Rodolfo Rodriguez: Buffet Impresario

Rodolfo Rodriguez is a major-league star, although you won't see his name on the sports pages of your local newspaper. An avid New York Yankees fan since his childhood in the Dominican Republic, he covers first base occasionally with a team of friends, when he has the time. But his real wins are scored not on the playing field but within dining operations at two healthcare facilities in New Jersey: Lincoln Park Health Center, a 547-bed nursing care center for patients of all ages; and the adjoining 158-bed Lincoln Park Renaissance, a sub-acute care and retirement facility.

Four years ago, Rodriguez hit one out of the park (or rather within Lincoln Park) by instituting a buffet service that has the fans (patients, residents, employees and administrators alike) on their feet and cheering. It has turned conventional service on its ear by being the daily dining room service for all dayparts in this upscale facility.

Today, patient satisfaction with foodservice has jumped from merely "acceptable" to "excellent," as monitored by the facility's own social services department. Overall food cost has decreased 5%, a direct result of decreased plate waste. And, the socialization factor among patients of all ages (the average age in the larger facility is about 45) couldn't help but improve now that the majority take their meals in the dining room rather than alone in their rooms.

Special diet inclusion: "I'm told we're the first facility of our type in New Jersey to do buffets for patients and accommodate all special diets (except tube feeding)," Rodriguez asserts. "When I became director, we had a menu planning meeting every month with patients and employees' meals are free for all 800 staff members every day. There was much disagreement over what they liked or disliked since they're from all over the world."

"As a solution, I eventually came up with the idea of a buffet. We run it like a five-star buffet complete with ice carvings that our chef does for special occasions. And, now we have no empty beds (there used to be 60 or 70 most of the time) but word got out about the quality of our buffet service."

From the outset, Rodriguez put an emphasis on scratch cooking. There are now 30 scratch-made soups each month, and one of the most popular areas is the sautee station where a chef prepares shrimp and vegetables (at last once a month) or other entrees to-order while keeping an eye on the adjacent grill, where he may have pork chops being readied for service.

There are nine chefs in all, as well as five registered dietitians among the 110 foodservice employees. During meal times, they're given an able assist by members of the recreation department and nurses' aides. Rodriguez prefers to have his own staff on the serving line while others help patients at their tables

Building buffet service: There are three separate buffets: one for patients in each facility and one located in the larger facility for all staff. Each of the dining rooms can easily seat 200 people and boasts a wood-burning stove that is in use during lunch and supper whenever there's a chill in the air. More than 50% of the items on the staff buffet are identical to those for patients.

"For each buffet, we built three 15-foot long tables with sneeze guards and between each there's a big round table with an umbrella that we use for eye-catching displays of fresh fruits and vegetables," Rodriguez explains.

—For breakfast, staff members set out an array of cold cereals, (the buffet display includes 96 in the case) two hot cereals (farina and oatmeal), plus eggs, toast, French toast, pancakes and Danish pastries.

—The lunchtime buffet always offers four different meats such as pork chops, fish Florentine, chicken Marsala and prime ribs of beef (carved to order), plus three starches, two vegetables, fresh fruits (including giant strawberries even mid-winter), a salad station, sandwich station, hot dog station, a chef demo station and a juice station.

—The supper buffet boasts a different soup each day, a variety of cold sandwiches plus a hot alternative, usually chicken.

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