If you had visited UW Health Partners Watertown (WI) Regional Medical Center a few years ago and then come back recently, you would be shocked at the difference. At least if you had taken a meal there both times.

Up until a couple years ago, Watertown Regional had deployed a very traditional foodservice that relied on a lot of heat-and-serve dishes, prepackaged sides and frozen ingredients. The food was filling but uninspiring.

Today, following a $3 million renovation, the hospital boasts a brand new main retail dining operation called Harvest Market that menus food made exclusively from scratch (except for the pasta and bread sourced from a local bakery). The hospital even makes its own pastries and desserts under the supervision of its own pastry chef.

Patients in the 90-bed facility received room service meals through out the day using the same scratch approach.

Among the most dramatic features of the new foodservice operation:

• a 30-person culinary staff that includes a group of chefs with significant commercial restaurant/resort/hotel experience;
• a fully functioning vegetable washing/prep room;
• a refrigerated butcher room where fish, chicken and beef are processed;
• an 11,000-sq.ft. garden that supplies the kitchen with nearly 50 different crops during the growing season.

Harvest Market opened in early November after an extensive renovation that had the hospital preparing and trucking food over from a nearby church kitchen for four months.

The new café has boosted participation, says Executive Chef Justin Johnson. “In the old cafeteria, we’d get maybe 400 customers a day. Now, we get 400 just for lunch and up to 600 a day. Each day, it seems, sales are higher than before.”

Johnson is a veteran chef with a Cordon Bleu and CIA pedigree who had previously worked in B&I with Sodexo, at a high-end retirement community and as executive chef and F&B director for a major hotel.

He was hired by Watertown Regional last spring specifically to head the transformation of its dining program.

Johnson admits a modest price increase since the new café opened but it isn’t a major factor either in boosting sales or dampening participation.

“In fact,” he notes, “there was a faction of the staff that never ate here before for various reasons and now they do. Frankly, there’s not a better restaurant anywhere in the area than Harvest Market.”

Among his duties, Johnson has spent a lot of time training the staff, much of which is new. The sessions encompassed three hours a day twice a week for 26 weeks.

The garden, located only a couple hundred yards from the kitchen, “supports our needs and then some during the season,” Johnson says. Kitchen and maintenance staff work it on a volunteer basis. Johnson says he plans to eventually add some hoop houses to expand production.