MONTROSE – On a visit to Montrose Memorial Hospital last week, I decided to give its cafeteria a try.
I had heard the food was good, but that didn’t keep me from being astonished by its Lobby Grille menu.
Pork loin picatta over almond basmati rice and vegetable of the day. Chili lime crab and shrimp cakes with baby greens, lemon vinaigrette and chipotle aioli. Wild salmon burrito with goat cheese and cucumber salsa. Chiles rellenos with confit of duck and white cheddar cheese on a roasted red pepper sauce.
Not your typical hospital fare.
“See anything that catches your eye?” Michael Krull, the director of food services at MMH, asked as I scanned the menu posted outside the Lobby Grille entrance, which serves an average of 700 patients, doctors and diners every weekday.
“How about the striped bass?” I said.
“Great choice,” Krull said. “Let me show you how this works.”
Donning a neatly pressed chef’s coat, he took over to one of the brightly lit, busy restaurant’s two chest-high computers that automatically place customers’ orders, clicking on the striped bass with edamame ginger salad for me, and the chile rellenos with duck confit for himself. We grabbed soft drinks and took a seat in the dining room while our lunches were prepared.
As Krull pointed out, the Lobby Grille is divided into four stations. Once you place your order at the computer, the kitchen staff starts cooking your food.
To the left of the entrance is the “flex” station, where a chef using a large wok prepared Thai shrimp in lemongrass coconut sauce with scallion cakes. Next to the flex station is a fiery hearth oven where freshly made pizzas, calzones and fish specialties are baked to order.
To the right of the hearth sits the grill, where bison-burger patties sizzled. A nurse breezed by to pick up a Reuben sandwich, made with lean eye round of pastrami, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing.
The center of the room features a generously stocked salad bar, and a constant stream of hospital employees in scrubs dishing up their individual salads.
The Lobby Grille's selection of fresh food, creative dishes and price point (no dish costs more than $7) is impressive. Here is a world of fresh, affordable and perfectly executed food possibilities. I was about to eat a cooked-to-order striped bass in an inviting and comfortable setting – in a hospital cafeteria.
“It’s not what you would expect,” Krull confirmed. “We are trying to break that mold of what people think hospital food is.”
With a menu full affordable, fresh tastes and made-to-order dishes, Krull explained, he walks a fine line by running the Lobby Grille as a self-sustaining restaurant. As a break-even operation, Krull said he has to be creative with his budget.
Unlike many hospital kitchens, where pre-made, processed food is simply heated and served, Krull spends a large portion of his budget on trained culinary staff, now numbering 17 people. The first order of business is acquiring the most affordable, fresh ingredients available; that done, Krull works with his staff to come up with creative recipes for the food on hand.
“We take the most affordable ingredients and I show these guys how to make fresh and creative dishes,” Krull said. “I do a lot of educating here and it’s really fun.
“We have to get creative or we would get really bored,” he said.
As if on cue, a tray of food passed by featuring a seasonal cheese plate and a cedar-planked capicollo and citrus snapper dish, alongside my striped bass and Krull's chile rellenos.
Staff presenter Vinny Loco carefully and enthusiastically explained each dish, his pride in the food evident.
“It's great being creative with the food here,” Loco said. “Every day we have a lot of people come in here, especially staff, and comment on our food. There is a lot of interaction with our customers here, and it's surprisingly nice.”
All four dishes were beautifully put together, the colors, textures and flavors perfectly balanced . The striped bass was moist, flakey settled just so into the edamame ginger beneath. The spicy kick of chile rellenos with duck confit was absolutely wonderful.
Krull, 41, received his culinary training at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., moving to Montrose in 1997. When he first started at MMH, he said, he had concerns about the variety and the ingredients being served.
“A lot of it was heat and serve,” Krull said. “Now we are cooking the food in a self-sustaining way, and each plate is different.”
In keeping with a self-sustaining theme, Krull buys local produce whenever he can, and plans to look as far as Delta County next summer for regionally grown food. “With the amount of people we serve here, it can be tough,” he allowed, “ but I will buy from our local farmers to the extent that I can,” he said, adding he hopes to have an herb garden of his own, soon.
“It all comes back to sustainability. We try to change our menu quarterly so we are serving what is in season. It’s also nice to change the menu, so we don’t get bored cooking the same thing over and over again.”
While the restaurant is open to the public, Krull is not trying to compete with other dining establishments in Montrose. His priority is to provide the best service he can to anybody using hospital facilities, whether they’re patients, patients’ family members or visitors. He compares his operation to running a hotel.
“Really, we have a hotel mentality,” he said. “We have patients staying in beds receiving a service. While they are not receiving a concierge service, they are receiving a service and we are their full-blown room service business.”
The significant improvements Krull and his staff have brought to the hospital’s food service have not gone unnoticed.
“We are in the 88th percentile in patient satisfaction out of 350 hospitals surveyed,” Krull said. “That puts us in the top 40 hospitals in that group. We are just a part of the entire hospital team here and if we can keep that trend going, then we at Montrose Memorial Hospital can be proud of what we are doing.”
The Lobby Grille is open to the public from 7 a.m.-7 p.m., Monday-Friday, and on weekends, from 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Orders placed during business hours are available for pickup in approximately 15 minutes later. To see what you’re missing, visit www.montrosehospital.com/lobbygrille/index.html, where the Lobby Grille’s menu is posted daily.