How to adapt to special needs in food service
Niche bakeries help hospitals, schools and prisons meet allergen and special diet needs.
BakingBusiness.com, Nov. 1, 2012
by Charlotte Atchley

When most people think of food service, their thoughts settle on the restaurant industry. Although fast food, casual dining and upscale establishments account for a majority share of food service business, other segments have special challenges and needs that can provide opportunity for wholesale bakers.

“Understanding the needs of our operators and the patrons they serve is critical to our business,” said Angela Flenoy, bakery category manager for Sara Lee Foodservice, a division of Hillshire Brands Co., Peoria, IL. “We are continuing to hear from operators that providing better-for-you options is important and what they are looking for when making foodservice purchasing decisions.”

Schools, hospitals and correctional facilities all have been swept away by recent trends toward healthy eating, convenience and upscale offerings that can open new doors for savvy baking companies. School food service directors, for example, are collaborating with wholesale bakers to find new ways to make whole grains palatable in students’ favorite dishes. Hospitals, meanwhile, are trying to meet in-patient dietary needs while upgrading the menus at their cafeterias to better compete with nearby upscale cafés that patients’ family and friends may visit. Correctional facility food service departments need bakers who will meet their price points with consistent products that offer nutrition. 

Packing a wholesome punch

Food service directors at US schools participating in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP) have the biggest challenge this year meeting the first of the new nutritional guidelines from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). School cafeterias can only offer so many ounce equivalents of grains per week per age group (see chart on Page 38) and half of those baked foods must be whole-grain-rich, which USDA has defined as being made with at least 51% whole wheat flour. The rest of the flour must be enriched.

Finding whole grain products that are palatable to children is a challenge food service directors and bakers have been tackling together for years. For breakfast, Sara Lee Foodservice developed Sara Lee Whole Grain Muffins that provide 8 g of whole grain per serving, meeting the USDA guidelines. White whole wheat flour has made previously problematic products such as pizza crust softer and tastier for children. Other baked foods, however, continue to elude food service directors in an acceptable whole grain form.

Sara Gasiorowski, food service director for Wayne Township Schools in Indianapolis, IN, said that while whole grain tortillas are improving, her staff has yet to find a whole grain biscuit they are willing to bet precious food dollars on students accepting it.

School cafeterias also face the issue of creating the grain items to keep kids full while staying under the grain serving weekly maximums. “With these limits on grains and proteins, it is a struggle and a challenge to meet the calorie requirements because we’re limited on the grains,” Ms. Gasiorowski said. “Good-quality whole grain items are a great source of carbs, help keep kids full and help you meet those calorie requirements, but because of the grain limits, it’s a struggle.”

With daily minimum and weekly maximum ounce equivalents in play, food service directors have to provide students with enough grains every day without exceeding that weekly goal. This results in a constant balancing act when making a menu.

“We’ve had to drop dinner rolls with chicken nuggets where we would have had them in the past,” Ms. Gasiorowski said. “You can’t have a dinner roll anymore because we’ve got the grain on the breading that we have to count.”

Schools and bakers have found solutions by shrinking the sizes of popular grain products. Diane Pratt-Havener, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, said if a school wants to offer a sub sandwich line every day, it will need to swap last year’s 2-oz sub roll for a 1.75-oz sub roll. This allows the cafeterias to offer subs every day and still come in under the maximum grain allowances.

Nardone Brothers Pizza,

Wilkes-Barre, PA, reduced its crust size because it found that the pizzas it supplied to schools did not meet the new portion size requirements, according to Chelsey Stamey, nutritionist at the company.

As future guidelines phase in, schools will make all their grain offerings whole-grain-rich and lower in sodium. “Once food service directors swap out all their white grain items for whole grain items and they have these portion sizes under control, they will start looking at sodium,” Ms. Pratt-Havener said.

Nardone Brothers is already preparing for the inevitable. “Every year, it’s going to be stricter and stricter, but for now we’re good. In another two years, however, we’ll have to lower the sodium again,” Ms. Stamey said.

Catching the competition

Hospitals offer bakers two customer bases in one building: patients and everyone else in the hospital. Tray feeding for patients and retail outlets for hospital staff and visitors both offer different challenges that food service directors must address. While patient feeding is more rigid and dictated by nutritional guidelines, hospital cafeterias and cafés often find themselves competing with the restaurants and fast food operations across the street.

For inpatient feeding, convenience and food safety remain a hospital’s main priorities. To meet certain restrictions on sugar, carbohydrates and calories, food service directors look for smaller portion sizes. Mini desserts, for instance, allow patients to enjoy a decadent treat without adding too many extra calories or sugars. These smaller items also help food service directors stay within budget and nutrition restrictions.

“Using smaller portions of a dessert but still wowing patients is going to be a big thing,” said Ryan Conklin, executive chef, REX Healthcare, Raleigh, NC.

Tray service meals have to withstand storage time and environments. Individually wrapped bakery items can ensure freshness. “Although individually wrapped costs a bit more, the convenience and the freshness it delivers sometimes offsets any need to liquidate product that may have gone stale because it wasn’t handled properly at the hospital level,” said Mark Wallace, directory of category management for bakery, US Foods, Rosemont, IL. 

Hospital food outlets compete with other restaurants in the area for consumer dollars. These outlets operate like restaurants and bakery cafés with menus and a la carte options. “The needs of the cafeteria mirror the needs of the broader food service industry,” Mr. Wallace said. “Those needs include interesting desserts in portion sizes to fit an evolving, calorie-conscious American palate. I think the opportunities are as broad in a hospital cafeteria as they are at a local midscale restaurant.”

Just like restaurant owners, food service directors are searching for alternative sandwich carriers for their retail outlets. According to Mr. Conklin, the healthcare food scene typically revolves around simple sandwiches. To add a twist to the whole grain trend, REX Healthcare now offers its sandwiches on wheatberry bread instead of traditional whole wheat for both patient and retail feeding.

According to Mr. Conklin, patients and customers alike find the new bread more enticing than traditional whole wheat bread. With today’s consumer adapting to trendy bakery cafés, offering more artisan-style breads or multi-flavored wraps can elevate a hospital cafeteria or café’s menu to a restaurant-style level.

“We’re looking for things that are conveniently packed for us to reheat here,” Mr. Conklin said. “We’re looking for items we can put our own twist on. Those mini cupcakes that you would find in a more upscale market that we can’t typically make in a hospital kitchen, we want to get our hands on those.”

Providing nutrition at cost

With 2.4 million inmates and $2.5 billion in food sales each year, US correctional facilities can provide an opportunity for wholesale bakeries willing to take the necessary steps to serve such a unique client. According to Benson Li, past president of the Association of Correctional Food Service Affiliates, prisons can be a steady business for wholesale bakeries because their cyclical menus repeat food choices often and their large volumes make delivery worthwhile.

“Some facilities are also willing to buy excess or lower-grade items,” he said. Although such goods meet correctional facilities’ need for finished products at a reasonable price, some states have stricter rules regarding less-than-perfect items for inmates than others.

The ways to feed inmates can be as diverse as the facilities themselves. Food service operations run the gamut of serving individually packaged slices of bread or cakes to occupational bakery programs where inmates bake their own bread in onsite industrial bakeries. However, the emphasis remains on continuity, packaging and nutrition.

“In corrections, or any mass feeding, continuity is extremely important,” said John Dudek, retired superintendent for Illinois Correctional Industries Bakery. “You can’t give one person a larger piece of cake than another.” Instead of trying to cut the cake in the serving line, Mr. Dudek’s bakery switched to slicing and packaging its cake servings in the bakery instead. “Everything was the same weight and size and packaged, and the shelf life was better being packaged and sealed.”

In facilities without a bakery, Mr. Li said some food service directors will opt for sliced bread pre-packaged with two slices per package. Thaw-and-serve can also work well in a prison with little room for equipment to bake off the product. The diversity of product needs in correctional facilities around the country opens the door of opportunity for bakers.

Being the only source of food for inmates, most prisons must meet specific dietary guidelines. “We use the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, recommended daily intake, My Plate and My Pyramid,” Mr. Li said. “Whole grain is always in demand because we have to serve six servings of grains of which three must be 100% whole grain.”

Correctional facilities are also looking for other ways to nutritionally fortify inmate food. “USDA says vitamin A should be a part of a healthy diet, so we have a whole grain donut with added carrots,” he explained. “We also serve a breakfast bar with raisins and carrots. This improves the variety of products for the inmates.”

Taking on a correctional facility client, however, comes with some hoop jumping. Safety and security rule in correctional facilities. Even delivery truck drivers have to be cleared by security. “They can’t have any outstanding warrants, or else we will call the bakery saying, ‘Hi, come pick up your truck,’ ” Mr. Li said with a laugh.

Any bakery equipment that a correctional facility has must be modified: Inmates can’t be able to remove pieces of the machine to turn into weapons. Even yeast must be securely stored or else inmates can steal it to make their own moonshine. Despite such inconveniences, a correctional facility can provide a bakery with a consistent, large-volume customer.

With the specialized customer bases of schools, hospitals and correctional facilities, these segments offer opportunities beyond the typical supermarket shelf or restaurant counter. As schools and correctional facilities step up their game nutritionally, opportunities arise for bakers to offer nutritionally fortified baked goods to a different market. As hospitals try to compete with trendy cafés, demand for unique desserts and breads to wow patients, visitors and staff will allow more bakeries to indulge the artistic side of the mixing bowl and oven.