I’m just going to say it: I’m a salad snob. Your standard bowl of wan iceberg and polystyrene tomato just won’t do. It’s like ... hospital food.
So it was a tough audience checking out an open house with free samples this week at the new cafeteria that’s part of Mount Carmel St. Ann’s $110 million expansion. The main phases – a relocated main entrance and 60-bed heart-care addition – open in fall, but a dietary addition has been opening in stages this spring.
They have the chutzpah to call it a bistro, and the open house invitation said it serves “restaurant-quality food.” Now, I’ve had to visit a few Central Ohio hospital cafeterias covering the health-care beat. I’ve been known to schedule interviews on the east side of Columbus just so I could grab the tasty spinach salad at Ohio State’s University Hospital East.
But let’s face it: Hospitals have a captive dining audience in patients and visitors, and they need to cut expenses. Those industrial plastic domes on bedside trays can conceal a meal that’s at its worst “1970s elementary school” and at best “500-seat convention hall.” There are efforts going on to change that nationwide, and more than a few cafeteria renovations recently completed or underway in Central Ohio. There are also campaigns to make the food healthier and ditch deep fryers.
St. Ann’s President Janet Meeks nods knowingly at the descriptions. When I interviewed her last year about the expansion, she told me the kitchen was built to handle 90 patients when the hospital opened in 1984. As the hospital grew to 270 beds, staff could barely open the dishwasher while assembling trays. On this return visit, she said dining options needed to be not just bigger, but better.
“We wanted to create a memorable experience,” says Adam Harms, assistant executive chef. “One of the top things people remember from their hospital visit is the food.”
The result is Bryden Bistro, named for the hospital’s original location in Old Town East in Columbus. It has varied eat-in spaces – a grab-and-go coffee shop, a zone with couches and TVs, more formal dining room with piped in music, and then the patio. There’s a 545-degree brick pizza oven, salad station, wok station and made-to-order burgers.
Back in April, the tray assembly line for patient rooms was abolished. Patients now order from a “room service” menu that has many of the same items in the cafeteria, including the pizza. Visitors can order meals to a room too. Response has been overwhelmingly positive, said Jennifer Sigman, patient services manager.
Harms said chefs created a heart-healthy menu, taste-testing herb combinations to lower sodium. They were able to cull medically ordered special patient diets from 11 variations to two – the usual low-sodium, heart-healthy menu and one modified with lower protein and potassium for kidney patients.
There is one fryer, but only for the bistro. For patient rooms, fries are baked, and Harms’ favorite new gadget is a boiler that allows quick prep of made-to-order pasta and fresh veggies.
The change still can be easy on expenses, since less food is thrown out, says Janet Baker, director of nutrition services. Meeks says the budgetary goal remains break-even.
I tried a few samples: A chicken-bacon-ranch pizza had a yeasty crisp crust, and while light on the bacon, naturally, it was well-spiced and just sinful enough. I found the bell pepper overpowering on a roasted pepper and asparagus panini, but hey, it was a roasted pepper and asparagus panini in a hospital. Sigman ran the salad station just for the event so she could talk to guests about the changes. I sampled the new house salad – the same one that goes on patient trays – with fresh mixed leaf lettuces, dried cranberries, edamame and a creamy honey-scallion vinaigrette.
I need an excuse to schedule an interview in Westerville.