Rodolfo Rodriguez: Buffet Impresario

Less room service: Previously, there was only one dining room, with five staff members taking orders, serving about 80 people. Since patients thought they had to wait too long (anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour) most preferred to order a tray and eat in their room. "Today, we deliver about 100 trays to the small building and only about 150 trays to the larger one, so that's about 250 trays out of the total of 705 patients," Rodriguez explains.

With fewer trays being ordered, plate waste has substantially decreased, primarily because people often ordered more food than they could eat, then sent back items untouched. "We are at least 5% down in food cost since starting the buffet," he points out. "It was running $98,000 per month for (the health center), $125,000 for both buildings."

Color-coded: The fact that patients on special diets can also be accommodated by buffet service is probably the most intriguing aspect of the concept. To make it work, Rodriguez has trained at least 30 members of his staff and stationed them on the line. "We make sure patients understand their special diet," he explains. "They wear color-coded bracelets; 13 different colors represent 13 different diets. Plus employees have lists with the patients' names and diets, just in case there's any question."

The most common diet is the regular diet indicated by a white bracelet. Next most common is chopped (red bracelet), with the server chopping the food to order. For fine chopped (an orange bracelet), food is put into a blender right on the line for a brief count. For puree diets (pink bracelet), food is pureed in a blender for a longer count.

"For example, we'll puree a pork chop with a bit of gravy and (separately) green beans with a bit of butter," Rodriguez explains. "We'll strain the soup for them, and they can have regular white bread without the crust."

Custom fit: For other diets, different versions of the same foods are set out having been prepared in advance (i.e., less sweet, low salt). Since many patients require liquids that are of "“nectar consistency" or "honey consistency," specially prepared beverages such as water, milk, juice and coffee are purchased; these patients can usually handle regular solid foods. Presently, only one patient requires a renal diet and he receives a tray in his room.

Staff training is key to the program's success. Rodriguez admits the department he took over almost a decade ago was not the finely tuned team of today. "In the beginning, we had a lot of problems and I had to terminate many people," Rodriguez recalls. "They were working without direction. I had many meetings with them and discussed what we needed to do. created a chef supervisor position and an assistant chef supervisor. Since they work alternate weekends, there's always one on the job. I also created the position of chief dietitian and she and I write the menus. Now they know I make all promotions (including management positions) from inside the department since I feel they created this style of service with me."

Intent on having "the best foodservice department in New Jersey" and reflecting the goal of his administrator, Mimi Feliciano, Rodriguez requires all of his employees to take the sanitation class every year and be certified (or re-certified) by the town. Many of his employees also pursue the English as a Second Language classes offered twice a week after work, encouraged by the example their bi-lingual boss sets. For his part, Rodriguez pursues every opportunity to further his own foodservice management credentials by taking courses offered at nearby Rutgers University. He's also on deck and warming up for the next potential home run.

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