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Adding more restaurants? Read this first

A hospital operator shares how he transitioned staff after a cafeteria closure.

A year ago, Northwestern Memorial Hospital decided to replace its cafeteria with a collection of fast-casual and quick-service restaurants. Management quickly realized that the build-out wouldn’t be their only challenge.

“When it comes down to the people involved, it wasn’t an easy situation,” says Josh Hasson, director of food and nutrition services. The staff balked at the higher prices of the restaurants. Hospital guests found themselves in more of a mall than the sort of foodservice operation they’d expect from a healthcare facility.

And what about the people who were employed in the cafeteria?

Clearly the switch to a retail-only foodservice array for staff and visitors required some changes by Hasson and his colleagues, a process that took much of the last year.

As soon as the closure of the cafeteria was announced to the staff, administration started looking for positions in patient foodservice for the 35 employees who would be displaced, as per a contract with their union.

As staff were notified of the cafeteria’s closure, administrators had to make other foodservice or patient service positions available to about 35 cafeteria employees, as per their union contract. Hasson had cafeteria staff members rank three available jobs they would be interested in and talked through any concerns about the jobs responsibilities and shift changes.

That, in turn, required some retraining, since many of the displaced workers had spent 20 years in kitchen work. Now they would be interacting with patients and using unfamiliar devices and technology. For instance, some would be reassigned the role of taking patients’ meal orders via a tablet. Management made the rounds with some of the the technically challenged until they got the knack of using the handhelds.

Reassignment sometimes meant adapting to a different schedule, a switch that affected some employees’ transportation arrangements. If a job was unfeasible, Hasson and his staff would try to find an alternative post.

“We made sure that we went above and beyond to give them the latitude to have the time to make personal and professional adjustments,” Hasson says.

He saw the cafeteria’s closing as an opportunity to raise patients’ satisfaction with the meals they were served. That process wasn’t without its own setbacks.

Patient room service hours were reduced in the hospital’s cancer centers, a change that wasn’t well received by some patients, especially those who wanted to order a meal after receiving evening tests. “We could have done a better job of communicating those things,” Hasson says. “But at the end of the day, we realized that cutting hours and service was the wrong decision, so we put it back."

Closing the cafeteria did provide a key benefit to bolstering patient satisfaction. With the staff no longer having to divide its time between crafting weekly menus for the cafeteria, they could focus their efforts on improving the planning, recipes and preparation of the meals served to patients. They could also try new items.

“It gives us the ability to put 100 percent of our attention on improvements that we make to the patient experience,” Hasson says.

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