Stephanie Tanner: External Expertise

When you are the director of guest services at a small, self-op hospital in rural New Mexico, you have to think outside the hospital walls to increase sales and community presence. That’s exactly what Stephanie Tanner has done in less than five years at 99-bed Gerald Champion Regional Medical Center in Alamogordo. Between a foodservice contract with nearby New Mexico State University at Alamogordo and off-premise business from the hospital’s catering program, 60% of the department’s revenue now comes from external sources.

NMSU-A: Last June, Tanner was asked by administrators at NMSU-A to submit a bid to manage the foodservice program for the university’s nearly 6,000 students. “This is totally unheard of for a self-op hospital,” she explains. “The comment we got from the people [soliciting] bids was, ‘We hear that you have great foodservices, and you get a lot of support from the community.’” Six months ago, Gerald Champion began a contract with the university, which generates between $10,000 and $15,000 a month in revenue.

Because the university doesn’t have a space large enough for a full kitchen, all food production is prepared at the hospital and then transported to the college daily. The cafeteria at NMSU-A resembles a convenience store, with display cases and a large island, from which hot entrees—something students hadn’t been offered before—are sold. Most of the items sold are packaged as take-away options based on the hospital’s menu at The Bistro, a retail operation that serves sandwiches and specialty salads. Wednesdays are grill days at both the hospital and university, when hamburgers, hot dogs and ribs are available. In addition, there is an indoor seating area that accommodates up to 50, as well as an outside patio next to the grill, which seats 75.

Tanner’s team faced some challenges as the contract commenced. For example, no numbers for forecasting were compiled when a private individual ran the university’s foodservice operation. “We are trying to get adapted to this new type of operation, having no numbers to go off of midstream,” Tanner explains. As a result, student schedules and volumes are something she says they are still adjusting to, along with the fact that activity on a university goes nearly dark at certain times. “In December, they closed down for almost four weeks,” she says, “and it didn’t warrant keeping operations open just for the faculty that were there.” Instead, the department offered a delivery-style ordering system for staff who remained on campus.

NMSU-AOne unexpected benefit Tanner and her staff have had with the contract has been dealing with a responsive customer base. “The students are very open and will tell you what they want to see,” she explains. “They are more complimentary than most hospital patients.”

External catering: Tanner says the primary reason her department won the university contract was due to the reputation it has earned through its catering program. Known as Mountain View Catering, the impetus for outside catering came from a board member who wanted the hospital to be known not only for its healthcare, but also for its foodservice operation, Tanner says. As a result, the department was given significant funds to build an external catering operation. The hospital purchased a van and equipment and set up a large marketing budget for print, radio and display ads. “I would say that over the last eight years, we’ve built our external catering to where it is a profit center,” Tanner says. “It decreases the cost of patient care, because the foodservice revenue goes back to the bottom line.”

The hospital’s catering clients include Holloman Air Force Base, White Sands National Monument and private functions. Because Alamogordo is a popular location for movie sets, the hospital has also provided catering for several of these operations. Yearly catering sales for the hospital are between $150,000 and $250,000. And because of the success, Tanner says Mountain View Catering has its own dedicated staff, and a chef/manager position was created to manage it.

“It’s a subset of food and nutrition services,” she says. “They live and breathe with us, but they are their own entity.” The chef/manager has a separate budget for catering, but shares kitchen space with the rest of the hospital’s foodservice until a new kitchen is completed during the hospital’s current 21-month expansion project, which will be completed in May 2010. Tanner says the expansion project will include construction of a conference center, which will have rooms available to rent for catered events. “The rooms can be a source of revenue in addition to the catering revenue,” she says.

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