YMCA food services director has a menu of ideas

YMCA food services director Bryan Garrison keeps the cafe's "grab and go" case well-stocked with healthy choices. — Photo by Janet Hefler

Bryan Garrison, director of food services at the YMCA, faces the same challenge that many parents face when it comes to creating options for the Y’s in-house cafe menu items. Given a choice, children opt for French fries over vegetable sticks and fruit.

Mr. Garrison is working to entice children to make healthier choices. He applied for and received an invitation to attend the Culinary Institute of America’s (CIA) “Healthy Flavors, Healthy Kids National Leadership Summit” at its San Antonio campus from May 7 to 9. The YMCA of Martha’s Vineyard covered his expenses.

The focus of the summit was how to improve the flavor and quality of foods and beverages offered to kids in schools, chain and other restaurant kids’ menus, campus dining, and the family food environment, according to the CIA.

Mr. Garrison joined a group of about 200 professionals from across the nation at the leadership summit. They included 100 school foodservice leaders, 50 representatives from companies and organizations sponsoring the event, 20 presenters and guest chefs, and 10 CIA faculty and staff.

“I think I’m going to gain a lot of knowledge and ideas from the summit to bring back and use here at the Y, and to share with other foodservice professionals in the schools and on the Island,” Mr. Garrison, a CIA graduate, said prior to his departure.

Menu on the move

When Mr. Garrison began his job at the Y in August 2010, the goal was to make the cafe, which is open year-round to the public, a moneymaker to support the Y’s programs. The only guideline he received was that the cafe should sell smoothies and have a diverse menu. The kitchen had only a few pieces of equipment.

“Basically I started from scratch,” Mr. Garrison said. “It took me from August 9 until our first day open, November 10, to get the place fully functional, and up and running.”

Mr. Garrison said it is unusual for a Y to have its own cafe. Many Y’s only have vending machines.

“It was an honor to get the job and it really is something I devoted my life to starting up,” Mr. Garrison said. “I think a lot of the members are grateful it’s here, and that we’re providing an outlet and service to them.”

After more than two years in business, Mr. Garrison said he continues to tweak the cafe’s menu, based on what sells and the volume of customers.

“This place is very hard to judge as to what’s going to sell and what won’t,” he said. “One day everyone goes for veggie sticks and next day you’re sitting with eight packages and no one buys them.”

The cafe started with five smoothie varieties, which Mr. Garrison later cut back to two, and four juices, now down to one made fresh on the premises.

“At one time I hired a person to come in and do breakfast, but there were not enough customers,” Mr. Garrison said. Caroline Miller is currently his only cafe employee.

As he learned, it takes a culinary juggling act to offer a menu that includes food choices that appeal to everyone from toddlers to senior citizens…and sell. He rotates menu items and lists them in colorful chalk on a blackboard overhead, behind the counter.

Cries against fries

“A fryer was here before I got the job,” Mr. Garrison said. “Because the cafe is open to public, the Y leadership thought we’d have an influx of other people, and that burgers and fries would be good to have.”

Some patrons frown on that, however, and have complained to him.

“I get the people that say you’re a Y, you should be setting the benchmark for healthy food,” Mr. Garrison said. “We’re working on that. We’re not set in stone, but there’s a fine line.

“If we had something on the menu as popular that would make us that income, I would be happy to do without French fries,” he added. As a somewhat healthier alternative, the menu does also include sweet potato fries.

Mr. Garrison said he believes nutrition starts at home, with parents educating their children about good choices.

“We have a ton of healthy items on the menu and also in the ‘grab and go’ case,” he pointed out. The menu includes breakfast foods, salads, sandwiches, wraps, and low-sodium soups he makes from his own stock. He also makes the dough for homemade pizzas made fresh to order.

A new kid’s meal includes an entree, for example, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich ($6.25) or a quesadilla ($8.50), and two sides with choices of animal crackers, Goldfish, mini-cheese and vegetable sticks, and milk, a juice box or water. There is no fried food in the kids’ meals.

Mr. Garrison said the cafe serves a lot of children, from those whose parents utilize the childcare facility to middle-school students that attend a new after-school program to high school students who work out there.

“They come here hungry,” he added.

Fresh fruit smoothies are the biggest seller overall, Mr. Garrison said, followed by French fries and fried foods.

In addition to what he anticipates learning at the summit, last week food consultant Kate Adamick visited the Y and offered suggestions for healthier cafe menu options. She is the co-founder of Cook for America, a nonprofit that helps school food service directors, kitchen managers and chefs learn to prepare healthy cooked-from-scratch meals.

YMCA executive director Jill Robie said Ms. Adamick gave some helpful advice about how to provide a healthy menu that is affordable for both consumers and the Y.

Mr. Garrison said he would do his best to implement anything that he learns at the leadership summit that he thinks would work at the Y.

“My goal is to gain more ideas and find a niche that may inspire kids to buy something instead of fries, and that will be cost-effective and utilize seasonal locally grown food,” he said.

On his return from the summit Monday, Mr. Garrison told The Times that it was definitely a worthwhile and informative experience and he would like to attend again next year.

Mr. Garrison credits his wife, Kim, a special education teacher at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, for his invitation to the leadership summit. The CIA graduate received an email about the event and urged her husband to apply. Although he was pessimistic about his chances because mostly school cafeteria managers attend, she submitted an application for him anyway.

Mr. Garrision grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from the CIA in Hyde Park in 2002. He met his wife, who is from Martha’s Vineyard, when they both attended the CIA at Greystone in Napa Valley.

Mr. Garrison completed a certificate degree in baking and pastry in 2003. He worked a couple of seasons at L’Etoile Restaurant starting in 2004 and in catering, construction, and carpet care before he was hired at the Y. He also helps his wife with her custom cake business, Something Sweet.

The Y cafe offers dine-in and take-away. It operates Monday-Friday, 8 am–7 pm and Saturday, 8 am–2:30 pm. For more information, call 508-696-7171, ext. 222, or visit the website, www.ymcamv.org/cafe.