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Published in CenterView on January 30, 2012
Trena Magee, food preparation specialist, serves up pizza at the Wiser Bistro.
Trena Magee, food preparation specialist, serves up pizza at the Wiser Bistro.

Food and nutrition staff take cafeteria renovation in stride to deliver high-quality performance

By Bruce Coleman

Before the main cafeteria at University Hospital closed for renovation last Nov. 8, Trena Magee, food preparation specialist, might have gone weeks without ever changing her work environment.

Now that reconstruction of the food services central hub is well underway, Magee's regular routine has been anything but, well, routine.

"You can't get hooked on working in one spot, because the next day, you don't know where you might be working," Magee said. "Since the construction started, I've been working all over the place - from the Student Union over to Wiser Bistro and the Panini Grill. Different shifts."

Magee and approximately 130 of her colleagues have had to grapple with diminished space, displaced equipment and organizational challenges that would make a sudoku expert scratch his head - all while continuing to serve more than 1,500 patient meals and 3,000 retail meals each day. And that doesn't even count catering services.

The most remarkable statistic? Cafeteria revenue is only down 10-17 percent over last year, according to Michael Moyes, operations manager in food and nutrition services - a remarkable number considering the upheaval.

He credits the efforts of managers and staff across the spectrum of nutrition services - cooks, distribution clerks, sanitation associates, retail associates and patient services associates - for helping to dramatically minimize the expected revenue loss.

"Without question, the biggest impact (of the renovation) has been on our staff," Moyes said. "The fact that our staff can do this is indescribable. Their flexibility is amazing.

"We've had visitors to this institution who visit hospitals all the time who have said, 'How are you all making this happen? This should not be possible for this volume of meals.'"

The secret ingredient, according to Cathy Taylor, retail operations manager in food and nutrition services, comes straight from Darwinian theory.

"I call it the survival of the fittest," Taylor said with a laugh. "It's amazing how much everybody adapts. We've gone through a few initial bumps, but everybody's adjusted well."

"I think what we've witnessed over the last three months is a lot more 'coming together' of (food and nutrition) staffs," Moyes said. "We're a lot more cohesive and a lot more teamwork is happening now.

"People are seeing what needs to be done and they are stepping up and doing it."

That attitude, according to Randal Thomas, director of food and nutrition services, exemplifies the remarkable versatility of staff in the division who have had to meet the daily challenges of food preparation and service despite much more limited space.

"There's not a person in the Food and Nutrition Services Department that this renovation has not affected," Thomas said, "and I don't think we have a single employee who hasn't embraced this change.

"We talked to the staff about what needed to be done before this transition took place. We were able to move cafeteria staff to enhance the other service areas we have - the Wiser Cafeteria, the Panini Grill, the Student Union, Starbucks and the Pavilion - and I think our staff has done really well in meeting customer needs."

Since those needs can come at virtually any time, the Wiser Bistro now offers 24-hour service. Other innovations brought about by the renovation and still to come will include meal preparation for Children's Hospital and Wiser patients in the bistro (cutting the travel time to the fourth floor of Wiser by 80 percent, according to Moyes) and an enhanced Student Union kitchen that supplies the bulk of the patient food volume.

Initial plans of the renovation included building three temporary trailers at close to $1 million. To save the institution money and invest back into the campus, the food and nutrition management team proposed an alternative solution. The result was $100,000 worth of new equipment, including a steamer, refrigeration/steam kettles, ovens, transportation equipment and an outdoor walk-in cooler and freezer, all of which will provide years of beneficial use for the campus.

The renovation has put a premium on workspace. For example, catering employees share the Student Union kitchen with production employees.

"Before the renovation, we had two bakers working in the bake shop, a room about 15-by-20," Moyes said. "Now we have nine to 12 people working in the same space."

The main cafeteria's production services team has been split in two, with one group cooking patient meals in the Student Union while the other group uses the remaining 20 percent of the available old kitchen space to assemble and deliver patient meals. Most of the retail staff have relocated to the Wiser Bistro to accommodate the 24-hour service shift from the old cafeteria.

Taylor said despite the ongoing renovation, food and nutrition services staff are committed to serving more people in less time.

"We haven't had many customers say the service has slowed, but has increased," Taylor said. "We're still moving the line fast, and I think people have been pretty satisfied with what we're serving."

She said customers have noticed a plethora of "grab-and-go" food items for sale.

"Our menus have temporarily shifted from fewer cooked entrees to grab-and-go items because of the loss of preparation space due to the cafeteria and main kitchen renovation happening simultaneously," Taylor said. "We are mass-producing salads and sandwiches rather than cooking pans of entrees."

By working through the renovation, food and nutrition staff have uncovered new efficiencies that will continue once the new cafeteria is up and running. Foremost among those efficiencies, according to Taylor, is the willingness and ability to adapt to any situation.

"All of the employees have been cross-trained," she said. "By rotating them all through the different areas, they pick up on what needs to be done much quicker and also enjoy the change of pace."

Not to mention speed of service.

"Before we made these personnel adjustments for the renovation, we had longer lines with more waiting times," Thomas said. "By reallocating staff, we're getting customers through quicker.

Waiting lines to the cash registers have decreased dramatically. We're focused on increasing the speed of service and quality of foods."

When the new cafeteria opens later this year - renovation is on pace for a late-summer debut - Magee and her colleagues won't have to worry about returning to the old way of providing food and nutrition services at UMMC.

"Just having air conditioning in the new cafeteria will be great," Magee said.

"Management is really proud of what this staff has been able to do," Thomas said. "This is not an easy task by any means. We are experiencing much more synergy now."