The creative thinking, human expertise and team effort powering the machinery have been key to making it all work.
Customers, meanwhile, have given their stamp of approval, demonstrated most clearly in increased patronage.
Foodservice director Neal Lavender reports that sales at the hospital’s two main sites rose significantly last year: 30% at Jackson Patio Cafe (year-end revenue: $130,000); and 10% at Cafe Presby (ending the year at approximately $1.6 million).
Check averages for the two facilities are also up by 9%, from $2.75 to $2.99, Lavender reports, while prices across the board have not gone up. He notes that some higher ticket items added to the menu put the price range of meals in the neighborhood of $2 to $3 on the low end and $6 on the high end.
Creating a buzz: “It is like someone turned on a switch and people stopped bringing their lunch to work because we improved food quality and variety overnight,” says Bill Cunningham, chef and manager of production and purchasing. Eighty-five percent of the cafeteria’s customers are hospital employees, and the remaining 15% are outside visitors and patient visitors.
Lavender and his team—particularly cafe managers Keith Ristau and Nicole Bullock—began implementing a series of changes about two years ago when he was hired to head the foodservice staff at Presbyterian. The goal was to increase volume and create a buzz to draw more patronage from the hospital’s customer base. “We started honing in on what some of the problems were,” he says.
The first major project was the replacement of the old cash registers with new ones with far greater capabilities, and that change alone, according to Lavender, is as big a contributor to the sales increases the cafes accomplished as anything else.
“The cashiers understand the menu better than they ever had,” he says, explaining that the new registers have more keys than the previous version and those keys are changed out for each daypart. “Before we were very limited. We could not add new keys, do meal bundling or add new menu items without deleting something else.”
One of the greatest advantages of the new technology is the foodservice team’s newfound ability to draw a much clearer picture of what is being sold, what is popular and what is not. “We can now see snapshots of revenue and sales per hour, and we tend to know our customer better than we ever have,” he says. “It’s refreshing to be able to pull a report that is much like what a restaurant would have.”
Wait-less: It’s also been a refreshing change for customers, who are moving with increased expediency through the cashier lines. Also helping to move customers through quickly has been the introduction of other conveniences at the register including electronic and credit card payment options.
“Bottom line, the month after we installed [the registers], we saw a 25% increase in sales,” he emphasizes. “It was unbelievable. By six months, the registers had paid for themselves.”
The more efficient cash registers, along with investments in kitchen equipment, have paved the way for menu changes that are front-of-the-house crowd pleasers. Now able to easily identify top performers as well as slow movers, the hospital adjusts menus to fit demand. The taco salad bar, for instance, is a great revenue generator, so Lavender says he and his team run it more often now, instead of using it as an occasional monotony breaker in the menu cycle.
Capital investments—such as a 60-inch grill that replaced a much smaller one—have made it so cooks can handle more volume. With the grill, they now run an omelet bar every day—a real boon for breakfast sales.
“If you don’t have variety, things become very mundane,” Landon asserts. So his team has added variety in a number of ways, including additional choices at the salad bar, a new sandwich concept to the to-go program, and more pre-packaged snacks and impulse items sold near the register. Branding added another dimension to the menus including branded pizza and coffee concepts, for example.
Team spirits: Creative thinking on the part of those on the foodservice team has generated much of the excitement at Cafe Presby and Jackson Patio Cafe. “Ristau [manager of Cafe Presby] and Bullock [Jackson Patio Cafe] are the backbone of our retail areas,” asserts Lavender. “They deal with the daily headaches, staffing issues, customers and innovations. I have been impressed with their ability to make it happen.”
Together the team has masterminded many successful concepts and themes to entice customers through the cafe doors. Chef Cunningham’s Cajun Fried Turkey day, for example, broke sales records last Thanksgiving, and Lavender, a transplanted East Coaster, introduced a succesful sushi program to the menu. Sales drivers on the Cafe Presby menu also include a daily health-conscious plate and various special events such as Asian Cuisine Day and a holiday pie sale.
Meanwhile, upscale salad bar selections such as smoked ham and marinated chicken, as well as special events like outdoor picnics (the proceeds of which in part go to local charities), have boosted numbers at Jackson Patio.
Lavender says he and his team have been listening to customer feedback and taking heed. “We didn't trial and error everything; we asked them for feedback, then changed things for the better.”