Drive by or to Northfield, Minn., and you’ll be greeted by several signs reading: “Cows, Colleges, and Contentment.”
The city’s slogan is more than 100 years old, but it’s just as relevant today in a place dotted with several parks, the liberal arts colleges St. Olaf and Carleton, and a quaint historic downtown (where the outlaw Jesse James tried to rob a bank in 1876).
Small yet bustling Northfield was founded in 1855 as a cornerstone of the wheat industry—and fields of wheat, corn, soybeans and more still abound. Nestled in one is Northfield Hospital and Clinics, which serves the Twin Cities’ south metro area and southern Minnesota.
“We are located in the middle of a cornfield,” says Molly Lindberg, who is currently serving as both executive chef and interim foodservice director for the hospital. “We are a standalone hospital, and we pride ourselves on that. It's a very tight-knit little community here in Northfield.”
The hospital is the centerpiece of health care for that community, featuring 40 inpatient beds, a Level IV trauma center, a birth center, a sleep center, critical care services and a long-term care facility, in addition to urgent care facilities and primary care clinics that extend the hospital’s services throughout the region.
Like the hospital system at large, Northfield’s foodservice operation was running “pretty smoothly” when Lindberg came to the team in 2021. She’s employed by HHS, who took over management of the hospital’s dining operations about a year before she joined Northfield. HHS had already “made positive changes to the menu,” Lindberg says, instilling their focus on scratch-made foods.
So Lindberg wasn’t coming into an environment of institutional hospital food. How, then, could she make her mark?
“I’d say all of the places I've gone to for HHS, there's always one station that isn't being paid attention to. It’s being overlooked because nobody wants to look at it, or they don’t have someone to do it, or the staff member who oversaw it isn’t there anymore,” she says. “There’s always one you can pick out after a bit.”
At Northfield, it was the salad bar, which Lindberg described as an “afterthought” with typical ingredients. She and the team transformed it into a full-service line serving one of nearly 40 themed salads like Triple Berry and Thai Peanut in a daily rotation. Dressings are sweetened with fruit purees, special grains like quinoa and freekeh are frequently on offer, and Lindberg is often at the line to help educate and guide guests at the Northern Lights Cafe.
Sales of the $6.50 salads (with a $2 upcharge for premium add-ons like shrimp) have tripled since the revamp about a year and a half ago.
“We also started putting these fresh salads in our grab-and-go—along with other sorts of ‘mini’ versions of what we’re selling during the day—so the people in the evening can eat something fresh, too,” she says. “It’s a hospital; lots of people have to work through lunch or were in surgery, and they need something quick to give them energy. They love that it’s healthy, and that they have options when they come here, even on the off-hours.”
Meeting a range of preferences
Increasing those options has been a particular focus for Lindberg and for HHS, which launched a “FlavorPort” program the same year she joined Northfield in a bid to add “unique dishes from all over the world” and incorporate a street food-inspired experience.
Lindberg loved the idea, and as she built rapport with the team, she urged them to lean into dining trends. That approach spawned tofu ramen bowls for Meatless Mondays, fried-cauliflower rice bowls with eggs and vegetables for keto eaters, quinoa-chia-flax porridge for those seeking superfoods, a Southwest black-bean breakfast bowl for the high-protein crowd, and many more. The team markets new items and nutritional facts with flyers, and they educate diners as they serve.
“We see people come in and go, ‘Oh my gosh, Look! They have paleo, gluten-free, keto, Whole 30!’” Lindberg says. “The amount of education that we put out there for people that are in our cafe every day makes them trust us. They see all the efforts that go into not only the cooking, but how we market it.”
Still, this is Minnesota farm country, and sometimes folks just want the classics, says Marilyn Maas, who helps run Northfield’s kitchen.
“It’s a small town with a lot of farmers, and when they come in, they don't eat like the people in Minneapolis and St. Paul,” Maas says. “The meatloaf is always popular—people who come back six months later will ask about it—and of course tater tot hotdishes. Once we tried an orange-glazed chicken, but people weren’t ordering it, and we switched to tuna noodle casserole which they loved.”
Moderation of change, and being willing to change back if something isn’t working, is key for other operators looking to revamp their menus or operations, Lindberg says.
“It’s baby steps. You don’t want to come into a kitchen full of people who have been working here for years and say, ‘OK, now we’re going to change everything,’” Lindberg says. “You come in like a lamb, not a lion, and honor what’s been done by the people who have been doing it.”
Get to know Northfield Hospital’s Molly Lindberg
See what’s in store for Lindberg’s operation, which was named FSD’s April Foodservice Operation of the Month.
Q: What is it that makes your operation excel?
I couldn’t do it without the whole team, of course. Specifically, that comes down to communication. And, you know, being a real team means everybody will do go above and beyond themselves for somebody else. So, they see the bigger picture. And you know, some days are harder than others, but it doesn't matter because we're all working together to get it done.
Q: What are your goals for the operation in the coming year?
I would like to become the official, full-time [foodservice] director. And then I’d like to find somebody to replace me who impresses me. If they can impress me, I know they're going to do great things for the whole team. …
Ideally, I’m looking for someone who’s worked with a lot of different cultures and cuisines, somebody who can come in and say, “Yeah, I know something about that.” We’d want them to be humble and resourceful, and for them to come to the team with some fun, unique ideas to bounce off me.Nominate an FSO of the Month