Bluffton Hospital Cafeteria Draws a Crowd with Its Homemade Options

by Paula McKibben   The first thing Rhonda DePuy saw when she walked into Bluffton Hospital for an interview was a nurse hugging a patient good-bye. “Oh,” she thought to herself, “I have to work here.”
   She got the job as Food and Nutrition Manager five and a half years ago, and she had just one goal in mind: “Transform it [cafeteria] into a little more customer friendly [place].”
   She and her associates have been so successful that they have as many as 110 people at lunch – the public, associates, groups, in-house patients, construction workers, staff at doctor’s offices.
   Yes, that’s right. You don’t have to be a patient to eat there. Everyone is welcome … but given the size of the cafeteria and kitchen, it’s best to call ahead at 419-369-2317 to order before 11 a.m. If you call ahead, they will reserve your order for you. If you don’t, you may discover that what you wanted is gone. Yes, that really happens.
   The food here is a far cry from the institutional food that most people over 50 remember from school and hospital stays. As a matter of fact, it’s been said that when Dr. Schutz’s staff heard that they were coming to Bluffton, they were looking forward to eating here for lunch. Why, even people at the Blanchard Valley Health System facility in Findlay will order muffin boxes as gifts.
   When you eat at the Bluffton Hospital for lunch or supper, you will find that most of the meal is homemade. Lunch serving begins at 11:30 a.m. and ends around 1:15 p.m. Supper goes from 5:15 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
   So what can you get for lunch or supper at Bluffton Hospital? The most popular items are the Aussie chicken ($2.50), the shrimp basket ($3.00), the meatloaf ($2.50) and the chicken tenders ($2.50). The salad bar on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday is charged by plate size, and a couple of times every seven weeks, there is the ever-popular taco salad bar. Seven is the magic number because the menu is on a seven-week rotation, so there is no such thing as pizza Fridays or baked spaghetti Wednesdays. Everything is sold ala carte, so they also have cold meat sandwiches, pretzel wraps, cheese sticks and boiled and pickled eggs.
   When DePuy arrived, there was only lunch and supper, primarily for the doctors, nurses and patients. She has since added breakfast and a grab-and-go menu.
   For breakfast, after 6 a.m. breakfast sandwiches and omelet cups are available. Breakfast casseroles are available after 7 a.m.
   The grab-and-go menu includes fruit and sandwiches – things that can be grabbed and eaten on the run. And, of course, the public is now invited.
   She and her associates also began to have theme days once each month, like Football Tailgate and Under the Sea.
   To acquaint the public with all of the changes, DePuy began to distribute menus to senior areas in town, like the Bluffton Senior Citizens Center, a couple of years ago. But, given the size of the kitchen and dining area, she decided to cut back on the marketing. Now, word-of-mouth keeps them pretty busy, though, upon request, she will email menus. Her recurring advice to her associates is to “make more.”
   DePuy’s associates are Christy Rettig, Sally Bateson, Doreen Knepper, Diane Spellacy and Sharon Basinger. Working at lunch is one cook, one dishwasher, and a volunteer to run the cash register. There is only one associate working at supper. Still, with such a small group, they are able to accomplish so much. According to DePuy, Knepper told her that she has picked the blueberries out of frozen mixed berry bags to prepare blueberry pancakes on occasion for a patient. Also, patients are often asked if they want milkshakes or cookies in the evenings.
   Want to have the hospital cuisine at home? You can. Pies, cookies and muffins can be ordered a couple of days ahead of time all year long – and they all come with a list of ingredients and calorie counts.
   In the next round of improvements at the hospital, DePuy hopes to get a new kitchen with more space for the associates and a better flow for the patrons. Ultimately, DePuy wishes, “I could just put a big kitchen table in there. … It just feels like home. Everybody comes to the kitchen” (BVHS. “Living Our Vision.” YouTube, 20 Aug. 2013).