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.
One 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.
“This is a very unusual hospital in that they want a lot of catering, and when we do it, we do it big,” Tanner adds. “There are many times where Jeff is doing an event for 300 people, and it really does present its own set of issues.” One such challenge is production, since both catering and foodservice share kitchen and storage space. Staffing is another concern, Tanner says, because “sometimes if catering is doing a major event, they will have to pull in-house staff members to help out.”
Marketing: With such an emphasis on external business at Gerald Champion, Tanner says it is important to have adequate promotions. “Traditional healthcare catering—doing it on property— is a much different animal than doing external catering,” she says. “With external catering, we compete with two smaller catering companies in Alamogordo. It is a business unto itself.”
Radio plays a major part in the marketing plan. “Because we are largely retail in this hospital, we are known in Alamo-gordo as the place to eat, which is very unusual for a hospital our size,” Tanner says. “We wanted to take that to the next level and the only way to do that was to get mass coverage, which is typically through radio.” And while Tanner says most people aren’t comfortable with the medium, her marketing knowledge—a skill she says she acquired while working on large-budget catered events in Florida, including a gubernatorial dinner for Jeb Bush—has provided her with confidence to be the voice for the hospital’s ads. Tanner runs monthly promotions and gains other exposure by catering events at car dealerships.
Customer satisfaction: “Food is easy,” Tanner says. “One of the most challenging things about my job is getting people to realize that, now more than ever, patients have options to go to a different facility. And it’s not because they are going to get better care, but because of the service levels.” As director of guest services, Tanner not only manages foodservice, but also environment, linen and patient transport services. With the hospital’s expansion plan, Tanner will be able to implement additional programs, which she says will help increase customer satisfaction. One, going into effect next February, is a valet service for hospital patients and guests. “Most of our patients are 50 years or older,” she says, “and for those who have compromised physical abilities, getting them out of the parking lot and into the building has been a challenge.” The service will be free, and Tanner says upstart costs will be less than $12,000 and will require one or two FTEs to run. The cost to maintain the system will be made up for in satisfaction surveys, she adds.
Young-Su Cabos, the foodservice department’s executive chef, says Tanner takes customer service very seriously. “She knows that without the customer, you don’t have a job,” he says. “She tries to make sure everyone is happy, from the outside customers to the in-house customers. I wouldn’t work with any other boss than her.” Cabos adds that in his 25 years in the industry he has encountered many different bosses, many of whom “bark orders and don’t give you the tools to do your job. Stephanie is very fair and makes sure everyone has the right tools and training to do their jobs.”
For her part, Tanner says her biggest career lesson is remembering where she came from. “Re-membering where you were versus where you are, and who helped you get there, keeps you humble and appreciative,” she says. For Tanner, this isn’t just a saying; it’s a practice. “I won my first employee of the month award from Wendy’s in 1987 when I was 17,” she says. “I have this award on my office wall. When my staff needs assurance about how important their job is, I bring them to my office and show them the Wendy’s plaque on the wall and then they get it. Being recognized in your own field is significant, most particularly when the service we provide every day pales in comparison to the clinical aspects.”
Tanner came to healthcare foodservice after working in hotels and at a B&I account for Marriott. “I have a background in customer service, while most people in healthcare foodservice have a clinical background,” she says, adding that it took her two years to adapt to working in hospital foodservice. “When your café has visitors that may have had a death in the family, or they aren’t feeling great that day, that customer is a little different for me,” she says. “They aren’t there on vacation.”