It’s often said that experience is the best teacher. In foodservice, it can also guide concept refinements that enhance an already successful operation. At Boston’s busy Massachusetts General Hospital, where Nutrition Services has operated its high-volume Coffee Central unit for over 15 years, a recent overhaul gave the department a chance to use its experience to fine tune what has always been a hugely successful retail operation.

The retail Coffee Central unit, which operates 24/7, now services about 3,300 customers and has been ringing up about $10,000 a day in beverage, baked goods and limited prepared food sales. That represents a better than 20 percent increase over its sales volume before the upgrade.

Just as important, the improvements helped the department streamline operations to improve efficiency, speed of service and throughput, according to Joan Shea, Mass General’s assistant director of retail operations and new business development.

Classy, in an understated sense

“The physical operation had to be renovated,” she says. “After years of constant use, equipment maintenance had gotten costly and the physical flooring and façade had deteriorated. Coffee Central had originally been designed for half the volume and to operate only during the day. Because we’d moved to a 24-hour operation, we needed more flexible production capacity to be efficient.”

Mass General’s administration recognized those needs and approved funding as a capital project, but also had specific concerns.

“In an era of accountable care, it was clearly communicated that our mission was to ensure that the look and feel of Coffee Central portrayed a highly-efficient, quality operation, but was to avoid some of the ‘glitz’ of commercial concepts,” Shea says. “The expectation was that we make it classy in an understated sense, appealing to the comfort level of our wide range of customers and making them feel at home.”

The department brought in Cini-Little’s Ron Kooser, who had consulted on the original project, to help evaluate the operation’s potential and specify needed changes. The renovation itself was shoehorned into a 12-week period between Thanksgiving and mid February of last year.
Learning from experience

Given the operation’s longstanding success, what changes were needed? The major ones stemmed from the evolution of the unit’s service profile over time:

• continuous high volume traffic was producing customer queues that weren’t being served at maximum throughput rates;

• customer lineups across the front counter usually blocked a view of baked item choices in the merchandising case;

• a move from daytime operation only to 24/7 overnight service required some additional prep and production space;

• and changes in ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements needed to be addressed in the counter/service layout.

Some upgrades weren’t options, given the hospital’s requirements. For example, because of its location at the main crossroads within Mass General’s hospital complex, heavy and constant foot traffic leaves no room for coffee shop seating. Further, space limitations meant there was only room for a modest extension of the counter’s length. And because the unit’s location was so close to the main entrance, the hospital still wanted to avoid the kind of self-service options that would necessitate constant clean up and complicate hallway traffic patterns.