At Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC), the foodservice philosophy appears at first to be a contradiction in terms. The team is devoted to “stickability”—creating only initiatives that stick around for years—yet is also on top of the most current trends in food.
“On the menu side, we change things for the sake of changing things, because there’s no reason to get bored with food,” says Bill Marks, HCMC’s director of food, nutrition and environmental services. “But if we’re going to create and invest in a program,” he explains, “we don’t do it unless we believe it has stickability—that it will be around five, 10 or more years down the road.”
Read on to see how they ensure “stickability” sticks.Nominate an FSO of the Month
From the ground up
That consistent foundation gives the foodservice team freedom to experiment with flavor. And that’s important at HCMC, where quality restaurants and a diverse community, both inside and outside of the hospital, inspire trendy menu items.
Executive Chef Antonio Sanchez, who hails from Mexico, helms a kitchen team that includes people from Morocco, Tibet and close to home in Minneapolis, which has a significant Hmong population.
The staffers’ diverse backgrounds are reflected in the menu items: Korean barbecue bowls; African peanut soup; Thai coconut curry; ropa vieja that inspires fan mail from diners; and chicken tikka masala so good the local TV station asked Sanchez to come on and cook the dish live.
“I’m also not above ‘borrowing’ menus when I go out to eat,” Marks says. “It makes my kids groan—but those are the trends we want to be on top of. We see our competitors and peers as restaurants, not healthcare institutions.”Nominate an FSO of the Month
A study in flavor
Much of that culinary experimentation works. But sometimes it doesn’t. The team recently shelved plans for a poke bowl after tests with frozen tuna didn’t meet expectations.
“The frozen tuna just doesn’t have the flavor it needs to have, and to use fresh would make the prices way too high,” Sanchez says. “We could do a dish just to say we did, but we refuse to compromise on flavor.”
And when it comes to flavor, Sanchez has learned that sometimes, folks just want their classic meatloaf instead of a fancy new grain bowl.
“When I came in 11 years ago, they served a lot of mashed potatoes and gravy. I got all excited and changed everything. And then people got upset, like, ‘Hey, where’s my mashed potatoes?’” Sanchez says. “So we brought them back with turkey once a week. You can still do your potatoes and your pot roast, but you make them excellent just as you do with the new dishes.”Nominate an FSO of the Month
A matter of stickability
That constancy is even more important for the myriad food-related programs HCMC creates and operates. “We have a lot of fun at managers’ meetings where we decide what to run. We throw things at the wall, see what sticks, rib each other for a boneheaded idea,” Marks says. “But it always comes down to one question: Does this have stickability? Is this something we’ll be doing in 10 years?”
With that guideline in mind, many of HCMC’s programs have run for several years or more. The hospital was one of the first in the country to start a summer meal program for children in need through the USDA. The center composts to redirect more than 70 tons of waste annually. And the team planted a large herb garden on the roof deck.
Beyond the stickability parameters, decisions about HCMC food programs are focused on the needs of the community. For example, the herb garden includes special organic Hmong herbs that are used in tshuaj rau qaib, a boiled chicken soup that is traditional for postpartum recovery.
“We get a couple of postpartum Hmong women a month who request this soup, so it’s not a ton of people,” Marks says. “But it’s absolutely worth it. It feels great, not only to give them this special meal, but also to work with local Hmong folks who run garden centers and specialize in this area.”Nominate an FSO of the Month
Other HCMC food programs include a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm-share system that runs from June to October. Any unclaimed shares are donated to a local food pantry. Another example: Young adults with special needs come in with instructors to learn about working in various areas of HCMC, including the kitchen and mailroom.
For the HCMC foodservice staff, these programs aren’t extras. They’re a given.
“I wish I could challenge every FSD to have their staff spend a few hours a month putting their knowledge to use for the community,” Marks says. “I don’t think we as an industry are getting out there enough, and we have a lot to offer our communities.”
For operators who aren’t sure where to start, whether with food programs or menu items, Sanchez recommends choosing small challenges and selecting what feels most rewarding.
“Everyone might think, for example, that making mashed potatoes every day is too hard,” Sanchez says. “I say, do it once. Do it again. See how rewarding it feels to make something from scratch instead of a box. And use that energy to build on more challenges.”Nominate an FSO of the Month
Meet the FSD: Bill Marks
Director of Food, Nutrition and Environmental Services
Hennepin County Medical Center
Q: What are your goals for the coming year?
A: The only goals here are to stay on top of the trends and continue to be cutting edge. It sounds corny, but it’s the truth. I want to continue to push my team to do better, which is a lot easier said than done. But that’s what it takes to become even more creative over time.
Q: What is it that sets HCMC foodservice apart?
A: It’s the entire team enjoying work. The hardest part of my job is to keep the energy up, to focus on pushing forward. We all have bad days. But the hope is that when I slip, there are a bunch of other people keeping the energy up, and vice versa. And then you have the chance to be better with each new day.