Running a restaurant where the guests don’t want to be

Tom Walton
Tom Walton

Every day, Mark Wasylyshyn has roughly 150 guests for dinner. It’s an uneasy relationship — they wish they didn’t have to come and he’d rather they not be there, but he insists they stay over.

He’s the Wood County sheriff, and well, it’s the law. His guests are inmates at the Wood County Jail. Among other things, the law requires that he feed them three nutritious meals a day.

Running a county jail has changed a lot over the years. Retired county sheriff Matt Brichta remembers taking office 25 years ago and discovering that meal planning was a rather unsophisticated enterprise. A couple of deputies would go to the old Foodtown and bring back bologna and bread and other stuff.

He and his successors, including Sheriff Wasylyshyn, have had to adapt to changing times and changing needs. How do you feed that many people and stay within your food budget?

The sheriff’s got it figured out. Saving taxpayer money is pretty much his mantra. Today his kitchen staff, led by Sandy Snow, the food service director, plans menus for a week at a time.

The menu doesn’t vary a whole lot. Last Friday’s dinner will also be next Friday’s dinner. Tomorrow’s will look a lot like last Tuesday’s.

The sheriff hit upon the idea when he visited an ailing friend in the hospital, which had a one-week rotation of meals that repeated itself. “I figured if they can do that and save money, we can do that at the jail,” he said.

So the jail’s menu went from a rotation of 30 different daily menus each month to just seven. The menu changes from Tuesday to Wednesday, but not from Tuesday to Tuesday. Nutrition meets thrift.

Jails such as Wood County’s have had to adjust in other ways too, including accommodating inmates’ religious beliefs and medical needs. A special diabetic menu is provided to insulin-dependent prisoners.

Outside the jail, in a courtyard surrounded by tall fences topped with razor wire, inmates tend a seasonal fruit and vegetable garden that produces tomatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, peppers, watermelons, radishes, cucumbers, squash, and onions for the kitchen.

From mid-July to mid-September, the garden saved the jail $2,200 in food that didn’t have to be bought from a supplier. What isn’t consumed is diced, bagged, and frozen for later use, when the garden is dormant for the winter.

No doubt, many of the inmates are eating better in jail than they do on the outside. But don’t get the idea that the sheriff is running a country club.

He gets complaints about the food. Years ago, the jail would prepare special meals on holidays — Thanksgiving and Christmas, for example — but no more. Thanksgiving last week meant the Thursday menu, which meant chicken and rice at dinner. Not a pumpkin pie in sight.

Also, beef has virtually disappeared from the jail, replaced by “turkey products.” As Ms. Snow explains: “It’s better for you and it costs less.” How much less? More than $80,000 a year less, the sheriff points out.

A hot breakfast also is a thing of the past at the jail. “We were serving three hot meals a day — even I don’t eat three hot meals a day,” Sheriff Wasylyshyn says. “We’re not required to do it, so we saved the money.”

He also determined that coffee has no nutritional value, so he eliminated it in 2005. That saves $12,500 a year, by his calculation. No cake, no cookies, no ice cream either.

Ms. Snow puts the cost per meal at about $1.14, or $1.82 if labor is factored in. You can’t get a kid’s Happy Meal for that at McDonald’s.

The sheriff uses inmate labor as much as possible. A dozen inmates work in the kitchen; another half dozen or so take care of the garden.

“I like to keep inmates engaged and busy,” he said. “I want them occupied.” The complete facility is cleaned by its temporary residents.

Sheriff Wasylyshyn carries a seemingly difficult burden for an elected official: a name that’s difficult to say, much less spell. He has a politician’s remedy. When you hear his name, just think “watch” and “listen,” he says, which is pretty good advice even if you’re not in Block Watch.

All the while, he keeps looking for further efficiencies. Prisons are allowed to serve just two meals a day instead of three required of county jails, provided the bottom-line nutritional value is there, he points out.

“I’d like to see us get to that point,” he said. “It’s something the Buckeye State Sheriffs’ Association is looking at.”

As for his guests and any dissatisfaction with the food, he has a simple response: “We tell them if they don’t like the food, don’t come back.”

Thomas Walton is the retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday. His commentary, “Life As We Know It,” can be heard each Monday at 5:44 p.m. on WGTE-FM 91.

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