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From Scratch: Reimagining Hospital Food

Robin Anderson, AIA, EDAC, Senior Project Architect, Eppstein Uhen Architects

What do you picture when you hear the words “hospital food”?  Most of us imagine a cafeteria tray of lukewarm, bland food served at a prescribed meal time.  That isn’t the case with many recently renovated healthcare facilities.  A recent article in US News & World Report titled 'How Healthy is Hospital Food?' reported that hospitals across the country are redefining ‘hospital food’ and reinventing food service.  The traditional mass produced, institutional cafeteria model is stepping aside in favor of scratch-prepared food served in a welcoming café environment.  Eppstein Uhen Architect’s client, Watertown Regional Medical Center (WRMC), is at the forefront of this dramatic redefinition.

Watertown Regional Medical Center (WRMC), a UW Health Partner, wanted to renovate its outdated, undersized kitchen and dining spaces into an environment that would support its vision to “Inspire, Guide and Transform”.  The Eppstein Uhen Architects (EUA) team began the design process with them in July, 2012.

Inspiring the Community

The project began with development of a new brand and vision for the food service department with the help of Mark Knauer, a hospitality design expert.  Knauer conducted a Brand DNA (“Differentiators, Nuances, and Attitudes”) Workshop with the project stakeholders, who included food service staff, hospital administrators and members of the community.  The workshop generated a collection of key words and phrases that epitomized the guest experience, described the look and feel of the place, and identified expectations for food, beverage, and service.  Knauer’s team identified the following Brand DNA for WRMC:

  • Healthy food is the foundation
  • Actively serving the community
  • Local, fresh, natural
  • Fast, friendly, flavorful
  • Become “the third place” (to gather outside of home and the workplace)

With these phrases as inspiration, the EUA team designed kitchen and dining transformations.  The existing kitchen and dining space was built in 1970 and the layout was typical of that time. The serving area of the kitchen was undersized and congested during busy meal times, and the kitchen had several building code issues that needed to be addressed.  Rather than retrofitting, the team elected to demolish the original kitchen and dining spaces in April 2013 and create an entirely new food service department.   The scope of the project included new food preparation and cooking spaces, dining areas, a demonstration kitchen and conference room.

Once demolition was complete, the project team used lasers to scan the site of the previous kitchen area.  They then used the resulting data point information to create a 3D Building Information Model (BIM).  The architects, engineers and contractor employed this model to test design solutions and look for conflicts between building systems prior to the start of construction.  Utilizing BIM saved the project team time and money during the construction process by reducing the number of conflicts that occurred.


Transforming the Community

WRMC hired Chef Justin Johnson to lead the metamorphosis of the food service.  Chef Johnson, armed with restaurant and hospitality experience, shared his vision of using locally sourced fresh ingredients to prepare healthy food.  His goal is to eliminate frozen and canned ingredients and create all of the food from scratch. Not content with mere “locally sourced” ingredients, the hospital started an 11,000 SF kitchen garden that supplies much of their fresh produce.  The kitchen staff has grown 45 different crops, including tomatoes, greens, green beans, peas, cucumbers, asparagus, garlic, carrots, onions, and a variety of herbs.


This farm-to-table philosophy required designing a separate, HACCP-certified prep kitchen located adjacent to the loading dock for handling the fresh produce.  Prep cooks break down and prepare whole chickens, fish and meat in a refrigerated butcher room.  The elimination of frozen foods from the meal plans means that space previously used for a walk-in freezer can now be allocated for different purposes.

WRMC’s patients benefit greatly from the program’s transformation.  Since all dishes are prepared from scratch, the chefs can easily modify them to meet a patient’s dietary requirements.  Patients can also order meals any time that they are hungry since the hospital changed to a room service model. Cooking meals to order also helps to reduce food waste.

EUA’s additional modifications to the WFMC project included structural and operational sustainability goals. Carpet and resilient flooring are made from recycled fibers and tires, and the tables in the dining area are crafted from locally sourced reclaimed barn wood.  With access to large exterior windows, the dining space is lit by natural light much of the day and uses energy efficient LED light fixtures to provide supplemental lighting.  Other sustainable strategies include low flow toilets and faucets and a state-of-the-art demand-controlled ventilation system to reduce energy usage.  The Harvest Market now uses compostable takeout containers and provides filtered water instead of bottled, reducing the amount of waste and its carbon footprint.

Guiding the Community

To further support its vision, WRMC included a demonstration kitchen and classroom space in the renovated dining area.  Chef Johnson and staff dieticians host healthy cooking and nutrition classes that physicians can prescribe for their patients.  The classes, including topics like “A Taste of Harvest:  Rx for Health” and “Introducing Omegas:  Disease Fighting Fats,” are recorded so they can be watched later by patients or broadcast on local access television.  During the winter months, WRMC hosts a farmer’s market to increase the community’s access to local, fresh foods.  In the summer, WRMC hosts a community concert on the front lawn of the hospital.  Food from the Harvest Market is available for purchase during this fun event.

Reaching out to the community in these ways has made the Harvest Market a place where people congregate while learning about and enjoying fresh food.  One particular area of growth for the new Harvest Market is the number of carryout meals purchased by hospital staff, who appreciate the ability of freshly made, healthy meals to take home to their families.  Visitors to the café have increased by 40% since it opened in January 2014.  The Harvest Market and inpatient room service provide meals to approximately 400 people a day.  EUA is proud to have been part of this transformative project led by a visionary client.  Through the rebirth of their food service department, WRMC has proven that food can help heal.

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