Foodservice Operation of the Month

How St. Luke's Home feeds those in need on a budget

Executive Chef Sal Miramontes and his staff find ways to delight residents, even when funds are tight.
Sal Miramontes and team after winning the Silver Chef Culinary Competition. / Photo by Kathleen Dreier

In the truest sense of the word, a community includes and cares for every member within it—regardless of color, creed or financial means. That idea is the driving force of St. Luke’s Home in Tucson, a nonprofit that provides support and housing for seniors with limited incomes.

The facility is comprised of 64 studio apartments on the edge of the University of Arizona, and its residents receive housekeeping services, transportation for shopping, medication administration, 24-hour caregivers and more.

To qualify, residents must make less than $28,740 a year (and couples must make less than $32,880 combined).

The rent paid by residents is less than 60% of St. Luke’s overall annual income. The nonprofit also relies on community outreach, grants, fundraisers and monetary donations—and is increasingly seeking food donations, too, to help keep residents healthy and well-fed.

“We serve people who could otherwise end up being homeless because they couldn’t make it out there with the amount they have,” says Sal Miramontes, executive chef and FSD for St. Luke’s. “We are special because we go out into the community to raise funds, to get food items, anything we can to help support these elders.”

For Miramontes and his foodservice staff of nine, that support means three nutritious meals available each day. And they have to manage it on a budget: $495,000 annually for food and labor.

“Just because our population is low-income, it doesn’t mean we’re going to serve them canned food or low-quality meals,” Miramontes says. “So when I came in, I did a lot of research: Where can we save a dollar, what should we buy, what should we make from scratch?”

Ensuring those special moments

So began what would become an ongoing balance for Miramontes: find places to save money while ensuring nutritious quality meals.

He scoured St. Luke’s food inventory and financials, checked item pricing across different suppliers and spoke to vendors about options. Purchased biscuits, for example, were deemed an unnecessary expense. Instead, Miramontes put on his chef hat and taught everyone in the kitchen how to bake them from scratch.

He also made connections with other Tucson-area organizations and businesses. Bakeries offer breads left over at the end of the day. A local church shares leftover watermelons, carrots, coffee beans and whatever else they receive from nonprofits.

Photo by Sal Miramontes

“In my eyes, it’s like I'm a stepdad to all these residents who live here: I have a family to feed, and I have these groceries, and I have X dollars to spend. How are we going to make it work and what meals are we going to eat over the next week?” Miramontes says.

Miramontes and his lead chef put together menus in four-week rotations, and they place orders on Tuesdays with deliveries for the week arriving on Wednesdays. They’re always strategizing.

If chicken breasts are on sale and they have pineapple and orange juice in inventory, they’ll put orange chicken on the menu. Bulk ground beef too expensive through a vendor this week? Miramontes goes to the grocery store and buys only the amount they need for spaghetti night, cashing in rewards points to reduce spend. Chili is a popular dish with residents and cheap to boot—but the team knows the cornbread absolutely must be homemade.

“The elders love to joke around and chat with you, and they’ll let you know what they like,” says server Jess Casarez. “I remember their usual orders and the drinks they prefer, and they just love that. It means someone cares about what they want and need.”

Casarez, Miramontes and the team solicit formal feedback from an Elder Council and a quarterly survey, but sometimes it’s those casual conversations during service that makes a difference.

“We have an elder who loves Mexican food, and he told us that every week he would make himself a pot of beans to eat with tortillas. So we added that to our breakfast choices and he was ecstatic,” Casarez says. “Another said he was craving a good sandwich, so we made a grinder and he raved that it was the best thing he’d had in such a long time.”

Finding more ways to cut costs

To make those sandwich dreams possible, Miramontes says St. Luke’s is working to make its name better known in the community and he personally plans to work with grocery stores to collect more food donations.

But the team is also working diligently to reduce costs, especially with a new fiscal year looming that will bring budget cuts to the foodservice department. Miramontes has reduced reliance on plastic utensils and other disposables (an expense that had crept higher during peak COVID) in favor of inexpensive but quality reusable items.

Through these and other changes, Miramontes and the team in July saved $1,000 in food costs, about $1,000 in supplies and $472 on equipment and tools—a significant savings considering the monthly budget for these areas was under $13,400.

For other operators looking to save cash, Miramontes recommends using every resource available and thinking through the “family meal planning” lens: shop around for the best pricing, create recipes that use the same ingredients in unique combinations, use up what you have and always serve your family in the best way possible.

“We are a community, so of course I’m going to be checking all the grocery apps on my phone and calling around for deals,” Miramontes says. “I’m thinking about my family of elders here so I’m going to save every little penny that I can.”

Get to know St. Luke’s Home’s Sal Miramontes

See what’s in store for Miramontes operation, which was named FSD’s August Foodservice Operation of the Month.

Q:  What is it that makes your operation excel?

Teamwork. It's not just me doing it, or even just my team—it’s all of us doing it together for St. Luke’s. You need somebody who's good in marketing, getting our name out there in the community. We have a strong CEO who solves problems and makes everything work. The accountant shows us the numbers to make sure we're staying in budget.

Sal Miramontes
Sal Miramontes / Photo by Kathleen Dreier

It’s everything down to even the great maintenance guy: If my oven breaks, we call him and he’s right there to fix it so we’re not paying a corporate company hundreds of dollars an hour. We all have each other’s backs and we're there to help each other, in every section of this community.

Q: What are your goals for the coming year?

Especially with the new renovation, I want the community to know more about us because we're still a little hidden. If people know about us, they’ll want to help. Even beyond fundraising, grocery stores and restaurants and bakeries can think of us with what they have left over at the end of the day. I can do so much with just, say, a loaf of bread—soup, croutons, bread pudding for dessert. We’re taking food that would be wasted and turning it into something good for our community. That’s a beautiful thing.

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