Walter Thurnhofer: Equipment Master

The kitchen at 450-bed University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle is, for the most part, a 1959 classic. But, upon closer inspection, one finds some fairly sophisticated equipment—with more on the way—that represent the most cutting-edge elements the industry has to offer.

Much of this comes courtesy of Walter Thurnhofer, RD, LD, DHCFA, who came on board as director of food and nutrition services barely two years ago. Not unlike Superman, this mild-mannered operator—a veteran of 27 years in healthcare foodservice—turns into a persuasive and indomitable leader when the need arises.

Administrators at the university recruited him to run the department based on his 18 years experience at Portland (OR) Adventist Medical Center, as well as time spent at University of California San Francisco Medical Center, where he led the department of food and nutrition services in its transition from contract to self-op.

Since taking the job, Thurnhofer has focused on foodservice equipment improvements in a number of areas, including steamer capacity, temperature monitoring, tray heating and, most recently, blast-chilling. “I found a department [at Washington] that was running quite well, serving 5,000 to 6,000 meals a day including more than 4,000 in the cafeteria,” Thurnhofer says. “There was a good staff, dietitians and supervisors, so it was more a matter of taking what we have and making it better and better.”

Streamlined steam: First on the agenda was steam equipment. With a budget of $350,000, Thurnhofer replaced three 40-gallon steam jacketed kettles with four new ones and added two 12-gallon and three 6-gallon small steam jacketed kettles—nearly doubling the facility’s convection steamer capacity. “The cooks were handicapped in producing huge quantities of food on old equipment,” he recalls. “During the eight-week long renovation last summer, they had to cook exclusively in the oven, on griddles and in fryers, and we had to rework purchasing and rewrite menus for that period of time.”

He also implemented a fully automated temperature monitoring system following the NAFEM Data Protocol (see Oct. 15, 2004, FSD, “The Networked Kitchen,” p. 20). Monitors are installed on every refrigerator—including all floor stock refrigerators—freezer and hot box as well as the dish machine. All told, there are now approximately 125 sensors in place at a cost of more than $100,000.
At this point, Thurnhofer can literally sit at his computer—in his office or anywhere in the world—and pull up current temperature, or temperature history, for each unit for the past year.

Hone on the range: “We’ve also set up some parameters such as a 33°F to 41°F range for refrigeration,” he explains. “If a unit is out of range for more than one hour, it sends an alarm to plant operations and if they can’t fix it, they notify us. Now, when Joint Commission walks in for our records, there won’t be any scrambling. They can just pop into our computer and find day-long documentation recorded at 15-minute intervals of what action was taken. It also documents non-functioning equipment and indicates the need for repair or replacement.”

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