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Food for Thought: New Concepts in Hospital Cafeteria Design

By Jennifer Voigt, AIA, LEED AP, BD+C, EDAC

“Foodie” culture is sweeping the nation, aided by apps like Yelp, Grubhub, and OpenTable, and your local hospital is likely not immune (see what I did there?)

With CMS reimbursement rates now tied to patient and family experience, and healthcare organizations laser-focused on attracting and retaining top talent, sometimes it’s the “intangibles” that make all the difference: That’s the business case. Add into that, food plays a direct role in 4 of the leading causes of death in the US, and it’s natural that hospitals are rethinking their nutritional offerings.  These are some of the concepts being employed by our clients to overhaul the image of the traditional hospital cafeteria:

1. Farm-to-Table

Who doesn’t love a good farmers market? Wherever possible, hospitals are looking to bring fresher products and locally-sourced ingredients into their offerings. Some are even growing their own food on-site! As part of their new hospital campus, Western Wisconsin Health has made space available for community gardens, and organized how-to sessions for the public. Read more about their efforts here or here

2. Made to Order

We’re increasingly seeing a shakeup to the “cafeteria concept” in favor of a fast-casual, made-to-order experience. As we worked with Centegra Health System to design their new hospital in Huntley, IL, they wanted a fresher concept for their dining room visitors.  Gone are the tray lines and warming pans; instead guests order at the counter and pick up their completed, made-to-order meal, similar to popular fast casual retail restaurants such as Panera or Noodles &Co. Also, family and staff can place their meal orders ahead of time via a mobile app, and have their food ready when it’s convenient.

3. It Tastes Better Outside

I don’t know where you are dear reader, but here in the Midwest we Live. For. Summer.  When presented with the opportunity to dine inside or out, on a sunny day May-September, we are appalled at the notion of being penned inside. Considering that many visitors to the hospital cafeteria are staff and physicians on break who are otherwise stuck inside for long shifts, combined with the relative affordability of building outside space vs in, and it’s just good sense that hospitals are increasingly seizing on the opportunity to extend their dining rooms outdoors. 

Roof Terrace Dining at Monroe Clinic

4. View from the Top

It used to be that hospital cafeterias were in the basement or “the back”. That was because they were thought to be inexorably linked to the kitchen, which was tethered to the hospital loading dock (thus, the basement). These days, though, it is more likely that material flow can be thoughtfully managed in other ways, and the dining area can be better positioned to take advantage of the pleasing view (plus points for combining with outdoor dining mentioned above).  Patient Experience research has shown us that satisfaction and healing increases with access to nature, and that applies to the dining experience as well.  In some of our recent projects, such as Martha Jefferson Hospital in Virginia, Monroe Clinic in Wisconsin, and the soon-to-open HSHS St Elizabeth’s Hospital in O’Fallon, IL, that view is best captured at the top.   There are many advantages to putting the dining room on an upper floor; it frees up valuable space on the entry level for “front door” clinical uses, it oftentimes puts the dining room closer to the inpatient bedrooms making it more convenient for families and staff, and as a cherry on top, staff and visitors are oftentimes afforded some spectacular views.

Martha Jefferson Hospital dining with views of the mountains
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