Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Northwest Hospital kitchen moves outside

Imagine the inherent difficulty of preparing, delivering and serving 10,000 meals for hospital patients, staff and visitors each week.

Now imagine attempting this feat outside under a 30-foot by 40-foot enclosed tent, in 20 degree weather, with a snow storm bearing down on you.

Such has been the challenge facing Northwest Hospital Dietetic Services employees for the last few months during a complete ceiling-to-floor renovation of the hospital's kitchen. Rather than remain inside and try to work around the construction for a year, hospital executives boldly decided to relocate the entire food preparation operation outdoors, enabling crews to complete the renovation in just three months. Such a move has never before been attempted by a hospital the size of Northwest.

“We had a plan, but we didn’t know if it would work,” says Dietetic Services Director Sam Borozzi. “We are learning as we go.”

Working without any sort of blueprint forces the staff to make adjustments on the fly. First they had to find a tent that would withstand unpredictable fall weather. They had to figure out how to run water and electrical service to the tent. The start was delayed several weeks because of problems getting permits.

“We even had the Baltimore County Health Department scratching their heads to make sure all the permits and licenses are the way they’re supposed to be,” Sam says.

The switchover took place overnight on October 18 and went fairly smoothly. To get inside the tent, you enter through a covered walkway extending out to the ground floor rear entrance. Inside the tent, it’s a flurry of activity. There are separate stations for steamers, ovens and grills and a cold food preparation area where salads are assembled. Because the equipment takes up so much room, the spaces between are cramped. There’s no room – or patience for – people standing around. Collisions were a daily occurrence in the beginning, and though Sam expected to lose some staff, no one has walked off the job.

Because the distance traveled is farther and involves a short walk outside, patient food trays are assembled inside the tent using a new Heat On Demand system, which warms plates to 250 degrees. It came in handy when the nearest patient tower elevator went out of service shortly after the move and employees had to truck their delivery carts through the ER-7 entrance, even in the rain.

“I had to run out and buy a bunch of ponchos for them,” says Digna Planas, assistant director of Dietetic Services.

Sam credits the Dietetic staff with being resilient in the face of adversity.

“They have really adapted well,” Sam says. “The tent has actually had the reverse effect - they’ve really come together as a team.”

Another major hurdle – keeping frozen food frozen and perishable food cold. A giant trailer-size refrigerator and freezer are parked outside the tent. Early on, tent employees were getting soaking wet running back and forth in the rain. After Tropical Storm Gustav hit, Facilities workers fashioned a temporary, covered walkway to protect the staff from the elements. The freezer sits several feet off the ground, so a wooden ramp and loading dock had to be constructed.

Jerrod Harris is the storing clerk for Northwest. His office these days – when it’s dry – is a wooden picnic table. Jerrod is responsible for ordering perishable foods, keeping inventory, unloading the delivery trucks when they arrive and storing everything in a manner so that the kitchen staff has quick access. Tempers can flare when it’s 80 degrees and there are 500 boxes of frozen meat to store in an already cramped and claustrophobic freezer.

“It’s been a trial-and-error situation,” Jerrod says. “No one has worked in this kind of situation before. It’s much better now that a system is in place.”

Once complete, the new kitchen will feature an open layout that makes it easier to navigate, with shorter walls and more space. A new, environmentally friendly water filtration system will better separate grease, and the staff will have the ability to do room service for patients.

Though he is eager to move back inside, Jerrod realizes that too will be an adjustment.

“You just take it one day at a time,” he says.

No comments: