Elmendorf Air Force Base wins top food award, again

Posted: Tuesday, April 15, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The chicken is fresh and the Jell-O is wiggly.

The staff is friendly, the floors are clean, and the chairs are squishy.

It was voted one of the best places to eat in the world, in its category.

Know where we are yet?

Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, which just won the trophy for the best single-facility Air Force foodservice operation in the world for the third time in the past four years.

''It's a tough competition,'' said Norman Sewing of the National Restaurant Association, who helped Air Force inspectors with their evaluation of the top bases around the globe. On a scale of 1,000 points, Sewing said, finalists may be a mere 20 points apart. ''It's like a horse winning by a nose.''

Part of what put Elmendorf over the top was the great design of the main Iditarod dining hall and a committed civilian staff that has been there in some cases for decades.

''They could take that same facility and put it anywhere and make money with it,'' Sewing said.

A fireplace is the first feature to greet diners. Inside, sunlight filters past heavy wooden beams, and cushioned chairs slide over carpet in the semicircular seating area across from the fireplace and the food court.

And, Sewing said, the people who work there care about their jobs.

Gail McCarthy has worked on base for 12 years and pulls a visitor over by the elbow to see the glass case full of awards in the entry of the Iditarod dining hall. McCarthy said it gets crazy busy sometimes when the hall is full during big exercises.

''It's fun,'' McCarthy said with a smile.

One cook has been there more than 20 years, said an Air Force inspector. Not all facilities have those cooks who can show the ropes to recently arrived military staffers.

Regular Elmendorf diner Master Sgt. Robert Bailey noticed the food is better than when he first started eating Air Force fare 20 years ago in a Spokane, Wash., mess hall that had a classic look: rigid rows of tables and chairs.

''There's an old guy here who makes the best Big Moes,'' Bailey said, describing a grilled sandwich with two beef patties, cheese, onions, green peppers and mushrooms served on sourdough bread.

Next to Bailey, Tech Sgt. Sherry Halls ate a salad.

''It saves me a lot of money. If it weren't so nice, I'd eat in town more,'' he said.

Air Force retirees Allen and Lora Eddy like the at-cost philosophy of military dining.

''I'm a chicken fanatic, and I love the chicken here,'' Lora Eddy said. ''A nice meal for two bucks. You can't beat that.''

But getting the John L. Hennessy award, given since 1947, hinges on much more than food quality and presentation. Evaluators look for employee incentive programs, accounting controls and plans to replace aging equipment. Training must include how to fire an M-16 rifle as well as safe food-handling techniques.

How to fire an M-16?

Elmendorf's 3rd Services Squadron must provide food in the field as well as at home, said Master Sgt. Ian Lodge, co-supervisor for food service operations. The squadron's personnel have been deployed to such faraway places as Qatar and Kyrgyzstan.

In Anchorage, there are three food operations on base. The Iditarod has 250 seats, the Kenai has 125, and the Blue Star Flight Kitchen makes about 250 meals a day that get packed onto aircraft traveling through.

Lodge and co-supervisor Lt. Alice Blair spread credit for the award to Elmendorf's engineering staff for keeping the 8-year-old Iditarod looking new. Combat-readiness training also helps services personnel be ready to set up a mess tent in the middle of the desert at a moment's notice.

The Iditarod is 6,000 square feet of kitchen and serving area, 12,000 square feet of dining space, Lodge said. It turns out about 1,200 meals a day: breakfast, lunch, dinner and a midnight meal for people on odd shifts.

Food quality got a boost about three years ago when bases were allowed to shop for food with private food suppliers, Air Force officials said.

Now the base spends about $360,000 a year with Sysco Corp. and $1.7 million a year with M.C. Corp. on 100 civilian employees who help run the three operations 24 hours a day, Lodge said.

The general push to contract out to private industry has brought Air Force food service more in line with commercial industry standards, Lodge said.

Software at Air Force service headquarters in San Antonio, Texas, has the equivalent of a worldwide point-of-sale system, the touch computer screens that are becoming the norm in restaurants, Lodge said. Headquarters sends out menus every two weeks and can check an operation's financial status daily.

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