March 22, 2006 - Hospital food, like airplane food, prison food, and gas station food, has a pretty bad reputation. The thought of eating lunch in a hospital cafeteria usually conjures up unsettling images of unsavory mystery meat and flavorless cups of green Jell-O.
When the Northwest Medical Center Oro Valley, 1551 E. Tangerine Road, was being developed, its investors wanted to shatter that perception of hospital food by replacing it with a variety of quality food choices served by a friendly kitchen staff in a venue that feels more like a café than a cafeteria.
They may have done the job too well. Lantanas, the hospital's buffet-style dining room, has some Oro Valley residents visiting the hospital just for the food.
"We like it so much we come over here all the time. It's very healthy and reasonably priced," said Betty Hussman over a plate of corned beef and cabbage the hospital offered for St. Patrick's Day lunch.
Hussman, a Sun City resident, says she and her husband Bill eat at Lantanas about three times a week.
"Soon after the hospital opened, we just wandered over one day and we heard they welcomed outsiders. Usually hospital food isn't the best, but here it's great. And we noticed all their employees are always smiling," Hussman said.
They may not be as welcome as they think. Kimberly Chimene, Marketing Manager for Northwest Medical Center Oro Valley, said the kitchen is set up to serve patients first and staff and patients' visitors second.
"I think we have good food at a good price, but we're not set up as a walk-in, social dining restaurant," Chimene said. "We make a profit on food, but it's not enough to cover (the Lantanas staff's) salaries. The department doesn't make any money."
Lantanas is just down the hall from the main lobby at the Northwest Medical Center Oro Valley. The dining room is open for breakfast and lunch.
Lantanas seats about 75 people, although Assistant Administrator Chad Melton said it sometimes gets so busy that the crowd overflows into neighboring classrooms.
"If a lot of people came in here from outside, we wouldn't have room," Melton said. "We don't discourage it, and we don't encourage it, either. But we wouldn't turn anyone away."
With the prices and selection Lantanas offers, it's no wonder the dining room is attracting new customers. Cheese manicotti, chicken fried steak, and chicken parmesan were the specials last Thursday. On the lunch menu, a hamburger costs $2.55, a deli sandwich is $2.99, salad is 30 cents per ounce and green and yellow squash is 85 cents.
Chimene said offering quality food at a low price is part of the overall comfort that the Northwest Medical Center Oro Valley provides its patients and visitors.
"No one likes being in the hospital, so we want to make it as pleasant as possible. We pride ourselves on customer service, and the hospital was intended to look more like a hotel. Lantanas is part of that appeal," Chimene said.
Crystal Tarazon, manager of Lantanas, said that all the outside customers puts more pressure on her staff.
"At this moment, it's a burden and it's stretching our resources. We have a pretty good team here, but it's a small team," Tarazon said.
Nevertheless, even the hospital's workers have been spreading the word about Lantanas.
"I recommend it to a lot of my friends. It's the best hospital food I've ever had," said Patricia Coleman, a volunteer chaplain at Northwest Medical Center Oro Valley. "I'm having a birthday party here so I can show my friends how good the food is."
But, like all restaurants, Lantanas has its critics. Linda Kirby, a Lantanas diner who was at the hospital to visit a doctor, didn't think there was anything special about the food at Lantanas.
"It could have been hotter. It's lukewarm," Kirby said. "I don't know why anyone would think it's so great."