Perceiving customer interest, some operators revisit—or tweak—dinner-to-go concepts.
Who wouldn’t appreciate having a home cooked meal for dinner every night? Of course, just about all of us would, but life gets in the way and the realities of work, after-school car pools and perhaps evening courses certainly eat into grocery shopping and meal preparation time. More than a decade ago, many enterprising foodservice operators—especially those in healthcare and corporate dining locations—tackled the challenge of creating workable, accessible and affordable home meal replacement (HMR) solutions.
Many found creative ways to meet numerous parameters including: offering hot entrees that were different from that day’s cafeteria menu; chilling down hot items to be transported cold for safety’s sake; finding suitable—and affordable—leak-proof, microwaveable packaging; having items accessible to customers as they left the building at the end of the day, and so on. Some provided an on-line ordering system while others became experts at marketing their fare. But, overall, there wasn’t a groundswell of customers queuing up to take meals home from the workplace; it seemed they’d rather stop at the local market or fast-food drive-up window.
In pursuit of success: But a few operators, like Sally Luck, director of corporate services for Hallmark Cards, Inc., in Kansas City, MO, kept on running their HMR programs, refining them to suit customer needs. Others, including Erik Schunk, director of food and nutrition services at Riddle Memorial Hospital in Media, PA, while finding no great success with HMR the first go-round years ago, are convinced it still has potential and are determined to try it yet again. Then, there are operators like Todd Foutty, director of foodservice operations at 750-bed MetroHealth System in Cleveland, OH, who is doing a nice bit of HMR business now and envisions even greater opportunities down the road as new facilities open on campus.
It’s certainly a plus if the reputation of the food itself drives customer demand for HMR, as is the case at Humana Unity Building (The HUB), in Louisville, notes Patty Guist, director of associate programs and services. “We just opened this new facility in May where we’re serving 1,000 customers a day in The Winner’s Circle at The HUB and in The Starting Gate coffee shop, combined. Because Guckenheimer Enterprises, our contractor there, has such high culinary expertise, our customers want take-home. In fact, when surveyed, it was their No.1 request, so we’re developing the program now,” she says.
At Hallmark Cards, HMR has been steadily chugging along for years in a program called Let’s Do Dinner that now accounts for about $77,000 in annual revenue at the headquarters building. “This is a very retail-oriented location. We prepare the food items daily and package them to take to the café, which is open from 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.,” Luck points out. “The café offers Starbucks, a deli with made-to-order sandwiches and salads, plus quick grab-and-go—one whole side is grab-and-go at lunchtime. But after 2 p.m., we consolidate all sandwiches and salads from two other locations within the building and add soups, entrees and desserts for our Let’s Do Dinner program.”
On a recent day, the café served 1,268 customers prior to 2 p.m., with average sales topping $3,200. For the Let’s Do Dinner part of the day, 217 customers made purchases after 2 p.m., amounting to sales of $707.
Priced to sell: Customers can order Let’s Do Dinner selections on-line, where they’re listed in a designated section of the menu. All entrees are in the $4-to-$7 price range. “These are chilled, labeled entrees available from a reach-in case,” Luck says. “We started out with a lot more elaborate labels that were more costly, but people figure out the handling and reheating methods. Now, items are simply labeled with the name of the product and the price.”
Based on her long experience in providing HMR for her Kansas City customers—whose average commute is 30 minutes—Luck offers these tips: “Keep menu items fairly mainstream; make them a bit upscale in comparison to the lunch offering; it shouldn’t be leftovers from lunch but rather a special dinner menu; be very careful with the chilling and holding aspects—having a blast chiller is helpful. We also sell insulated bags for about $4.00.”
At MetroHealth System, Todd Foutty has long had a three-door retail freezer in place right in the front of the café, accessible from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. There he merchandises nationally branded frozen meals and half-gallons of ice cream, in order to provide the convenience of grab-and-go as well as take home options. He also finds that third-shift staff are using it as an at-work meal replacement, heating up the frozen dinners on the units when they have the opportunity. In two new cafes, evening sales of grab-and-go items also are increasing.
When a new long-term care facility opens in February 2008, Foutty expects to be serving lunch from his tray line to about 125 seniors in an adult day care program. In addition, he expects to be providing Meals On Wheels-type packaged meals for them to take home. “Then, we’ll have the packaging and it would be a fit for us to look at doing HMR for the retail side.”
Assemble Dinner @ Work
It’s become axiomatic that you can buy just about anything on eBay. Now, employees who work at the company’s San Jose, CA headquarters can actually buy dinner on-line by logging onto the company’s location-specific Web site. But this is not just ordering dinner ahead; it’s a hands-on, fun and easy prep experience in which a maximum of 15 customers per evening can come to the eBay café kitchen to assemble a minimum of 12 meals of their choosing.
The program, officially called “Your Dinner from Bon Appetit’s Kitchen,” or “Your Dinner,” for short, debuted last month at eBay, where Bon Appetit Management Co. is the foodservice provider. The Palo Alto, CA-based contractor didn’t invent the concept. The Easy Meal Prep Association, located in Cheyenne, WY, estimates there are currently about 1,200 such outlets, many of them franchised, in the U.S. today. But it may be the first to introduce it to a workplace venue. Thanks to “overwhelmingly positive responses,” according to district manager Markus Hartmann, the program will be rolled out to other Bon Appetit “host companies and guests, sooner than later.”
Just $5 per meal: The program is offered five days a week, beginning at 5 p.m. There is a limit of 15 participants per session. On-line, registrants can view the menu of 18 items and choose a minimum of 12 portions, at an average cost of $5 per portion, that includes an entrée and two sides. “Most participants choose 12 to 16 portions, but there’s actually more demand for 24 portions since people are banking on the time savings,” Hartmann explains.
The dozen portions can include multiples of the same meal or several different meals. Some are center-of-the-plate items and side dishes; other menued items are designated “Quick & Simple” fare such as Quick & Simple-Grass Fed Beef Stew or Quick & Simple-Petaluma Free Range Chicken Pot Pie. “After making your session reservation and dinner choices, you check out by entering your credit card number,” Hartmann says. “You get a confirmation note that tells you the location, time and date.”
For the sessions, the eBay café kitchen is converted into a safe environment for people without commercial kitchen experience; each of the 18 menu items has its own work station where the Bon Appetit staff has set out all the food items needed for each recipe.
It’s in the bag: At each station, a recipe and all the ingredients are set out. “For example, if the recipe calls for thinly sliced free range chicken, it’s there, ready for you to put the appropriate amount in [plastic] bags,” Hartmann points out. “Or a pork chop is marked and seared so you don’t have to mark them yourself. Some recipes call for three or four bags. With free range chicken breast (three or six portions), we prepare green beans and wild rice polenta. For the polenta, you put it in the oven for a few minutes before serving at home; for the green beans, you empty them into a pot and heat for a few minutes, all according to the sticker on each bag.
“When you’re done with your prep of a dish you have your name on a big bag with the main recipe on the outside and it goes into the refrigerator [for safe temperature handling]. When you’re ready to leave, you collect all your bags from the refrigerator.”
For those customers who are really in a time crunch and can’t participate, Your Dinner from Bon Appetit’s Kitchen can be ordered on-line for pick-up for a nominal fee.
The Search Continues
Erik Schunk, MBA, CEC, RD, director of food and nutrition services at 272-bed Riddle Memorial Hospital in Media, PA, is somewhat baffled by the lack of success of his previous Meals To Go program. Since his approximately 500 lunchtime customers indicated satisfaction with the cafeteria offerings, he figured some of that interest would translate into take-home sales. After analyzing his past efforts, he’s determined to revamp the program and give HMR another shot.
“We tried marketing Home Meal Replacement (HMR) items in our main cafeteria; we offered pre-made sandwiches and entrees that could be taken home and rethermed. We were looking at it from a ‘new market’ aspect as well as a possible outlet for leftovers. Products were still very presentable and were placed in microwaveable containers and garnished. People would order in person in the cafeteria and in some cases they’d order grab-and-go items at dinner. They could go to the first cook or a supervisor, whoever was on duty.
"We don’t have a blast chiller, so we’d freeze items such as stewed tomatoes or homemade mashed potatoes in a chiller. HMR was grab-and-go plus a ‘frozen dinner.’ For example, the chicken would be garnished, plus the vegetable and starch; the vegetables might have been from over-production of patient or cafeteria meals. The protein was specifically prepared for take home, perhaps an additional 10 orders of chicken would be available for ‘MREs’ [i.e. military rations, Meals Ready To Eat]—we called it that back of the house and marketed it as ‘Meals To Go.’
"Originally the program was available daily, but we didn’t see much movement so we went to ‘Payday Fridays,’ then finally just for special occasions such as holidays coming up. For example, some customers order a complete Thanksgiving dinner. The largest single order we’ve done was for 24, but usually it’s for six to 10 servings and typically we’ll have about 20 orders in all. For one customer, we prepare the recipes to her specific recommendations. She wants gravy prepared with sweet vermouth since we had done a chicken with that gravy in the café and she loved it. Basically, I cook with a lot of fresh herbs and wine to avoid the high sodium and to impart flavor without extra fat.
"Overall, I think there are three reasons why sales petered out. First, there’s a lack of branding. You can call [your program] all the cute fuzzy names, but it’s still perceived as ‘hospital food.’ That stigma is still attached to it. But I’m going to have a retail store in a new location and I’m tempted to put [healthful] patient tray line meals in that store and I bet they would sell. Second, we were not selling enough to actually generate a margin. We were okay with holiday meals, but on a daily basis we weren’t generating the margin to cover our food, plastic and labor costs. Third, we did not have foodservice staff buy-in—a couple of staff members actually thought it was ‘stupid.’
"When I have my renovation, I’ll be able to do our fried ‘Colonel’s Chicken’ daily (now it’s on once in three weeks) and an Asian station (now once in two weeks in very limited space). We’ll have more than 15 hot wells in a food court. I’m still going to try HMR again. But it needs to be part of a ‘destination’ versus a ‘cafeteria.’ We’d have it available during the day but also at dinnertime.”