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Look carefully at food service operations

February 1, 2011
by Peter Corbitt
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As addiction treatment facilities face a fluctuating census and increasing competitive pressures, the need to improve quality while containing costs in food operations becomes ever more important. A sometimes neglected part of our treatment world, a nutritious food program can enhance client satisfaction and improve the bottom line. Whether a facility is high end with ocean views or is located in the inner city, the value of serving flavorful and well-balanced meals cannot be overestimated.

A menu laden with fried foods, starches and sweets will weaken many clients' resolve to stay sober, as the pounds accumulate and their hunger remains unsatisfied. With effective food cost management, every treatment facility has the ability to serve delicious and healthy choices.

Some of the top reasons for high food cost and disappointing quality in treatment centers include the following:

  • Poor menu planning;

  • No standard recipes;

  • Overproduction;

  • Theft;

  • Waste;

  • Disorganized purchasing practices; and

  • Poor storage and inventory control.

Although this list is not exhaustive, these are the typical culprits that bog down food operations. At Treatment Consultants, we provide a snapshot of current conditions and evaluate them according to industry standards and the specific needs and expectations of each operation. Implementing a variety of cost-saving strategies and demanding accountability will unravel the mystery of the kitchen, and budget projections will be maintained.

Implementing lasting solutions

Effective food management begins with well-crafted menus suitable for the equipment and space available. The more limited the space for cooking preparation and storage (which is often the case), the greater the requirement for recipes to be tailored accordingly.

Recipes should be flexible enough so that ingredients can be easily procured for the chef as well as for the clients (the latter if cooking preparation is part of the therapeutic program). Hard-to-find items and convoluted recipes should be avoided, while elegant simplicity should rule the day.

Once menus have been created, weekly or monthly, set or cyclical, recipes should be standardized and an ordering system implemented. Simple, easy-to-follow recipe cards save time and money and maintain consistency.

In addition, cross-training of staff to fill a variety of roles in the kitchen can be done. In many cases, facilities are dependent on one chef or managing cook who handles all food preparation. As long as their spending seems to be within a reasonable range, the need for a system remains unquestioned. Whether a facility is large or small, a well-trained and cross-trained staff that can fill different roles gracefully creates an effective operation that will not be held hostage to any one individual.

A part-time assistant already working in the kitchen would make a logical first choice for cross-training. A senior housekeeping staff member also could be a good option. Finally, in situations where resources are very limited, an organization could turn to a person with at least one year of sobriety who is interested in working in the treatment world and can be trained in a variety of roles.

As the census rises and falls, overproduction leading to waste frequently becomes a problem as costs escalate. Since most treatment centers serve buffet or platter style, records that reflect actual usage and leftovers are critical in helping to identify areas needing attention. Over-ordering that leads to waste is usually a symptom of a lack of communication and of recipes not being followed closely.

Peter Corbitt
Peter Corbitt

Written records are critical to cutting costs. To prevent theft and items “walking” out the back door, unannounced spot checks and consistent inventory procedures should be routine.

Finally, developing an effective purchasing system meets only half the challenge, because buying the best product at the best price is fruitless if proper storage and receiving protocols are not in place. If food is purchased by employees and brought back to the center in open pickup trucks, even brief exposure to the elements for produce and perishable foods can lessen shelf life and create unnecessary risks. Transporting food in closed vehicles and storing food so there is proper rotation and refrigeration will minimize waste, keeping food fresh and flavorful.


Knowledge is power-creating an operating budget against which to measure actual food costs can offer early signs that costs are spiraling upward. Preparing as much from scratch and simplifying recipes constitute ways to keep costs in check.

The food choices provided to clients can constitute a significant part of their treatment experience and recovery. I have been operating in the food industry for 25 years in one form or another and I am very familiar with the challenges of creating an efficient food program, yet I also welcome and enjoy finding solutions that are unique to every facility.

At Treatment Consultants, we know every client can enjoy a delicious and healthy meal in a properly managed facility. Good food becomes another healthy lifestyle choice, along with all of the other clinical aspects provided during treatment.

Peter Corbitt is a Food Service Consultant at Treatment Consultants (