Hospital foodservice leaders continue to switch from traditional tray lines to pods for patient-meal-tray assembly, and it’s easy to see why. Breaking up a long, straight tray line and instead clustering equipment into pods, each run by two or three assemblers, increases efficiency and adds flexibility.
How do you set up pods? What equipment do you need? We asked a mix of operators about their experiences implementing pods. One operator invested in specialty pod equipment, featuring rear-side access for replenishing and full mobility, while another operator bought a few standard pod-specific pieces and then, to save money, assembled leftover equipment from an existing tray line to complete the pod. A third operator bought off-the-shelf equipment and put together her own pods. Their stories, loaded with useful tips and advice, will help you design a successful pod system.
Bennies Of Pods
But first, a few notes on typical pod layouts and the many benefits that come with the progressive system.
Facilities lay out pods in ways that best suit their needs, often as a result of space configurations or based on how many assemblers work with each hot-food server. Some operations lay out pods in a “T” formation, others an “L” or a “C.”
Each pod generally requires a steam table with five or six wells to accommodate top menu choices and a few alternative options as well as two worktables, an induction base heater, a dish heater, two air-curtain refrigerators, a hot-food holding cabinet, condiment bins and food delivery carts and storage racks for trays and domes.
In the past few years, manufacturers have made a handful of improvements in these pod-friendly equipment categories. One manufacturer offers an induction heat activator that can maintain hot-food temperatures at or above 140°F for up to 60 minutes without a preheated plate, eliminating the need for a dish heater.
Another manufacturer has released stainless dual-temp drop-in wells, allowing you to switch from hot to cold mode depending on your menu demands. Also on the market is a mini starter station that dispenses condiments and flatware within a small footprint, making it ideal for pods supporting room-service programs.
Pods offer plenty of benefits. Compared with tray lines, pods improve tray accuracy and appearance because assemblers are responsible for every aspect of the meal. They can check and double check that the tray is right. If there’s a mistake, they can correct it immediately. They also complete trays faster on a pod than on a tray line, making it possible to take orders the day the meals are served rather than the day before, as is traditional with many patient meal systems.
“A tray line can’t go any faster than the slowest person or task on the tray line, and every patient floor’s orders lines up behind it,” says Bill Notte, who is semi-retired but most recently was director-nutrition and dietetics at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Philadelphia. He has set up pods for numerous hospital kitchens throughout his 44-year career.
“Pods are like a scatter-style system,” Notte says. “Instead of standing in a buffet line, for example, there are serving stations, and you can go to where you need to get what you want. By using three pods with two worktables each, you can serve six patient floors at one time.”
If you run multiple pods, you can increase and decrease the number of stations open and operating throughout the day to meet menu demands. You can run all of the pods during the height of meal periods, then keep just one pod open to assemble the occasional late tray during off-peak times. With a tray line, there’s no ability to expand or contract because the entire line has to run and be staffed to produce complete trays.
Susan Bull, manager-nutrition and food services for The Scarborough Hospital (TSH) in Scarborough, Ontario, requested specialty pod equipment when she switched from a traditional tray line.
She was on a mission to better satisfy patients through enhanced menu offerings and wanted to expand an in-house, scratch-cooking program boasting local, fresh produce, but lacked the staff power. On advice from a peer, she reached out to a manufacturer for help designing a more efficient operation that would allow the department to reassign several employees to scratch-food production.
“We had a 53-ft. tray line, run by eight employees, to assemble meals three times a day for patients at our 325-bed hospital,” she says.
The manufacturer studied the operation and recommended two identical “L”-shaped pods. The department made the switch and now serves patients in the same amount of time as with the tray line but with five assemblers instead of eight. The remaining three employees perform scratch-food production.
Each pod at TSH has a steam table with four wells; on the opposite side is a refrigerated tray slider-rail table with spring-loaded bins below the rails that hold baskets of milk, juice or pre-portioned food. Assemblers reach down between the slider rails into the bins to grab the cold items and place them on the tray.
The condiment holder sports multiple bins suspended on a single pole on a mobile base (similar to an I.V.-drip pole on wheels) and workers position the unit within easy reach. They swing the bins close or out of the way depending on whether the tray they’re assembling requires its contents.
The air-curtain refrigerators used on the pods sport pass-through access so workers can replenish the unit from the back without interrupting assemblers in the front. Each pod also includes a hot-beverage table.
Susan Bull says switching to pods cost $150,000, including equipment and one week of staff training. “Before we officially switched systems, crews set up the pod equipment in another area of the hospital so staff could test it out and learn how to use it,” she says. “Then one night, workers deconstructed the old conveyor and set up the pods. Staff was ready to go the next morning, and it didn’t take them long to get used to it.”
The pod system at TSH is working so well, she says she hopes to make the same change at a 200-bed facility she manages at the hospital’s nearby Birchmount campus.
For operators considering pods, she recommends specifying mobile equipment when possible. It makes for easy cleaning, and you can reconfigure equipment, move it to a different part of the kitchen and create pop-up assembly stations to make sandwiches or to put together between-meal snacks.
Measure carefully, she advises. Leave enough room to fully swing open equipment doors, and don’t forget to consider the impact of existing structural support beams in your design layout. Install comfort mats for assemblers but make sure they’re not trip hazards as some brands adhere to the floor better than others. She also suggests situating your pods as close to elevators as possible.
“Switching to a pod was something I wanted to do for years,” says Robin Rush, director-nutrition and volunteer services at the 234-bed Kingman Regional Medical Center, Kingman, Ariz. “I didn’t like walking past the tray line and seeing it completely stopped with eight people on it because somebody didn’t have one menu item.”
To make the switch, Rush relied on her years of industry experience and designed a pod herself. She repurposed the tray-line equipment, including two steam tables and two air-curtain refrigerators, and purchased worktables, two shelving units for the starter stations, a few smaller food-delivery carts and condiment bins for a total cost of $2,000.
“You don’t have to spend a lot of money to do this, but you do need experience,” Rush says.
By using a pod, she was able to cut down the number of employees needed to assemble trays from eight to five. One server works the side-by-side steam tables, dishing main entrees and handing plates over the tables to two assemblers. The assemblers add cold and ambient items, condiments and utensils to the trays. A fourth and fifth employee, called checkers, complete the meals with beverages and/or ice cream from a nearby freezer. They ensure the trays are correctly supplied with all the correct dishes and meal components and place them on carts.
Rush reassigned the remaining employees to taking patient orders at bedsides and delivering meals. Nursing staff used to pass the trays. “I knew we weren’t going to raise our patient-satisfaction scores unless we started delivering our own trays,” she says. “So we set up a foodservice ambassador program with our employees delivering trays, and we raised our scores to the 90th percentile.”
Rush offers a few tips. Be sure to equip yourself with the right patient-menu-ordering software. Choose one that automatically sorts what and how many menu items go into which pod. Your staff will need to know how many pieces of cake go into the air-curtain refrigerator at pod one and how many go into the air-curtain refrigerator at pod two, for instance. Good programs can analyze orders and set this up.
Organize your tray tickets to reflect the pod flow. The stations are: hot foods, cold foods/other products and beverages/frozen items (always last). If the ticket order follows this station order, pulling and assembling food will match the pod setup and tray makeup will go faster.
Plan where you’ll need electrical outlets. Check that your plant operations/engineering department can do ceiling drops because you’ll need to plug equipment into new spots.
Notte, after completing multiple projects, has learned several lessons about setting up pods. His most successful pod system, he says, was at Shands Hospital at the University of Florida, Gainesville, Fla. He and his staff spent $171,000 to implement three two-sided, “T”-shaped pods; perform electrical work; and buy new, off-the-shelf equipment.
Notte prefers the simplicity of standard equipment. “You need a system that works well for your staff,” he says. Other tips include:
Don’t plan too many trays per pod. You’ll want to allow 120-140 trays per pod each meal period. At Thomas Jefferson, Notte and staff had three pods, each turning out 180 trays per meal period, to serve the main hospital. Delivering all of the trays within the two-hour meal periods proved difficult.
Don’t complicate the menu. Don’t offer so many choices that you can’t pull it off. Keep it simple. Offer patients a rotating chef’s special menu, such as two of your most popular hot choices and one cold choice, then fill out the menu with hamburgers, grilled chicken and other short-order items. “Most patients will be happy with what you offer, you’ll execute the menu well and leave yourself enough time to address those patients who need more choices,” Notte says.
Don’t assign too many patients per tray-delivery host. Start with 30 patients per host. Any more and the host won’t have enough time to interact with patients. Give them time to get every order right.
Decentralize pods if needed. If you need another pod and don’t have enough room in the kitchen, consider setting up a small one in an existing pantry on a patient floor. Request a hot cabinet to transport the food from the kitchen and hold it hot on the floor. You may need to restock the hot cabinet throughout the day.
Visit peers who are successfully using pods, and take your foodservice team with you. “Bring someone from the tray line, a cook and a diet-office staffer with you on the visit,” Notte says. “Allow them to see their counterpart working the pod because it verifies at ground level that it’s doable. They’ll be cheerleaders for the new system when you get back.”
Talk with staff and answer all questions. Explain the benefits of switching to pods. Hang up a diagram of the new layout. Bring in the equipment before you go live so staff can test it out.
Don’t agree to the impossible. Don’t take everything to the “nth degree” by assigning too many trays per pod, too many patients per host and too many menu choices. “If you push everything to the maximum, you’ll make it impossible to succeed,” Notte says. “Balance your approach. You can always ramp up your program once you know you have the time and that the team can handle it.”
There are numerous ways to equip and staff a pod. And there’s no “one size fits all.” Design a system that works best for you, your staff and your kitchen layout. To get started, check out our sidebar for a listing of pod equipment specialists.
POD EQUIPMENT BASICS
• Steam tables
• Hot/cold tables
• Starter stations/bins
• Air-curtain refrigerators
• Hot holding cabinets
• Work tables
• Shelving/product slides
• Milk/juice coolers, ice-cream freezers
• Induction base warmers
• Plate heaters
• Tray dispensers
• Dome racks
• Tray delivery carts
A la Cart/Unified Brands
Aladdin Temp-Rite/Ali Group
American Foodservice Co.
Burlodge USA/Ali Group