The Prepared Advantage

At Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, PA, manager/executive chef Alan DelRosso utilizes a variety of prepared products for patient meals, the cafeteria and catering. And he's not alone: Operators continue to turn to food manufacturers for such products as vacuum-packed, ready-to-cook marinated salmon filets or pre-cooked meat for burritos and tacos. Food manufacturers are offering more value-added solutions, making products more convenient and labor-friendly for operators. At the same time, operators are pleasing customers, meeting the flavor profiles they're requesting while providing consistent quality.

In all three areas of his operation, DelRosso uses a versatile stuffed boneless chicken breast. "I season it, tray it and roast it. I do about 35 to 42 on a tray at once, which saves labor. Plus, it's a very consistent product. I've been using it for about six or seven years," he says.

At one point, the company discontinued the product, but because the item was so popular, he told the firm he wanted it back. "I promised how many cases we would use and they brought the product back on the market." To dress it up, DelRosso serves the chicken breast with a from-scratch sherry wine sauce or a supreme sauce. For catered functions, it's usually featured as a luncheon item, and he slices it down and fans it out on the plate with a decorative sauce.

Popular item: The 550-bed, acute-care facility, which daily serves about 3,500-4,000 meals, has a four-week-cycle cafeteria menu, on which the chicken breast appears twice. "We go through 400 every time. Patients are also requesting it on the one-week cycle menu, where it's offered as a dinner entree for unrestricted patients only. For diet-restricted patients, we make our own chicken, whether salt-free or fat-free," DelRosso explains.

Because he does a large volume of pasta dishes, he uses a prepared tomato sauce as the base sauce for a number of different recipes. "We like the flavor profile and easy storage. We also get the pasta out faster," DelRosso points out. "We're a 75% to 80% scratch operation, so we insert some prepared foods on the menu to alleviate some of the pressure on our cooks. It saves on labor, time, productivity and equipment." When producing a large volume of food with prepared sauce, he notes, staff can put the sauce right in the serving pan instead of needing a kettle.

A prepared Salisbury steak item also comes in handy. "When we produce them ourselves, after baking and bringing them up to temperature, they're still pink on the inside and we find the customer thinks they're not done. By using the prepared one, we haven't run into that problem. It helps with customer satisfaction and lowering food costs."

Reducing labor: Robert Rendulic, fsd for the Bethel Park School District, PA, oversees the operations for five elementary schools, two middle schools and one senior high school. He likes using prepared foods because "they save us labor and enable us to offer menu items that are skillfully prepared in a fraction of the time." He cites a stuffed shells entree as a perfect example. "We just make them up in a pan and serve them with prepared marinara sauce that we enhance. They look and taste homemade. Students really like them," Rendulic states.

He says the schools make a lot of cookies from prepared dough, enhancing the basic product with chocolate chips, sprinkles or other decorative and tasty additions. "We also do a lot of poultry, adding different sauces and herbs and spices and presenting them in different ways so they look more enticing. We do pasta primavera with frozen vegetables. We add other items and it looks and tastes homemade.

"Presentation sells," he adds. "If an item's on the line and it's presented well, students are more apt to take it. Prepared foods help us increase the eye appeal of the foods we offer." Rendulic says he often gets meal requests from his young clientele and prepared items help him meet those demands. "In combination with our monthly commodity allotment, we're able to produce all our menus. With the prepared items, we use the commodity allotments to come up with a variety of nutritionally balanced meals." He offers eight to nine entrees daily in his middle and high schools.

Signature look: Paul Passafume, manager of foodservice, serves about 2,800 meals daily in a combination of patient, catering and cafeteria transactions at 563-bed Western Pennsylvania Hospital in Bloomfield. He says he purchases items that "give us the signature look we're looking for. We take a basic prepared product and enhance it to make it our signature item. These products absolutely help. They're probably the biggest labor savings of anything you can do."

For the tertiary acute-care facility, which is also a teaching hospital, Passafume offers a range of prepared Italian dishes, like lasagna and stuffed peppers, and then adds his own sauce.

"We have purveyors who make things just for us and we make our own sauces and garnishes or fresh vegetables to add to them. About 95% of the recipes we make here are from a scratch-type mode and then enhanced with convenience products. But everything we use is altered in some manner," he says.

One popular item is prepared chicken strips, which he puts in Caesar salad, fajitas, taco pizza and spicy Buffalo pizzas. "We take some basic strips and chop them up. Because we make a lot of things from that basic item, we enhance our kitchen efficiency. In fact, we will alter menus to bring those kinds of items on to create new selections."

Enhancing creativity: Passafume approaches his catering menus a little differently with prepared foods. "Many times I create a verbal menu for an event on the spot. But I can go ahead and create meals knowing that I have these convenience items on hand. Storing the items helps control inventory, too."



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