Vibrant print on chairs in a dining room

Data and Design: Working together for savings

Data-driven design changes lead to better performance and satisfied diners.

We live in a design-conscious world. Fashionable clothes. Custom cars. Wondrous phone apps. New and fresh is always attractive, and healthcare foodservice is taking notice. That’s because good design brings efficiencies that can improve performance and reduce costs.

Kitchen and dining design changes are bringing “hospital” and “hospitality” together more than ever. And senior living and long-term care providers are learning the value of appealing to a population that has a lifetime of food experiences. For Scott Reitano, Principal at Reitano Design Group, this means exciting changes. His Indianapolis-based company has worked with healthcare and education dining around the world to create solutions that lead to everything from better eating to higher profits, customer satisfaction and cost-saving efficiencies.

“Our hospitals and senior living areas compete for customers by using amenities as a selling point,” he says. “Part of that has to be food and the way it’s served.”

The power of food is undeniable. Eating is front and centre at every party or social gathering. As the people working in healthcare-related dining embrace this culture of food, they have a lot to learn from observing college and university foodservice as well as retail dining.

Recognizing benefits of change

Both front and back of house design updates can improve receiving and storage, enhance kitchen flow, speed up service lines, build better sales and reduce waste. The result? More meals per labour hour and reduced plate cost.

But change isn’t easy, and often it’s expensive. It’s also unlikely the cast of “Extreme Makeover” or “Kitchen Crashers” is dropping by anytime soon. So, unless you’re building a new kitchen or have money budgeted for renovation, it’s valuable to look for improvements you can make in the space you have.

Some changes may look very modest. Performing a task using three steps instead of five doesn’t sound like a big deal until you consider how those steps add up day after day into meaningful savings. Design, Reitano points out, makes possible many beneficial changes. He suggests taking a look at three areas—context, benchmarking and trends—to guide useful design changes.

Consider context

Every operation has a story. A hospital, for example, may have a mission statement that emphasizes being part of the community, with wellness classes, fitness and nutrition education, or even community involvement. “If so, then your serving space needs to be tangible evidence of your commitment to wanting people to be healthy,” Reitano says.

It’s not about being food police, denying people burgers and fries, but rather about offering a fresh fruit bar front and centre or to-go options that are exciting, colourful and healthy. Because people eat with their eyes, he suggests directing people to the food you want them to eat. It can be accomplished by simply putting the fried food in the back corner and the colourful fruits and vegetables by the entrance.

This approach helps manage what you buy, how you prepare it and the way it’s served. All of these lead to savings by controlling prep time and labour.

For hospitals and senior care, it’s possible to fulfill your wellness mission statement and get people excited about food. “Everyone has a chef these days,” Reitano notes. “Why not bring that chef out of the kitchen to cook presentation-style? Create an entrée of the day at a portable induction-cooking station and hand out samples.”

He even envisions cooking classes as a way to connect with everyone from employees to patients, residents and the public. Failing to practice what you preach could be driving people to eat elsewhere, and losing a large percentage of your staff at lunchtime or failing to entice visitors to try your dining options is costly.

Know the importance of benchmarking

Collecting and analyzing data never sounds exciting. But data never lies, and it gets your operation to look at real numbers relevant to your business. Reitano suggests starting with metrics such as the number of people served. If yours is a 140-bed hospital or a senior community with 80 residents, compare with other like-sized operations. The data might be as simple as comparing your dining area square footage with the competition.

“Suddenly, you’re noticing other things … what’s popular, what’s not popular,” he says. “If you prepare a spreadsheet that shows six area hospitals making pizza, you can decide if it’s something you want to add to your offerings.”

Scouting the competition provides an idea of what’s playing well in the marketplace. And, if the comparison comes from a similar-sized operation, you move beyond the numbers and analytics and into concepts.

Rough comparative data often leads to concrete gains. For example, Reitano says, you may decide to offer more choices and find out that, as a result, participation goes up. And, if people like their choices, food waste declines.

Food waste is one of Reitano’s pet peeves. He urges using a collection bucket to weigh uneaten and unserved food at the end of the day. Once the waste is tracked, it’s possible to enact measures to reduce it. “Maybe you’ll discover that you have extra trays of food on days when medical tests are administered. That will teach you to communicate with medical staff and not overprepare in the future.” That kind of benchmarking data, combined with communication, creates savings that go right to the bottom line.

Keep in touch with trends

Fresh is the key word these days, Reitano observes. “Fresh and healthy are not the same thing, but it equates to more engaged eating—if a panini sandwich or an omelet is prepared in front of a guest, there’s a feel of freshness.” Other trends on Reitano’s radar:

Customizable food. When customers choose ingredients at pasta bars, deli counters, pizza and wok stations, it increases consumption and reduces waste.

Socialization. People want to eat in a space where they can talk and share, which increases participation.

Expanded hours. People no longer eat at traditional meal times. You may be missing revenue if you only serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. Consider keeping a café open at all hours.

How design pays off

You want to make design comfortable and inviting, and Reitano makes it happen using this three-word secret: follow the food. From the loading dock where it arrives to the tables where it’s consumed, the right design changes make a difference. Reducing the distance between the back door and the cooler can save time and labour at delivery. Properly stocked shelves streamline inventory and reduce overstock. Getting food quickly from oven to plate enhances quality, and proper presentation reduces waste.

Turning data into design can build a success story. If your new front-of-house design increases traffic, you may need more labour. The higher labour cost is actually a win if your sales increase so much that you can afford more labour and make more money. Ultimately, your meals per labour hour go down.

Data can drive better design. And better design can provide improved results. It’s a circle that can result in time, labour and cost savings, as well as reduced waste, improved revenue and higher customer satisfaction. The kind of data that’s always in fashion.