Consultant's Viewpoint: Healthcare Creates Quality Image through Foodservice

The focus of healthcare foodservice must always be on the in-house patients. It is easy to lose sight of this, though, given that up to 70 percent of the customers served by healthcare foodservice are not in-house patients, but outpatients, those accompanying outpatients, visitors and staff. This fact clearly illustrates the broad audience healthcare foodservice satisfies on a regular basis.

“Massachusetts General has been known internationally for its world-class medical service, as well as its foodservice,” according to Dr. Jean Elrick, MGH's senior vice president. “There are many people who pass through the buildings that are not directly influenced by our medical treatment and those people need to feel that high level of quality that inpatients experience.

“We have always believed that with so many people passing through MGH on a daily basis that we had to pay special attention to our retail foodservice outlets and have depended on those outlets to express a level of quality that represents our commitment to all services,” Elrick adds. “Foodservice is one of those support services that can have this influence to express a high level of quality.”

“Quality” has many definitions. A number of administrators in healthcare believe that the quality level, or image, of the retail foodservice outlets has a direct impact on their patient satisfaction scores. It is important to note, though, that the impression of high quality is not measured exclusively by the food served. Many other factors come into play when developing a “quality” image in the customer's eyes.

It certainly helps to have the administration's commitment to quality and developing what it takes to define and implement all of the necessary components. Susan Barraclough, director of nutrition and foodservice at Massachusetts General, says, “We like to think we are restaurateurs serving quality food to customers on a medical campus in facilities that that are as close to being restaurants as possible. The obvious thing is to provide the type of food or menu items each market segment wants to purchase. But that is only the beginning of the process. We must then put our marketing hats on and establish an image with names, logos, graphics, uniforms, merchandising techniques, design and all of the other components a well-run, successful restaurant would present to the marketplace.”

Many healthcare campuses have very well-designed retail outlets that look great and then take a half-hearted approach to marketing. They might name their facility The Cafeteria or get real creative and call it The Restaurant. The name and graphic identity can help establish customer expectations.

For example, many staff and visitors to MGH tend to perceive its Coffee Central beverage service facility as being part of a national chain. In fact, some people have inquired about franchising opportunities with Coffee Central. Of course, this may also be due to the fact that Coffee Central records more than $7,000 per day in revenue serving only pastries, coffee   and limited other beverages. But, the success was achieved by presenting every component of service and design that a major chain would bring to the table. A strong image statement is made with the logo, uniforms, high-quality design with materials of granite, glass, stainless steel and quality products.

Projecting a quality image takes more than maintaining a sharp-looking facility or adding a nationally recognized brand to the mix. These moves can help, but they are not the panacea that will lead to long-term financial fitness for most healthcare operators.

What would a visitor think about the medical facilities in the hospital if the cafeteria is so outdated? Shouldn't every aspect of the facility reflect the level of quality that is represented by the philosophy or management of the hospital? According to Rhonda Billman, vice president of Southwest General Hospital, Middleburg Heights, Ohio, “We are in a geographic location that creates competition with major healthcare facilities for patients and local industries for staff. It is important that we present our facilities and services as being of the highest quality possible. Foodservice is a very visible support service and plays an important part in our community, both on campus and in the neighborhood. Therefore, we must have an operation that reflects our concern for everyone and our new restaurant has accomplished that goal. It showcases our foodservice staff's talents and through the design of the restaurant creates the image of being user friendly, presents freshly prepared menu items, is convenient and is very visually appealing.”

Of course the age-old notion of “location, location, location” is still key, but even restaurants have proven that if you offer the other factors you can be successful. And the same applies to healthcare. For example, at MGH the Eat Street Café certainly isn't in the ideal or most convenient location, but 12,000-to-15,000 people still find it in the basement location each day. So, what this tells us is that those attributes that make a restaurant successful are the same elements that allow a healthcare foodservice operation to succeed.

Food, service and ambiance remain the key elements of a successful restaurant.

Food presented in a well-merchandised manner, and made to order for the customer, can achieve this important element of success. Facilities and equipment need to be available for operators to be creative in menu development. Service concerns of customers cover a wide variety of issues. A majority of the staff members need something convenient and quick, while wanting the same food items. Visitors and outpatients have different issues and need not only convenience, but also competitive menu selections that are at street prices.

The ambiance needs to be comfortable, and not institutional or representative of the “hospital” atmosphere. This is achieved by designing a restaurant, not a “hospital cafeteria.” Lighting, colors and the materials used need to be what you would find in a restaurant, while still being easy to maintain.

One such example of this success is Southwest General Hospital. “The opportunity to bring our chef out into the serving area, and allowing him to create items that are prepared personally for the customer, has created an image of our foodservice that has impacted the perception of the quality of foodservice throughout the entire campus,” says Susan Shurbrook, associate administrator, Nutrition Services at Southwest General Hospital. “Of course, the overall look and feeling of the restaurant certainly has also been a big factor in people's perception of our level of quality.”

When all of these factors are achieved, you have a restaurant, on a healthcare campus, presenting a quality image of an operation that cares and provides quality services to all who visit the healthcare campus or hospital.