If you should, for whatever reason, find yourself in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood, specifically the area east of Michigan Avenue between Chicago Avenue and Ohio Street, and you’re feeling peckish, you could do worse than slip into Northwestern Memorial Hospital for a quick bite. I know, it sounds weird. But the first and second floors of the hospital have a truly impressive array of food options, including some of the best banh mi sandwiches in the city, and the lines are usually short. I have only been to the hospital for medical purposes once (it was the ER, and they served me some lovely ginger ale and graham crackers), but I’ve gone there quite often for lunch.
Tom Colicchio has probably never been to Northwestern Memorial and experienced the charms of its dining options. Therefore, the New York–based chef and restaurant group owner is claiming that he will, with the help of executive Dan Guaricci, rescue hospital dining with his latest project, a fast-casual chain called Root & Sprig. The first location opened earlier this week at Children’s National Research and Innovation Campus in Washington, D.C., The Washington Post reports.
It is true that the food options at most hospitals are unhealthy (fast food) or just plain disgusting, which isn’t good news for hospital workers or visitors who are looking for a quick meal and don’t have time to leave the premises. Root & Sprig will feature healthier options, mostly premade sandwiches, salads, soups, and breakfast items, plus gourmet toasts that are prepared fresh. Items that are vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free are clearly identified, and there is no beef at all. The only cooking implements on-site are a toaster and a device that cooks eggs. It’s very much in the model of ’Wichcraft, the sandwich chain Colicchio started back in 2003, making him the first chef to expand into the fast-casual market.
Root & Sprig will not be feeding hospital patients, although visitors could, in theory, slip a patient a sandwich or a cup of soup.
The decision to open Root & Sprig was not entirely an altruistic one. Colicchio was brought into the world of hospital dining, the Post reports, by a former employee, Cory Sullivan, who is now the chief operating officer of Health Hospitality Partners (HHP), an organization that works directly with hospital administrators to bring new food options into hospitals. HHP arranges for hospitals to work with a single company, Colicchio told the Post, instead of many retail clients (as at Northwestern). This is a sweet deal for the food provider, since hospitals are essentially a closed system with a captive audience—or, as the Post put it, “a built-in customer base.”
Also, as the Post noted, the fast-casual restaurant market stalled during the pandemic, losing $5 billion in revenue between 2019 and 2020, though experts believe it will recover this year. Still, choosing a business with guaranteed customers is definitely a wise move.
Two more Root & Sprig locations are scheduled to open later this year, in Denver and Philadelphia (specific hospitals TBD), and there are 19 more in the pipeline. So if you should find yourself in a hospital in the next few years, don’t despair: better food awaits (probably).