BRADENTON -- After sampling a bite of maple and peach glazed ham and roasted asparagus, Bernadine “Bernie” Lawrence of Ellenton was about to express amazement to her friend, Dolly Lewis of Venice.
But Lewis beat her to it.
“You have to try this crab cake,” Lewis said, closing her eyes and licking her lips Sunday.
Lawrence and Lewis had heard you could get fancy, posh food at Manatee Memorial Hospital but had not tried it. The hospital’s new “Sunday Brunch,” for the public, which was unveiled on April 3, caught their eyes.
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“It’s delicious,” Lawrence said of the offerings made from scratch in the hospital’s large kitchen. “We both got carved ham, a crab cake, a potato cake, asparagus and cherry cobbler for about $8.”
“The price is good,” Lewis said. “But what really is true is how everything tastes.”
Trying to carve a niche
The public generally thinks of a hospital as a place where ailing people go to get well, not where hungry, healthy people go to get a meal.
But achieving the latter is the goal of Tim Schoonmaker, director of food and nutrition and Jason Kupferman, executive chef, at Manatee Memorial Hospital, 206 Second St. E., Bradenton.
“We are right in the middle of downtown Bradenton and we are a great place to eat,” Schoonmaker said. “We actually have a very comfortable space for dining, which we call the Second Street Bistro. We want the public to think of us as a place where they can meet and dine.”
Schoonmaker began his mission by remodeling the hospital’s small seating area in 2009 and making it into a 168-seat restaurant-style space.
Comfortable chairs were purchased for the newly named ‘Bistro’ and two televisions were added, one showing sports and one BayNews 9.
Schoonmaker and Kupferman then created a stir fry bar, a Latin cuisine day and added new seafood, fried chicken, fried catfish, tostada, fajita and other dishes.
Along with the 1,800 meals the hospital puts out a day to patients, staff and visitors, Schoonmaker and Kupferman thought they could carve a niche in the downtown Bradenton dining market with their kitchen.
They both feel their plan is slowly working.
“We offer a roughly two dollar breakfast special that includes a three-ounce order of eggs, a biscuit, bacon and either home fries or hot cereal, which could be oatmeal or grits,” Kupferman said. “We have Green Mountain coffee that runs $1.29.”
Feeling that a Sunday Brunch might give the ‘Bistro’ a jolt and up the seat count, Schoonmaker and Kupferman began researching the competition.
“If you go to a buffet restaurant they might offer 15 items with the cheapest around $11, but at that price point the focus is on mass production,” Schoonmaker said.
The pair noted that as the prices grew steeper, the food got better and vice versa.
“We wanted to focus on having both quality and reasonable price,” Schoonmaker said.
In the end, Schoonmaker said he used, as his touchstone, something his grandmother, a hospital volunteer, had once told him when he asked her why she dined at her hospital so much.
“She said, ‘It’s good food, it’s inexpensive and they give you a lot,’ “ Schoonmaker said.
A shot of Dijon!
The Sunday Brunch meal that Lewis and Lawrence enjoyed and that Schoonmaker and Kupferman hope really puts the hospital on the dining map, costs $7.95 and is offered from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Sunday.
It includes an ample portion from a carved meat station, which had cook Chandi Schouk slicing ham Sunday, but might have turkey or roast beef next week.
“I like their pot roast,” said housekeeping staff member William Reinhard.
An additional main entree item, such as crab cakes, is part of the $7.95 deal. Two sides and a rich dessert complete the package.
A still cheaper alternative is a made-to-order omelet created by omelet expert Jonathan Jurado which costs $5.95 and includes one side item and dessert.
Although Kupferman would not divulge the secret recipe for the ham glaze that delighted the palettes of Lewis and Lawrence, he did offer that the asparagus was roasted in an oven with salt and pepper and olive oil.
Cook Tiwanda Hardy of Bradenton, however, was willing to reveal her secret for crab cakes.
She mixes big chunks of real crab meat along with mayonnaise, Worcester sauce, Dijon mustard, fresh parsley, white wine, Ritz crackers and Old Bay seasoning.
“I use the crackers instead of bread crumbs to hold it all together,” Hardy said.
The potato pancakes for the Brunch are not frozen and are made from scratch with real potatoes, Hardy said.
To reach the Bistro, guests can park on the second floor of the hospital’s parking garage and take the walkway directly to the main entrance.
The public can catch a hospital meal anytime from 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Saturday’s public dining hours are 6:30-10 a.m., 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4-6 p.m.
Sunday’s hours are 6:30-9:30 a.m., 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and 4-6 p.m.