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A food critic reviews our hospital food

Published in the Leader Herald Newspaper, December 16, 2012

A faux patient tries the new food system at NLH

December 16, 2012 – Anita Hanaburgh
My sister calls me a faux patient.  Well I guess I am, or I was. I was asked by Nathan Littauer Hospital to become a patient — just for lunch. Okay, what’s up? I asked Cheryl McGrattan, my hospital hostess.

“Well, we have a new food system with extra service and gourmet food choices and we need a ‘critic’ to check it out … ” To do this, I was invited to go the hospital, check into a room and have lunch.

“No shots? “ I asked.  She responded in the negative. “No ugly gown?” Negative again! “Well, okay, I’ll give it a try.”

Am I a critic? I hope not. I like to think of myself as a restaurant and food consumer advocate. So I guess I can advocate for the patient/guest who is eating hospital food.

Oh, busboy, this is new to me, checking out the food in a hospital. Gourmet hospital food? This has to be a misnomer.

I was curious, so one day I met Cheryl in the hospital lobby and was taken to my room in the maternity ward  (now, I thought, this is a stretch), where I was joined by Bill Ackerbauer, The Leader Herald’s Sunday Features Editor, who was there to check out the new food-service program as well. I sat gently on the beautiful bed spread. I looked around. This doesn’t feel like a hospital at all.

Soon we were greeted by Tim Forte, the hospital’s general manager of nutrition services, his regional manager Bill Pepe, Laurence Kelly, CEO of the hospital, and even Scott Norris, the executive chef. (Who knew this hospital had an executive chef?)

The food service at Littauer and its nursing home is run under contract by a company called Sodexo, a division of Marriott. Forte and Norris are Sodexo employees assigned to the hospital.

We chatted awhile. They explained their new personal-service dining program, called “Expressly for You.”

“Oh, like room service?” I queried.

“Not exactly,” Tim explained. “Some hospitals use room service as in a hotel, but this is better.”

With room service, the guest/patient gets the menu and interprets it himself, then calls in the order. When he calls, one person takes the order, someone else assembles the food and then another person delivers it. With Expressly for You, the patient is given the menu to browse then visited later by a personal service ambassador.

The ambassador takes the order as a waitperson might, being careful to note likes and dislikes, answers any questions and suggests anything that might be missing, such as a beverage. The ambassador notes the order on a little electronic tablet that has all the food options for this patient’s individual diet. The order then goes immediately to the kitchen.

The really great thing is this ambassador not only takes the order but he or she also fills the order in the kitchen then delivers the food to the patient. He or she also visits the patient after the food is served to make sure everything is okay. This sure beats the classic hospital method of circling what you want and having it dropped off  later by a unknown person. This new method keeps errors and omissions to a minimum, making happier customers — er, patients.

For this visit, I was assigned a “normal” diet (as opposed to a doctor-restricted one) so the sky was the limit. The menu is set up much like a restaurant menu. There is a set menu where the patient can choose from a large array of popular items such as a turkey sandwich on whole wheat, cheese pizza, grilled chicken breast, fresh fruit or mashed potatoes. Even cheerios and oatmeal are available at any meal. The menu also offers, much like specials in a restaurant, two different entree choices at each meal every day. There is a set service time for meals, but one can have most foods anytime all day. I really liked my friendly and capable ambassador, Paula Costello.

Because I was there to try the food as well as the service, I ordered a lot, both from the set menu and the “special” of the day. I had the beer-battered cod sub, which was very tasty. Paula prompted me to order the lemon wedge with it and some tartar sauce. As  it is something I know pretty well, I ordered a hamburger to do a comparison. Paula again suggested I have a cheeseburger. It was big and juicy, a third of a pound, and grilled.

I tried the homemade soup of the day, turkey vegetable. It was very good, with large turkey chunks. The hospital makes more than 90 percent of its food from scratch, quite a feat for a kitchen that serves 1,000 meals a day. I also had fresh tossed salad, custard and hot tea. I was feeling really full and really healthy.

It was a fun experience, and I have to admire the people at Nathan Littauer for taking a chance and inviting us. Was the food really “gourmet?” By restaurant standards, maybe not quite. Was the service and food better than I expected at a hospital? You bet! As one patient told us, Expressly for You worked very well for her.

Oddly enough, my greatest impression was of the hospital itself. It was bright, fresh, clean and neat. There were no messy notes hanging around the patient’s room or the nurse’s stations. It didn’t feel like a hospital. The kitchen also fit the “clean and neat” category, even though we visited right after lunch.

Comments? Readers may write to anita@anitaalacarte.com.

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