CEDAR RAPIDS — Matt Melone wants to dispel any negative ideas people have about cafeteria food.
As the new executive chef at UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital, he’s bringing his experience from the restaurant world to the hospital’s kitchens. The former chef and co-owner of Cedar Rapids restaurant Pig and Porter is helping lead efforts at the hospital’s newly renovated dining services area.
“I want to get away from the whole stigma of cafeteria food,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be bad. Yes, it does take more work, but you can do it.”
He came on board at the hospital on the tail end of a year of renovations to the cafeteria and kitchen, which wrapped up with a grand opening and ribbon-cutting Dec. 16.
The period of renovation wasn’t easy, with sections of the cafeteria and kitchen closed throughout the year and a limited menu available. At one point they didn’t have a working dishwasher and were serving as much as they could on paper plates.
Still, it was time for an upgrade to the 1950s-era kitchen, said UnityPoint Health spokeswoman Sarah Corizzo.
“The kitchen was out-of-date,” she said. “It just kind of brought us up to date.”
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Some updates seem small but are a big help to kitchen staff, such as a refrigerated salad bar. Before the renovation, they had to carry in buckets of ice.
Previously, the cafeteria was a traditional tray line, said director of dining services Hope Clark. Now, visitors can custom-order deli or panini sandwiches or grab a slice of pizza or other food from grab-and-go areas. This week, one section of the cafeteria featured a ramen bar. That area will rotate — last week it had Chinese food, for example. Warming plates keep the scent of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies wafting over one area of the cafeteria.
Clark said having a place to escape the rest of the hospital for a bite to eat and a break is important.
“It’s an area people can go and take a break and just relax from the stressful environment they might be in,” she said. “It just gives people a place to go.”
She said they’re still ramping the menu up and will continue to experiment and add features as they grow into the new kitchen and take visitor feedback.
“With Matt here and myself, we’re able to do some more things,” she said.
Melone said while cooking at a hospital is different from cooking in restaurants, the importance of food and hospitality remains the same.
“You can’t imagine what people’s days are like,” he said. “Something as simple as a good meal can propel you through the day.”
Changes aren’t just to the cafeteria. The kitchen renovations mean patients can order food any time the cafeteria is open.
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Previously, all the patients were served at the same time of day, said Lisa Schadler, patient services manager.
“If you wanted to eat or not, we were going to send you a tray,” she said. “Now it’s room service, cooked to order.”
Over 100 employees work in the hospital’s dining services, Clark said. They serve around 750 people a day just in the cafeteria, plus 500 to 700 more patients who get room service. Those dining in the cafeteria include not only family and friends of patients but doctors, nurses and other staff. They also cater UnityPoint Health events and meetings.
Staff held a naming contest for the new cafeteria, which they dubbed the Ten Twenty-Six Grille. The cafeteria also is open to the public. Located on the main level of the hospital just off the B elevators, it is open for breakfast from 6 to 10 a.m., lunch from 10:45 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and dinner from 4:45 to 7 p.m. Grab-and-go food is available throughout the day.
“Not a lot of people think, ‘I want to go eat at the hospital’ ” Clark said. “But we’d like to cater to the public, too. It’s available to them.”
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