New partnership is a win-win for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and local Memphis restaurants

Michael Vetro, the hospital’s chef and director of culinary operations, sees food as the connector between staff, patients and the community.
kat kafe entrance
Photo courtesy of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital

In April, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis invited the first of 14 local restaurants to take over one of the cafe’s stations to offer up their specialties.

That signaled the official launch of Local Eats, an initiative between the hospital and the Memphis restaurant community.

“We feed thousands every day,” says Michael Vetro, chef and director of culinary operations for St. Jude. “Hospital staff, physicians, nurses, mechanics, administrators and patients and their families all eat together to encourage ‘accidental encounters’. This program exposes our clientele to the diverse culinary scene in Memphis and exposes the restaurants to thousands of new customers.”

The first restaurant to come into St. Jude’s Kay Kafe was Hog Wild, which serves “real Memphis barbecue.” Like all the participants, Hog Wild was asked to prepare 250 to 300 lunch portions; they sold out on their first day, says Vetro.

Hog Wild is a local caterer that is an approved vendor—an important criteria for operators to participate. As a hospital that treats children with cancer, there are some “bumps in the road” to gain access to St. Jude. “We had to partner with restaurants that we trust to navigate those bumps and who could produce enough volume to meet demand,” he says.

Humdingers staffChefs from Humdingers prepared piri piri chicken as part of the Local Eats program. / Photo courtesy of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital

Now, the Kay Kafe is booked through November, showcasing a varied collection of global cuisines. Humdingers gave diners a taste of piri piri chicken, a South African specialty, while Chef Ryan Trimm of Sunrise Memphis served up Boudin Eggs Benedict, a Cajun-style breakfast dish.

India Palace, a Memphis Indian restaurant, rotated in this summer, with a menu of butter chicken, matar paneer and basmati rice. Also in the lineup is Fresh Gulf Shrimp, a food truck/restaurant inspired by owner Jacqueline Johnson who grew up in Mobile, Ala. 

“We intentionally diversify our restaurants, highlighting the wide variety of cuisines Memphis has to offer,” says Vetro. “It’s great publicity for the restaurants and stimulates diners to seek them out on their own.” Offering that variety has increased staff and guest participation in the foodservice program, he adds.

Gulf Shrimp sandwich

Shrimp PoBoy901 from Fresh Gulf Shrimp features Cajun fried shrimp, remoulade sauce, shredded lettuce and dill pickles. /Photo courtesy of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital

St. Jude’s foodservice staff also benefit from the partnership. “Our team prepares and serves meals seven days a week in the cafe. Having one station operated by a local restaurant helps lighten the load a bit, allowing us to focus on hospitality,” says Vetro.

Vetro encourages other healthcare retail operations to form similar restaurant partnerships in their communities, as it’s a win-win for all involved. “Food is an extension of who we are, creating connections to the world around us,” he says.

Plus, it provides a chance for cafes to showcase the new, improved image of hospital food. The Local Eats program offers chef-driven menus prepared by locally owned businesses benefiting Memphis and the St. Jude community.

“Heaven forbid that a child in one of their families ever needs cancer care, a hospital’s food should be the last thing you’re concerned about,” says Vetro.


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