Alf's Cafe Proprietor

Alf’s Cafe has been operating at The Alfred Hospital since 1999. It is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week and serves more than 5,000 items every day to staff and visitors.

With the encouragement of senior management and support of health promotion and dietetic staff, Alf’s Cafe implemented Healthy Choices uidelines over a seven-month period during 2011–2012.

Food and drink sales continue to be strong and unaffected by the changes, and the feedback from staff and visitors has been positive.

The project required a commitment from the business and a team effort by the staff. Owner Roger Lakkis (pictured), and Head Chef Jamie Smith, implemented major changes, including modifying existing recipes to make them healthier, introducing healthier menu items, and labelling foods according to the traffic light system.

Changes were made gradually to ensure that the core business could continue to operate as usual. The main changes included:

  • modifying existing recipes to make them healthier labelling food and drinks as GREEN, AMBER or RED
  • designing and displaying signs to explain the traffic light system
  • rearranging the food court and product layout to ensure GREEN foods and drinks were the most prominent and RED foods and drinks less prominent
  • introducing a ‘mini’ portion size of hot and cold meals.

Alf’s Cafe has more than doubled its offering of GREEN items, and almost halved the number of RED items. The ultimate goal is to achieve 50 to 60 per cent GREEN items and less than 20 per cent RED.

Promotions and specials have been key to encouraging people to choose the healthier foods and drinks, and they no longer promote any RED items. The ‘mini’ serving size has also attracted new customers; people who would have previously not chosen to buy anything.

The reaction from customers was a big concern, but due to the chefs’ skill and commitment not to compromise on flavour, most customers have not noticed a difference in the foods or drinks provided.  

Q&A

How did you communicate the changes to staff and customers?

I first had to educate my staff that I have a target to meet: 50 per cent GREEN and 30 per cent AMBER. And they said that’s fine, but they were worried that we would lose sales or lose customers. We had a lot to change but we knew we could do it.

For customers, the food is labelled and every label has AMBER or GREEN or RED. So when you go to the counter to pick a meal, you can see what you are buying. We also display signs everywhere to explain the traffic light system, including a massive one on the wall. And we’re putting in more signs to advertise GREEN specials too.

What’s one of the biggest changes you had to make?

Because everything we sold with coffee was RED we had to make a lot of changes in the coffee bar. We solved this problem by changing portion sizes, going from big muffins to smaller muffins, from big slices of cakes to smaller slices.

Sometimes we don’t have control over the ingredients but we are also working with our suppliers to move away from lots of butter and sugar. We are also looking at buying a new oven so we can make our own healthier muffins, cakes and slices.

What kind of feedback have you received from customers?

After a few months we found that it was very welcome by staff, nurses and doctors. They would talk about it, saying GREEN, AMBER, RED. We’d hear them saying things like “I didn’t have RED all this week” or “I’ve had AMBER and GREEN today”. So we feel really good about how people have welcomed the Healthy Choices changes.

And the ‘mini’ serving sizes were so popular; we even had emails congratulating us from the staff.

What are the top selling menu items now?

Salads. We have eight different salads every day, and the two chefs will be constantly chopping, mixing and serving! We have an army in the kitchen because they’re all prepared here, fresh every day.

What other new ideas have you implemented?

When you come to the juice bar you can buy sparkling mineral water or a bottle of soda water and we can give you a small ‘shot’ of 100 per cent fresh juice with it. People like to add it to their water for some flavour.

Sweets are the biggest challenge because most of them are RED so we are now looking at buying a new oven so we can make our own here and have more control over our ingredients.

What advice would you give to other food outlets who would be thinking about implementing the guidelines?

I think they should come to Alf’s Food Court and see what we do. You always have to start somewhere in life. In no time the healthy guidelines will become standard and even the customers will be looking for it.