The cafeteria at Marion General Hospital has long been a hit among the local Columbia, Miss., community, in large part because “we offer a good homestyle meal with very reasonable, competitive prices,” says Lynette Kendrick, area director of nutrition services for Cura Hospitality.
Though the barbecued meatloaf is a particular favorite, guests flock to the cafeteria for its many other options, which include healthier takes on soul food as well as fast-food items such as hamburgers and fried chicken tenders. And real mashed potatoes are a must, Kendrick says: “You’ve got to have mashed potatoes.”
However, when the COVID-19 outbreak worsened in March, the hospital closed down its retail line to the public. And regular customers felt the void.
“In a lot of our rural areas, we have community members who have dined with us for years who have constantly called us and said, ‘When are y’all gonna be opening back up? We miss your food,’” Kendrick says. “So upon these phone calls we were getting, we said, ‘What can we do to provide service in the midst of COVID and still be safe?”
The team’s solution? A new "car hop”-style service through which staff delivers meals straight to guests’ cars in the parking lot.
The service, which is open to hospital visitors as well as the general public, works like this: Guests place their orders over the phone, at which time they can provide a credit card number or have an order total given to them. When they arrive in the designated parking area, they place a second call to let staff know they have arrived, and a team member will bring their order to the car. Guests can also choose to pay in cash so long as they have exact change.
To help hold temperature, food is served on a three-compartment foam plate that staff place inside an insulated bag. For larger orders, trays and carts can aid transport, Kendrick says.
Photograph courtesy of Cura Hospitality
Customers can begin placing their orders as early as 10 a.m., and the service is available from 11 a.m. to 12:45 p.m.
Not much extra coaching was required to get the initiative off the ground, she says. “The additional training was COVID training—we just applied it to this, so wearing their masks, making sure they’re washing their hands, changing their gloves, and just making sure that we had adequate staff. The phone etiquette, we’ve … previously trained on that, so that was already in place.”
Giving visitors a boost
When COVID-19 restrictions took hold at Wise Surgical Parkway, a boutique surgical hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, the foodservice team began offering complimentary snacks and drinks to visitors waiting in the hospital parking lot while loved ones underwent procedures.
“We noticed that some of these procedures were going up to 4, 5, 6 hours, and we knew we had to do something else besides just a bag of chips or a water or soda,” says George Chavarria, foodservice director. “So we started throwing stuff around and came up with a bigger, larger menu, and we’re still kind of developing that menu, we’re adding onto it daily.”
The team now offers a variety of items for breakfast and lunch, free of charge. Morning meal options include cold cereal, oatmeal, yogurt, muffins, fresh fruit, juice and coffee. Lunch includes sandwich offerings such as ham and cheddar or turkey and Swiss on a ciabatta bun, chips, protein bars, a dessert of the day and a variety of beverages. Snacks for kids are also available. Due to demand, the team also plans to add dinner and some hot meals.
“With the staff that I have, the chefs in the kitchen, I was like, ‘You know, we can really offer something really good,” Chavarria says.
Orders, which take “no more than 5 minutes” to fulfill, are facilitated through the hospital’s front desk. The concierge takes phone orders and relays them to the kitchen, where staff have boxes lined up and ready to pack. The concierge then delivers the assembled meals to visitors’ vehicles while wearing the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE).
The number of guests who use this service daily changes based on the hospital’s census, but in general, hovers around 10 to 15. However, Chavarria expects that things will start picking up, noting that his team now has the process down.
“I want to give good credit to my staff here,” he says. “They come in daily … and they just hustle all day to make sure that these guests get what they need, and they’re like the backbone of this kitchen.”