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Why is cafeteria food so bad?

13640 Views 15 Replies 13 Participants Last post by  Andy1121
Can someone answer that question? Is there a reason? Does anyone have a theory as to why cafeteria food is so bad? Yesterday I had lunch at a cafeteria and was served egg noodles mixed in with canned tomatoes and cheese sauce. Why oh why?!?!? :confused: :confused:

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I think it is because in mass production people have to use things that are cheap and easy to serve to lots of people, like utility meat, fake cheese and canned things. Maybe this is an obvious answer and you were looking for something a little deeper but that's my take lol.
Edit: Also something I just thought of, that food has usually been sitting around all day and does not taste as fresh as it would if it had just been cooked.
I have eaten a few meals at cafeterias that were OK. But lets face it- places like schools and hospitals that have restrictive budgets and have to comply to a lot of food regulations are hard pressed to do what they can and keep it palatable. I do not agree that either volume of customers or holding time are necessarily valid reasons for poor food quality. To me, there is little difference between a buffet and a cafeteria except the money you have to work with. And of course, finding great chefs who are willing to wear those sparkly hairnets! Kuan! You could be the first!
Nursing home food: High carbs (cheap) Low protein (cheap, already prepared protein...over-reheated till dry)

Mostly already prepared, canned, frozen...and horrible.
It's probably pretty rare nowadays that an institutional cafeteria is run independently. Generally some huge contract feeder like Aramark or Sodexho provides the service. Some of these cafeterias have no one in charge who knows anything about food or cooking. Instead of a chef, they have a Kitchen Manager whose job it is order ingredients according to the set meal plan, from only the approved vendor(s); act as a steward to receive, store, and dole out ingredients to the (untrained) cooks who are supposed to follow the corporate recipes; and keep an eye on cleanliness and costs. All the "food" knowledge is in the corporate office. The KM has to control costs, not produce good food.

When I was (briefly) in catering sales, I worked out of a college cafeteria. About the same time I got there, they replaced the KM with a chef. The "cooking" staff still made it seem as though it were a sheltered workshop, but at least the chef TRIED to train them. He also tweaked some of the corporate recipes, instituted smaller-batch cooking, and brought in a few different suppliers for fresh product. Complaints went down drastically.
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Good question , why is cafeteria food and institution food so bad ?
Well maybe I can answer some of your questions as I have now changed my career from restraunt chef to healthcare chef and now food service manager for the last 6 years . Budget and food cost have been mentioned and dont get me wrong , these are big motivating factors in what kind of food is purchased for production . The biggest issue I have seen though is that of quality kitchen help . This is why there is so much pre-fabricated food setting on your cafeteria steam table and ending up on patients plates . The way I have been able to help out this industry is to use my knowledge of food preperation and to actually train my staff in the proper way to prepare and serve food . For steam tables in the cafeteria food needs to be placed in shallow pans and rotated quite frequently . Some items are obviously better to hold in a steam table than others such as stew or a casserole ( lasagna does very well ) . Batch cooking is a must as you want fresh food available all through the service .
Another thing I like to do is set up a carving station with either a top round or perhaps a turkey breast . The mashed potatoes and gravy are easy steam table items and the display of fresh roasted carved meat goes a long way on customer satisfaction .
The important thing is to use real food and real cooking techniques . This will just blow away the customer over the fact that they can recieve somthing that tastes like mom used to make from a simple cafeteria .
If you are looking for a career change remember folks that this industry realy needs good food and your talents can be so appreciated by people who realy need it . Also the pay can be better than restaurants if you move into management . Remember , its just food and this is what we do so if you do it well , especially in this industry you can realy shine .
My 2 cents , Doug............................................
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Well, coming from Sodexho, perhaps I can shed some light. I ran a food service operation that fed 650 people. Prior to that I was the Food Service Director for a unit that had 1100+ population. Prior to that, I was at a unit that did over 3000 transactions per day. All that said...

Of the units I visited or had responsibilities to, we had chefs (usually formally trained or long-time restaurant types) as well as Directors, Assistant Directors, Sous Chef, or some combination thereof. So I can't necessarily agree that there is nobody in charge that knows anything about food. For Sodexho, our on-going training was relentless and very market-driven. We would benchmark local specialty food stores, make trips to NYC to see what the offerings were in similair operations as well as sending much of our regional culinary staff to Hyde Park every few years. Not to mention our annual raises and bonuses were tied directly to customer/client satisfaction surveys.

Now, there are certainly some variables in cafeterias, as there are in restaurants, gas stations and grocery stores. If the unit happens to be a Profit & Loss account, it may be running extremely tight on portion control and labor, for example. If the unit is subsidized (like private corporate cafeterias) they may be a little more free wheeling with their dollars. Then there are the other places that fall somewhere in between. Hospitals for instance, may be self-op and running their own food service. In this case, the unit may be running under the direction (and guidelines) of the hopsital's nutritional services department. In this case, it may taste like, well, hospital food. In their defense, though, budgeting is always a concern. It is difficult to serve a nutritionally balanced meal with mass appeal for $.63 cost. Try it... it ain't that easy. There are some larger hospitals that have food service operations that rival some semi-decent restaurants, including in-house baking and wine lists. Don't laugh... I've seen it!

As for schools, well the same goes for them. I had the opportunity to open a school unit about 4 years ago. The staff, administration and students all had HUGE demands on the food program and were extremely vocal in their demands. As such, we had to tailor plans after plans after plans to satisfy everybody. When we were done, our program was instense! We had a round-the-clock production team, including a bake shop, catering operations teams and a legion of bus staff, servers, prep people and administration. The food was exceptional. Not because I was there (not trying to be conceited) but because the school had very deep pockets and the food program wasn't an afterthought, like it is in most cases. We had omelets-to-order every day, crepes 2 or 3 times a week, grilled steaks, a static and seasonal menu. As well as vegan, lacto-ovo vegeterian menu and 'regular' menu every day. That also included pizza (from scratch) to order, 1/2# burgers on homemade rolls and salads made of organic greens from a local farmer. That is one extreme. And certainly I have seen school lunch programs that squeak by on a shoe string. Serving the bare minimum because either nobody cares or nobody speaks up. Real trash food. Chicken nuggets 3 days per week. French bread pizza the other two. Served on flimsy paper plates by people that look like flimsy paper plates.

I am not sure if this answers your question any more than "why was dinner at Joe Shmoe's so bad?" I think cafeterias are just one other aspect of food service, like catering, fine dining, quick serve or take-out that needs to be examined in its own right. Money is normally a big player in corporate food, health care and school food service. Most places charge $3 or $4 for an entree, dessert and drink. Keeping in mind food cost is around 35-40% and labor is around 40%, that doesn't leave much for owners/stock holders/etc once all the non-controllables are pulled from the equation.
My 2 cents.
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After working for 15 years in various operations, form large restaurants, to small white tablecloth places, to a large camp/conference center, and all kinds of places in between, I have landed in a medium-large retirement community/nursing home. The difference is..we're a self-op. We do around 1800 meals a day in 9 dining rooms spread out over 35 acres all out of one kitchen. Enough of the background, here's my two cents.

I agree the number one problem with institutional ops in the total lack of qualified labor. When an experienced cook, or better yet a chef walks into my place, I hire them on the spot, whether I've got a place for them or not. Most of my kitchen staff are over 55 years old, and have been doing institutional food the same way for 30 years. I came in with new ideas, and they do not have the skills or desire to do anything new. It is a definite struggle to change a procedure, training is a constant challenge.

This is not to say it cannot change. I see some great things on the horizon. As more young chefs come into the marketplace, more and more will find their way into healthcare, and the level of ability will rise. I see it happening now, very slowly.

We do watch the bottom line very carefully, and have found our cooks have become so expensive, we cannot afford to have them do some recipes from scratch. It actually becomes cost-effective to by premade or partially made products. You must still buy good products and ingredients, but the challenge is what you do with those products after they are in your door. And THAT is what makes the difference between "institutional food" and restaurant food.
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It clearly depends on the money and the priorities. I cooked at a nursing home back in the 80s and we made everything from scratch. I'm sure not a chef, but I'm a good cook. We used fresh vegetables. Had healthy entrees. And made several different diets 3 times per day.

The kitchen here has one person who can cook and they only food they prepare well is fried chicken. Mostly, it's the poor quality ingredients. Nutrition is not a priority there.
I don't remember anyone at Culinary School, on graduation day, shouting "I want to work in a cafeteria!"
The staff is a big factor. I operated a cafeteria at a Catholic Boy's high school. My staff consisted of 6 housewives, varying in age from 33 to 68. One had never worked in food service(not even Mc D"s) two other of them had been there since Jesus went to school. They were responsible for prep in the morning, then served and operated the registers during service. They worked 6 hours a day, during the school year. No pay on holidays, snow days, Easter and Christmas vacation. For what they were paid, I got amazing work from them. It would have been imposible to hire trained personnel for that arena.
What the client s chose to eat was another factor. The boys wanted burgers, fries, pizzas and subs. Hot meals consisted of Chicken fingers, fish sticks, meatloaf, spaghetti and meatballs. Mashed and gravy, and mac &cheeese(blue box) were always sure sales. Most of ther kids turned up their noses at home made, prefering the boxed or canned, even dessert items. I sold far more Tastykakes than fresh made cakes.
The only other factor is green cash money! Given the level of help available, the type of food desired, and the price levels that can be had, the ptoduct choices are limited. You only get so much bang from the small buck.
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I know! Yesterday we had canned beans with this green stuff that they said was potatoes. HOW CAN POTATOES BE GREEN????????????????????? :(
I think a lot of people remember their grade school days well and think cafeteria food is like that and so that's the goal. You're not going to burn your childhood memories, are you?
always a ramification of mass prep and employees or staff who dont have an incentive to put out a good product
Minimum wage. No incentive to do anything well.
We've had quite a few opinions here so far on the subject. Many of them coming from people who worked in cafeterias.
Without qualified, experienced cooks, companies have to rely on prepared convenience products.
Therein lies part of the problem.
I also worked for Sodexho but is was Marriott at the time. I was a Sous Chef for a college food service. We fed 5,000 students and staff three meals a day. I had employees who were old and tired. I was brought in, to clean house. It was very emotional for me but needed to be done. I went the route of verbal warnings, written warnings, three day suspension, and finally dismissal. Afterwards, the remaining employees got the idea and stepped up to the challenge of cooking real food, instead of reheating some other company's idea of food.
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I haven't worked in a cafeteria, but I cooked in a restaurant where I was paid 15 cents an hour over minimum wage.
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