Ever since he was a child hanging around his grandmother’s kitchen, Chris Schmidt has immersed himself in the culture of food. From his ethnicity—Sicilian and Mexican—to his work experience—the U.S. Army, restaurants and country clubs and, now, a hospital—that diverse background has proved to be a tremendous asset, particularly in his current position as executive chef/foreman cook supervisor at Fort Bliss’s William Beaumont Army Medical Center in Texas. Not only is the area predominately Hispanic but, as Schmidt points out, the Army by nature is diverse. Using the knowledge learned from working in such varied foodservice operations, Schmidt has overhauled the foodservice department in just three years to make it a more inviting atmosphere for patients, staff and the community.
Revamping the program: “When I came to William Beaumont the foodservice was very institutional,” Schmidt says. “The menu was very Army standard. I wanted to make changes to make it more appealing to the customers.”
One of the first changes Schmidt made was to the existing two-week cycle menu. He increased the number of options, focusing on those items that would appeal to the local population. Since Fort Bliss is adjacent to El Paso, a city with a high percentage of Hispanic residents, every other Friday the hospital offers a Mexican-themed menu. “That’s just something you have to have,” Schmidt says about the Friday tradition. “Mexican food is what I grew up on. Whenever I go out of state, I always say, ‘Come on, that’s not Mexican food.’ We offer authentic food. You think that your grandma’s enchiladas were the best you had ever had, and we try to do that here so that people get that comfort feeling.”
Another change to the menu was the addition of a daily rotating station with self-serve concepts such as a potato bar, wing bar and pasta bar. Schmidt also increased the number of specialty sandwiches, wraps and salads. Previously at the grill station, the only options were hamburgers or grilled sandwiches. Now, the menu has been expanded to include specialty items such as French dips, Philly cheesesteaks, tuna melts and ruebens.
Schmidt also changed the names of some menu items to make them more appealing and less institutional sounding. “I said, ‘don’t put asparagus. Put what it is: asparagus with roasted tomatoes,’” he says. “People eat with their eyes and how they hear things. It could be the best thing ever, but if you just call it chicken, they are going to be like, oh, it’s just chicken. If you make it sound mouthwatering, that’s what makes people want it.”
In addition to menu changes, Schmidt has been upgrading software and equipment to prepare for a shift to room service, which he anticipates will occurr in the next couple of years. He has purchased a new pastry and dessert display cabinet to enhance the visual appeal of those items. Schmidt also added a charbroiler to help prepare more nutritional versions of favorites like steaks and chicken dishes. “We are a hospital, so we do offer a lot of the more nutritional items,” he says. “On the grill, we don’t slop butter on everything. We ask them what they would like.” He also creates a special meal for new mothers by chabroiling steaks. “You stay in a hospital and you aren’t in the best mood and you want something to comfort you,” he says. “And one thing that most people feel comfortable with is good food.”
With all the changes Schmidt has made, he has tried to create a restaurant ambiance to break away from an institutional feel. Schmidt’s customers include not only the hospital’s staff and patients, but also community members, people from the nearby VA hospital, veterans, and military personnel and their families. “A lot of people come from El Paso to eat,” Schmidt says. “This one lady told me, ‘I hate coming here,’ and I asked why? And she said, ‘My mother sends me from the east side of town so she can get a rueben every day.’ That’s really cool. She is coming over here just for one item.”
Schmidt attributes his success in implementing so many changes to his menu in a short time to his staff of 55 foodservice employees. “They love to cook as much as I do,” he says. “I always tell them this Native American saying to give them a little motivation. The saying goes that Native Americans used to prepare their meals and whatever mood they were in, the person who consumed it would feel the same feelings. It’s just a saying, but I tell them that whenever you guys cook your food, if you put a little bit of love into it, of course, your customers are going to enjoy it.”
Lori Sydes, director of nutrition care division at the Dewitt Health Care Network in Fort Belvoir, Va., was Schmidt’s former supervisor at William Beaumont. It was Sydes, Schmidt says, who allowed him the freedom to make the changes at the hospital. “Chris is younger than a lot of the staff was, and that can be an uphill battle,” Sydes says. “But he took the time to get to know them and showed them what he could do to prove his credentials.”
For his part, Schmidt says he simply gave his staff the same opportunity to be creative that Sydes gave to him. “The staff had gotten in a pattern,” he says. “When I got to William Beaumont, I was given the opportunity to be creative. They told me that nobody had ever let them experiment. They just needed that opportunity.”
Expanding foodservices’ reach: It is predicted that Fort Bliss and the surrounding area will expand exponentially in the coming years, and Schmidt is already planning for the growth, which he expects could double the volume of his meals. Currently, he serves 1,500 meals each day at the 115-bed hospital.
One way in which Schmidt is preparing to accommodate the increase in customer flow is by expanding the grab-and-go section. “We are going to offer many things that are offered in the main dining room, but it will just be easier access and quicker, to contrast with some of the congestion that we are having in our dining room right now,” he says. The offerings include wraps, sandwiches, salads and paninis. Schmidt also hopes to add several smaller grab-and-go areas on different wings in the hospital to further ease congestion.
Recently, after the purchase of a blast chiller, Schmidt started a cart service for those staff members on the night shift. Items from that day’s menu are frozen and placed in the cart for purchase.
Creating an atmosphere: Since coming to William Beaumont in 2005, Schmidt has done much to create an inviting atmosphere for his patrons. Schmidt and his staff put on elaborate special events including St. Patrick’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Hispanic Heritage and Black History Month. For Schmidt, the events go beyond a themed menu to include much more. He provides the history behind each dish served, as well as creating an ambiance fitting for the event, with clothing, decorations and music from the geographical or cultural area of the event.
For Thanksgiving and Christmas, Schmidt’s staff assemble fruit baskets and holiday cookies, which are passed out to all patients. He also creates ice carvings. “It’s about the little things,” he says about making these days special for the hospital. “We are making our hospital feel more like a home away from home,” which, he says, is especially important for the families of deployed soldiers.
Schmidt has also taken great strides to become the face of the foodservice department. One way in which he does this is by spending the lunch period in the dining room talking with his customers. “The most rewarding part of my job is the people who come up to you and feel like they really get to know you,” he says. “I have this one guy who comes in here and and he tells me all about his time cooking in the Navy. He told me this is the best food he’s ever had. If you know you’ve got that from someone like him, you know you’re doing something right. It’s just their appreciation of coming in here.” Schmidt has made it a personal goal to become known by name to his customers in order to gain their trust.
“Chris is very good at listening to what people have to say, especially those that have been at the hospital for a very long time,” Sydes says. “He is respectful of what others have to say.” She adds that Schmidt’s communication skills have been his greatest asset in accomplishing change. “He made sure that the staff knew there were positive results with the changes, which in turn made it easier to make the next change.”
For Schmidt, it’s about a love for cooking. “Every place that I’ve gone to I’ve always wanted to do more and more,” he says. “Foodservice is one of those things that either you love it or you hate it. I guess I’m one of those odd balls who love it. It’s more than just a passion. I love to create and I love a good challenge. And believe me, there are a lot of challenges.”