SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
Cafeteria food doesn’t come to mind as a way to describe the fare from the Mercy Regional Medical Center kitchen.
In fact, the cafeteria, which serves 800 meals a day, draws heavy traffic from the community, making it more of a local gathering spot than a necessity of hospital life to avoid when possible.
Workers flock from downtown Durango offices, from Red Cedar Gathering, BP, the Durango-La Plata County Airport and Three Springs. Highway or construction workers on nearby jobs visit, too. That’s in addition, of course, to in-house patients and staff.
“I heard about the food here from word of mouth before I came,” said Brenda Giannelli, a breakfast and lunch chef at the hospital. “When customers where I was working learned I was changing jobs, they said, ‘The food there is great.’”
Tables often are filled by noon or shortly after on weekdays.
Betty Kincaid, a telephone operator at Walmart, eats there once or twice a week. She likes Fridays, when clam chowder always is a menu item.
“They make it from scratch, and they use chunks of clam, not diced clams,” Kincaid said on a recent Monday. “I’ve bought up to four to-go containers, which I try to make last through the week.”
Another clam chowder fan is John Baker, a retired Durango veterinarian, who makes his medical appointments on Fridays so as not to miss chowder day.
Clam chowder is just one of 60 soups that follow a rotation – two different ones every day – and draw rave reviews.
Baker’s wife, Marilyn, used to ship the green chile chicken to upstate New York – no kidding.
Until Greyhound stopped bus service to Durango, she’d freeze the soup, pack it in dry ice and address it to her son – Dr. Matt Baker, a former Mercy physician – in Springville near Buffalo, N.Y.
Marilyn Baker also takes or sends via friends the cafeteria’s carrot/fennel soup to daughter Heather in Denver.
Personal favorites aside, the Mercy kitchen strives to please a broad fan base.
“We try to provide quality food at a reasonable price,” said Andy England, supervisor of nutrition services. “We offer a variety of dishes.”
Five stations – The Market Place, Ticolote, Santa Rita, Main Street Eats and the Junction Creek Deli – each serve a certain line of food: specialty salads and carved meats; burgers; self-serve salads and soups; made-to-order or build-your-own sandwiches; and a self-serve hotline buffet.
In order not to keep eager eaters guessing, a telephone hotline – 764-2599 – each morning touts the top items. Few would appear to go begging.
“We sell 100 burgers a day,” executive chef Mike O’Brien said. “Just the other day, we sold 93 orders of salmon in 1 hour and 45 minutes.”
Cafeteria sales don’t add to the bottom line.
“We calculate food prices to cover costs and labor,” said Jenny O’Block, director of pharmacy, nutrition and environmental services.
A bowl of green chile chicken costs $2.75 and, depending on ingredients, a burger, $4.26, and an omelette, $3.65.
The hospital has dietitians who can design meals for patients with renal, diabetes, heart and gluten-intolerant conditions.
“We work together to meet the dietary restrictions of patients,” said Heidi King, a dietitian and manager of nutrition and environmental services.
Cecelia Walker from Lompoc, Calif., was taking a break last week while visiting her son, a patient at the hospital.
“The food is delicious,” Walker said as she worked on a build-your-own salad. “I was surprised.”
The fare rivals the food at Lompoc Valley Hospital, where the chef and staff are hired to cater special events, Walker said.
Walker was lunching with Goldie Fowler, an on-call sitter at the hospital whose duty is to shadow patients who may be suicidal or who could dislocate oxygen or other life-support systems.
“I very rarely eat anywhere else,” Fowler said. “The food here is so good.”
Kristen Dugan of Durango was eating with son, Tyler, 5, after an appointment for her.
“Any chance I get to eat here, I do because the food is good and affordable,” Dugan said. “I also may grab a salad to go.”