Neal Lavender: Successful Transplant

Transplanted South Carolinian Neal Lavender has successfully and impressively set down roots within a four-block area of downtown Dallas, Texas. There, the dynamic 37-year-old serves as director of food, nutrition and conference services at 866-bed Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas (PHD), one of the largest healthcare facilities in the Southwest. Lavender manages more than $11 million in managed volume and oversees 133 employees, including two chef managers, two dietitian managers, eight supervisors and a 15-member clinical team. Under his direction, 1.3 million meals are served annually, about 550,000 of them patient meals.

Building on greatness: Arriving at PHD five years ago, Lavender brought with him a wide array of knowledge and experience, most of it gleaned during his work over an eight-year period for five of the industry’s leading contractors. “Doris Wilson, who was here previously, did a great job, so I was able to build on that to bring the facility up another couple of levels,” he says. “Of most importance, there was great support and leadership above me, plus a great [management] team that cares about the organization.”

Lavender has become a welcome addition to the leadership ranks, PHD president Mark Merrill points out. “Neal’s professional and service-oriented approach to foodservice management and guest services has contributed to improved performance within foodservice and to overall patient, guest and employee satisfaction.”

In a rather unique structure, Lavender reports to the vice president and chief nursing officer, Martha Steinbauer, who bridges the gap between the nursing staff [who deliver patient trays] and his team, while providing support above.

Priming café sales: The first piece in the quest for improvement that, in fiscal 2006, accounted for an 11% increase in cafeteria revenue (an increase of $153,634 above targeted budget revenue), was getting the right leadership over the retail business. “I brought in two chefs who continue to enhance the skill level [of the members of the production kitchen staff]. Plus, they’re always thinking out of the box,” Lavender says.

With chef input, Lavender began featuring Tyson’s Crusteano’s Sandwich Crafters branded concept, which sells an average of 165 sandwiches per day, versus 40 previously. “We have implemented new menu items with higher price points, but the value is still there and you can get a full meal for under $4,” he points out. “The service orientation and culinary flair of our staff that is showcased at eight venues in the food court, in addition to the various featured brands, have combined to generate customer satisfaction scores that are consistently above 90%.”

Creating ‘healthful’ buzz: Now, gourmet display cookery is a daily cafeteria focal point, and special events are much more frequent than in years past. “With involvement of the hospital’s Diversity Council and our team, we now do about 15 events a year, including Martin Luther King Day, Cinco de Mayo and Chanukah,” Lavender notes.

“We also really kick-started National Nutrition Month awareness,” he adds. “I wanted our clinical RD team to assist us in featuring healthy selections and to educate our customers on this campus regarding healthy nutrition. Now, March is the highest sales month of the year overall, but particularly of healthful fare. The dietitians are involved in marketing by creating flyers, sending e-mails, bringing in food manufacturers with booths, and showcasing ‘good’ and ‘bad’ nutrition. They’re out there throughout the whole month. Some recipes from that month have become popular regular menu items including couscous salad, seafood orzo, and Tuscan chicken, just to name a few.”

To achieve a substantial increase in vending commissions—23% last year, providing $27,000 in additional revenue—Lavender strengthened the vending commission negotiations, another tactic he gleaned from the contractors. “I told our System Nutrition Council here at Texas Health Resources [THR is an affiliation of 13 facilities that forms one of the largest health systems in the country]: ‘You can ask [vendors] for more,’ so they did. Our commission was about 20% at the time; now it’s about 30%. Overall, we currently oversee about 65 vending machines on the four city blocks of campus. Also, I’m constantly looking at changing the face of the machines to create an inviting and consistent look. Plus, we’ve added credit card swipes to make purchasing easier. For the new emergency room area, we now have six machines, instead of four as in the past; we definitely have to provide those meal options around the clock. We’ve also done a bit of ‘healthy’ vending. Contrary to popular belief, healthful products do sell, but you have to constantly look at the specific products and the mix of what you’re offering.”

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