Release Date: April 02, 2014
by Tony Choate
You won’t find a cheeseburger and fries on the menu at Okchamali’s Café.
Located on the first floor in the “Town Center” area of the Chickasaw Nation Medical Center in Ada, Okla., Okchamali’s (pronounced Ohk-chah-mah-le) Café has redefined expectations regarding hospital and cafeteria food. Named for the Chickasaw word for the color green, the cafeteria offers an array of fresh and healthy menu items that also taste delicious.
“We wanted to create an environment in which it’s easy to make healthy choices,” Melinda Newport, Chickasaw Nation Nutrition Services director said. “We wanted to provide beautiful, nutritious food at a great price.”
A commitment to healthy eating is reflected in the food options at the café that immediately set it apart from a typical cafeteria. There is no iceberg lettuce in the salad bar. All greens are either romaine lettuce or spinach. There are no fried foods. Everything is baked, steamed or lightly sautéed. Fresh fruits and vegetables are prominently featured and all breads are whole grain. Patrons even have the option to help themselves to a free glass of milk to complement their meal. Chickasaw Nation dieticians and the café staff work together to ensure that all menu items follow proper nutrition and portion guidelines.
However, in order for patrons to “eat their vegetables,” the staff at Okchamali’s knew that it wasn’t enough for the food to be healthy. It also had to taste – and look – good.
“You eat with your eyes,” Okchamali’s assistant manager Wesley Williams said. “The better the food looks, the more likely it is people are willing to try it.”
Mr. Williams explained menu items are designed to maximize flavor, texture and color. With these guidelines in mind, the cafeteria introduced a variety of foods such as quinoa and fresh asparagus. It was a gamble to introduce new flavors not as familiar to people’s tastes and preferences. Ms. Newport and Mr. Williams admit that initial customer reactions to the new items were a mixture of cautious and curious.
“In the very beginning, it was a challenge,” Mr. Williams said.
In order to meet this challenge, the staff offered free samples and listened to customer feedback about entrées. Some foods were not well-received by patrons, but other items, like quinoa, became surprise hits. Listening to customers’ preferences was a strategy that worked and customer favorites like fish and hummus are now regular items at the café.
Another challenge Okchamali’s overcame was pricing. Local chain restaurants, while not as healthy, offer quick meals at a low price. Healthy food can be more expensive than a “regular” meal. However, items at the café are very affordable. All entrees are $2.10. Sides are usually less than a dollar. The deli sandwiches and wraps at the bistro are less than five dollars. The salad bar is priced by the ounce with the average cost of a lunch salad falling between five and six dollars.
The combination of affordability and healthy, flavorful meals has made the café a popular destination for local diners. Since opening, hospital staff, visitors and workers in the surrounding area have made Okchamali’s a go-to lunch spot. Customer transactions have increased 81 percent in 2013 since 2010. A few satisfied customers have even shared their experiences on Yelp.com, a popular online review site normally reserved for more traditional restaurants.
Debbie Choate is a respiratory therapist at the Medical Center and a regular at Okchamali’s. Eating at the café was not only convenient for Ms. Choate, she said it helped her lose weight and improve her health. She provided the Chickasaw Nation nutrition staff a written testimonial about her experience at Okchamali’s:
“I made a real effort the last couple of years to lose some weight to help control my blood pressure, which had required medication to control. I had one or two meals each day in the café whenever I could because I knew I would have many options that would fall within the guidelines I needed to follow to reduce my calories and sodium. I have been able to lose about 15 pounds in the last two years and I feel like having so many healthy choices in the café each day when I am at work has helped me stick to my plan. The café is a great asset for helping all of us stay healthy!”
Last Updated: 10/20/2014