For post-skiing food, Mary and Jeff Howser (names changed) favor the Castle Creek Cafe. These retirees, who are avid skiers and outdoor enthusiasts, appreciate the healthy options, the low prices, and the freshness and quality of the food. They also like the fact that they can enter the cafe directly from the street (which is convenient when wearing skiing gear). This little detail may not sound like much, but it makes a difference when a restaurant is located within a hospital, as Castle Creek is.
The Howsers are far from the only regulars at the Castle Creek Cafe, located inside Aspen Valley Hospital. It’s a popular breakfast spot for city workers. It also feeds people on both sides of the law; police officers visit daily, and the cafe delivers to inmates at the local jail 7 days a week. The cafe makes a point of welcoming community members with no hospital affiliation. And its menus, made available to view a month at a time, include items like herbed farro pilaf, corn soufflé, and panko crusted cod. We’re a long way away from institutional slop.
The Howsers discovered the cafe, which Mary calls “the best kept secret in Aspen,” after having some tests done in the hospital. She says, “Never in my wildest dreams did I think hospital food could be tasty!” The experience has even inspired them to check out restaurants at other hospitals.
One Colorado hospital restaurant that should be next on their list is Manna, within Castle Rock Adventist Hospital. Tim Davis, a 37-year-old Coloradoan, heard about the restaurant through his sister, who was having a treatment at the hospital. Now it’s a favored destination for Davis, even though he doesn’t live in the area. “Their menu has real gourmet style food you would expect from a high priced restaurant, but sold to you at a much more affordable price,” he says. One dish is maple glazed duck confit, consisting of a maple glazed duck leg served with swiss chard and spätzle, for $9. The grilled Thai cabbage steak, with marinated cabbage, spicy lime dressing, and shishito pepper, is even cheaper. Their burger buns even come adorned with a monogrammed M.
One reason for its affordability is that the restaurant is partly subsidized by the hospital. Even without a subsidy, hospital restaurants are able to keep prices low because they make large volumes of food. In a cafeteria-style setup, customers also save money by not tipping.
Davis isn’t exactly a hospital food junkie. “I’ve sampled the cuisine on occasion but it’s not something I go out of my way to do on purpose… Hospital food in general has a reputation, and you could say it's very well earned. It’s terrible.” But Manna, he says, “is a complete 180.”
High-quality food at reasonable prices make hospital restaurants like Manna shine, but one might consider hospital dining for a host of other considerations, like convenience or the ability to be left alone for long stretches (if that’s what you’re into). Hospitals are also more mindful of dietary requirements than an average restaurant.
However, enthusiasm for hospital dining is not without its issues. Having the choice to enter a medical facility for non-essential reasons is a privilege—one that doesn’t extend to chronically or terminally ill patients. Relishing a meal amidst other people’s pain and grief just seems intuitively wrong. But, for those who are unbothered by these possibilities, the value and convenience of hospital dining can be hard to beat. Take Rob Dinos (name changed), who lived in a dorm as a college freshman in Vermont. One problem was that there were no places on campus to eat after 10pm. But as he and his roommates discovered, “The hospital cafeteria was open very late! What a relief! ... It was much more convenient than going all the way downtown for food.” Besides, the quality was good. As a vegetarian, Dinos “took advantage of the salad bar, which was always fresh and well stocked.”
While salad bars and attempts to make food more nutritious attract some, they alienate others. Like Dinos, Carol Gee found her way to hospital food through a university connection. After serving in the military, both Gee and her husband worked at Emory University (where he was the Assistant Director of Hospital and Restaurant Services). University staff often opt to eat at the hospital cafeteria, as it accommodates short lunch breaks. For a time, she said the food at the hospital was “wonderful.” The setup was in the style of a food court, and Gee was partial to turkey burgers, cream of broccoli soup, fish, and fried chicken. This was a treat for her: “Because my husband has some chronic health issues, I seldom fry foods, so I could enjoy an occasional chicken drumstick or a couple wings at lunch.”
In step with a larger national push to make hospital food more nutrient-rich, this particular hospital established healthier, but blander, menus with less choice—and lost Gee as a customer. “Things are not the same,” Gee told me, and she's not the only one who lost interest. According to her husband, after the push, the hospital “started losing money when folks stopped coming to eat [and] sales naturally went down.” More people started to bring their lunches from home or eat from vending machines.
This choice between nutrient-rich food and income-generating food is an ethical issue, which especially affects hospitals where food service is an important source of revenue. Is it hypocritical for hospitals, which are supposed to promote health, to have fast food chains like McDonalds and Chick-Fill-A on their premises, or use a multi-national catering giant like Sodexo, which also services private prisons? On the other hand, isn't it important for hospitals to be fiscally responsible? Many point out that fast food in hospitals are meant for visitors, not patients. Additionally, meals prepared by hospital chefs might not be much healthier than fast food.
Someone who’s seen this first-hand is Christopher Gerhart, who used to be the chef at a church-affiliated hospital in central Texas. He explains, “For the families, visitors and staff, there was a huge disconnect between knowledge and practice. It was a heart hospital, and one of the best-selling meals was a deep fried chicken breast, smothered in cheese sauce, served with macaroni and cheese and green beans soaked and slathered in bacon grease.” Gerhart’s own specialty was a chili, served daily, that garnered awards in cook-offs and was written about in a local paper.
One advantage for the regulars at the hospital cafeteria was the ability to catch up with familiar faces without being hurried out. As Gerhart says, “At a traditional restaurant, having three to eight people congregated around a $0.50 cup of coffee and the occasional sandwich or bowl of soup for several hours at a time is just bad business. In a hospital cafeteria, not so much … Most hospitals have rather large cafeterias, with larger than needed seating areas.”
So low costs, central locations, and uninterrupted time to linger can make hospital dining appealing. Increasingly, so can the variety of the food on offer. Arizona’s Banner Health is one non-profit medical group that prides itself on culinary innovation—and for surprising visitors when it comes to hospital food. Its facilities offer Mongolian grill, sushi, hummus bars, wood-fired pizza, and other things that go against the cheap-coffee-and-sad-pasta image some people have of hospital restaurants. While these restaurants are always going to be secondary to the patient focus, Miriah Smith, Executive Chef at Banner Desert Medical Center and Cardon Children’s Medical Center, acknowledges that “revenue generated within our retail segments is critical to offset operating expenses generated by the [medical] department.”
This is why Mark Milek, Director of Culinary & Nutrition Services at Banner Desert and Cardon Children’s, says: “Most if not all of the facilities allow and welcome local residents to dine in their facilities. Visitors that have no connection to staff or patients are always welcome to enjoy a meal.” So it’s “safe to assume that most hospital restaurants/bistros are open to the public,” although Milek recommends calling in advance to make sure.
Rob Dinos, the former Vermont college student, can back up this advice. On one of his and his roommates’ trips to the hospital cafeteria, a hospital employee asked them if they were staff or visitors, and told them they weren’t supposed to be eating there. When they went back to the hospital, they found that the entrances closest to the cafeteria were locked.
Of course, even for the many people with a local hospital restaurant that welcomes non-patients, eating at a hospital, when you don’t need to be there, just sounds depressing. Not even a stellar view, like the one the Royal London Hospital touts on their website, can change that. More importantly, it might be disrespectful to the people who do need to be there, or in poor taste. Iola Kostrzewski recently spent an extended period of time in a Minnesota hospital due to a post-surgery infection, and her main reaction to the idea of willing hospital diners is surprise: “I have never met anyone who volunteers to eat hospital food, at least [here], where [people] are apparently allergic to seasoning.” She’s unfazed, though, by the prospect: “It doesn’t bother me. People need food, and a hospital is a community asset.”
Any thoughts on hospital food? Tell us in the comments.
Join The Sandwich Universe co-hosts (and longtime BFFs) Molly Baz and Declan Bond as they dive deep into beloved, iconic sandwiches.Listen Now