Foodservice Operation of the Month

A ‘blank-slate approach’ is helping Geisinger Health prepare for the future

A streamlined inventory, new value meals and more are the result of a fresh mindset among the health system’s dining team.
pork tacos
Photo courtesy of Geisinger Health

Operators are finally seeing a bit of light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. And after more than a year of taking things day by day and rolling with seemingly endless changes, many are craving a return to “normal.”

But at Geisinger Health in Danville, Pa., Senior Director of Foodservice Steve Cerullo doesn’t want his team to be thinking about 2019. Instead, they’re planning menus for 2022.

“We’ve erased our mindset of ‘normal’ being everything we did before COVID,” Cerullo says. “I’ve made clear to our managers that the message here is not, when can we get back to blah blah blah. It’s, what can we do next, what can we add to the menu, what can we change up?”

Like many operations, regional healthcare provider Geisinger is still reckoning with COVID-19 challenges, battling supply constraints and struggling to fill some open positions. Yet leadership is taking a forward-looking stance, spurring the team not only to create menus months ahead but also reimagine food stations, streamline cross-campus offerings, launch new initiatives like an ordering app and, overall, look to the future rather than lament the past.

Cerullo has spearheaded what he calls “a blank-slate approach,” charging the team to put COVID aside for a moment and examine how they would reimagine operations if they were building Geisinger’s foodservice from the ground up.

That thought exercise inspired many changes, all of which began with one essential task: paring down Geisinger’s bloated list of SKUs.

“Our database had built up over time because of things like catering and social events, and as a result, I swear at one point we had 60 different bread options in our system,” says Executive Chef Matthew Cervay. “I mean, we want people to have options of a whole wheat bun, white sliced bread, Italian, etc., but we don’t need 60. SKU rationalization had to happen.”

Rethinking what’s ahead

By systematically combing through ingredients, the Geisinger team reduced its SKUs from 3,000 to about 2,000. But they had gotten a taste of streamlining and were ready for more.

“Across Pennsylvania, we have all of these different locations, and each one had a very different menu,” Cerullo says. “We had always said, wouldn’t that be great if we could do the same menu everywhere? But these ideas like, Meatloaf is more popular in Danville than in Wilkes-Barre, had taken hold and stuck around.”

No longer. Instead, Cerullo and Cervay led a project to standardize the menus across campuses and create a more curated “recipe toolbox” for site managers to select from.

“Before, site managers could really pick pretty much anything from our recipes, but the fact is, sourcing something for only one or two sites isn’t the best way to do things,” Cervay says. “We needed a more mandated approach for the baseline menus, and then if a larger site wants to add something on, they can choose from what’s now a smaller pool of recipes. In a system as big as ours, that makes things a lot simpler.”

This switch helped stabilize purchases and inventory, allowing the team to coordinate ingredients across patient and retail recipes. They also shortened the menu cycle from three weeks to two.

And for Cerullo, revisiting menus and ingredients also meant refocusing on key priorities for Geisinger as a whole. 

“There’s hyperfocus on providing quality meals at affordable prices,” he says. “At Geisinger, we want to make the healthy choice the easy choice. There’s a stigma that healthy means expensive for the customer and time-consuming for the operation. We needed to get back to offering healthy choices at a great value.”

So Cervay and his team set to work making value meals for just $5: ancho-roasted chicken with brown rice and fajita vegetables; shrimp in a soy-ginger-garlic marinade served with a vegetable medley and pineapple rice pilaf; and blackened tilapia with an herb polenta and fresh green beans.

tilapia value meal

Photo courtesy of Geisinger Health

“With the loss of retail traffic we’ve had, it is changing our business,” Cervay says. “People are packing lunch or working from home. So we need to tempt people to come in.”

Cervay’s raw food costs on these value meals are as high as 50%; however, he says it’s an investment well worth it.

“It’s important for us from a philosophical position to make good on promoting health,” he explains. “It’s one of our ways of getting back to our core values. At the end of the day, what do we really need to focus on? Feeding our patients and our staff in the way they need.”

Striking a balance

For other operators looking to change focus to what will hopefully be a post-COVID world, Cervay recommends a careful balance so as not to overwhelm team members.

“On the leadership level, it’s definitely comforting to have a plan,” Cervay says. “But you have to keep in mind that your front line is focusing on today’s service, today’s supply issues, today’s staffing. We have the luxury of looking ahead, while they’re necessarily stuck in the moment.”

Still, Cerullo says, after more than a year of pandemic-focused thinking, many staffers would likely welcome talking at least a bit about post-COVID operations.

“The difference is seeing the future as a wide-open possibility to make changes, rather than just getting back to where we were before,” Cerullo adds. “Now our conversations are about, what else can we optimize? Could we maybe start delivering food outside to best serve our staff? It feels great to have those conversations and get back to those values.”

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