Northwell Health learns what a difference a chef can make

The hospital network had a foodservice program that even executives didn't appreciate. Now it's getting profiled as the future of healthcare foodservice.
One of the Northwell Health hospitals
One of 21 hospitals in the Northwell network. | Photo: Shutterstock

When Northwell Health yanked the fryers out of its kitchens as part of a sweeping effort to serve healthier food, some employees held funerals and retirement parties for the beloved devices. Bad eating was that ingrained in the hospital network’s culture.

“It’d have been a good business to sell French fries out of a trunk in the parking lot,” Sven Gierlinger, Northwell’s chief experience officer, told attendees of the Menus of Change conference at the Culinary Institute of America last week.

The fry lovers might have been the only stakeholders who were fine with the status quo at Northwell. As one of the Northeast’s largest healthcare provider, the network fields about 500,000 evaluations per year from patients and other stakeholders. The comments ranged from “inedible” to “tastes like plastic.”

“They told us the food was too heavy on carbs, sauces, water-logged frozen vegetables and sugar,” said Gierlinger. By 2016, “the complaint letters were adding up.”

Plus, a ranking of hospitals that year by the caliber of their foodservice put Northwell in the ninth percentile.  “That means 90% of hospitals were better than we were,” says Gierlinger, who came to Northwell in 2014. “We should be leaders.”

It wasn’t as if the company lacked resources or scale. It serves about 10 million meals a year. To give an idea of its purchasing power, Gierlinger noted that the foodservice operations were purchasing 150 different types of chicken alone.

He knew what good hospitality should taste like, having spent time with Ritz-Carlton Hotels. He also had a sense of what a hospital stay is like for patients, and how important food can be in that experience. An injury had left Gierlinger paralyzed in the past for a considerable stretch that included being confined for months to a hospital bed.

The consensus of Gierlinger and other Northwell executives was that the company’s foodservices had to improve dramatically.

The revamp began with an assessment of what was broken. That effort revealed the biggest issue for Northwell was a lack of culinary leadership. The company intended to shoot for meals that a top-notch chef might’ve prepared. But it didn’t have one.

Gierlinger found what he described as a game-changer of a talent in Bruno Tison. The chef had spent 13 years as executive chef of the four-star Plaza Hotel in New York City. He was overseeing foodservice operations at the celebrated Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn in the heart of California wine country when Gierlinger approached him.

Tison’s first big move, according to Gierlinger, was to hire away two more chefs from the Mission Inn. He then set about bringing Northwell’s kitchens into the 21st century.

Much of the equipment was so old that replacement parts were no longer available, Gierlinger recounted. Still, he characterized the overhaul as less than a financial wallop. The most significant investment, he said, was hiring Tison.

Tison, who’d never been exposed to hospital foodservice before, focused on transforming the foodservices of Northwell’s 21 hospitals into more of a luxury hotel operation. Processed and frozen foods were scrapped, and more fresh ingredients were incorporated into recipes.

He also varied what type of meals were available to patients. Latin, Asian and other ethnic dishes started to appear on the menus.

The hospital’s coffee was also given a makeover. Gierlinger actually grimaced on stage when he recalled what Northwell was serving pre-overhaul. He said it was made by mixing some sort of concentrated coffee paste with hot water, and said it was worse than a powdered instant non-brew.

True to Gierlinger and Tison’s hotel backgrounds, Northwell also shifted from a night-before ordering system to a roomservice approach, where patients call in what they want more or less when they want it.

The world noticed. The New York Times ran a story about the upgrade, with the headline calling Northwell’s fare “Hospital Food You Can Get Excited About.”

People magazine took a break from recounting the lives of movie stars and rock gods to profile Tison and what he’d done for Northwell.

Letters from patients continued to flood into Gierlinger’s office, but now, he recounted, they were praising the food and thanking Northwell.

The upgrades created a new problem for the hospitals. Discharged patients would stall in hopes of snagging one more meal before leaving, creating a logjam of patients waiting in an emergency room for a bed.

The proof of the pudding whipped up by Gierlinger and Tison was Northwell’s placement in the 2022 ranking of hospitals by their foodservice operation. The healthcare system jumped from the ninth percentile in 2016 to the 84th last year.

Asked during Menus of Change about the cost of the overhaul, Gierlinger all but tut-tutted any concerns on that front.

“Our food costs didn’t run any higher than the cost of inflation, so about 2% a year,” he said.  “If you look at the labor cost, we didn’t hire an extra person except chef Bruno.”

And the revamp of Northwell’s coffee program saved the healthcare provider about $250,000 annually, even with a quantum leap in quality, he added.

The costs were far from prohibitive, Gierlinger stressed. The biggest challenge, he indicated, was changing Northwell’s culture and trashing the notion that hospital food is always going to be bad because of the meal volume.

“The days of bad hospital food should be over,” he told the Menus of Change audience. “The thought of hospital food should be that it’s fresh, it’s tasty, it’s nutritious.”



More from our partners