For years, as the link between disease, early death and poor diet grew irrefutable, advocates and nutritionists pushed for the same prescription: Physician, heal thyself. Specifically, they demanded that hospital administrators ditch the fast-food chains that frequently bolster health-care systems’ bottom lines and adopt more nutritious meals as part of an overall plan to teach doctors and patients alike about the benefits of a balanced diet.

The success of these campaigns has been mixed: Some hospitals and clinics have cut ties with McDonald’s, Burger King and the like. Others have hired chefs to revamp the food service in outdated kitchens that have employees who may not have the skills to prepare more sophisticated meals. But as the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Washington nonprofit organization that has led the charge to revamp hospital food, points out, more than 30 medical facilities still play host to a Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s or Wendy’s.

Enter Tom Colicchio, one of the most recognizable names in the restaurant and television industries. He just introduced Root & Sprig, a new fast-casual concept that aims to give patients, families, doctors and other health-care workers a better meal when they’re at a hospital, whether working or recovering. The first Root & Sprig debuted Tuesday at the Children’s National Research and Innovation Campus in Washington, D.C.

“We were originally going to put ’Wichcraft in there, but we decided to do something new for the hospitals,” Colicchio said in an interview with The Washington Post. “My [former] ops team from ’Wichcraft, those are the ones who are running it and working on it.”

If you recall, ‘Wichcraft was among the first chef-driven fast-casuals to hit the market. Colicchio debuted his sandwich shop in 2003, well before David Chang opened Fuku, before José Andrés introduced Beefsteak and even before the industry used the term “fast-casual” with any regularity. As a pioneer in the market, Colicchio enjoyed a rush of instant success, with lines snaking out the door at ’Wichcraft. He also experienced the growing pains of fast-casuals. Between the coronavirus pandemic and a naive exuberance for expansion in its early years, ’Wichcraft is now down to a single location, but with plans to grow again.

The fast-casual business is “very different from the restaurant industry,” Colicchio said. “The operations are very, very different. The staff is different. Motivating the staff is very different, the way you have to source food and the way you prep things. It’s a very different animal even though it’s all food service.”

Colicchio has taken those lessons to heart as he has moved forward in the fast-casual world. He also has turned to Dan Guaricci to serve as chief executive of Root & Sprig. The former president of ’Wichcraft (the one who “righted the ship,” Colicchio said), Guaricci is the brains behind Root & Sprig. Guaricci and his team, including several former executives with ’Wichcraft, prepared everything for Colicchio to review before launch.

“It’s not a heavy lift for me,” Colicchio said.

Colicchio’s introduction to hospital dining came via Cory Sullivan, a former chief of staff at Crafted Hospitality, the celebrity chef’s New York-based restaurant group. Sullivan is now chief operating officer at Health Hospitality Partners, which, according to Colicchio, is a driving force behind revamping hospital food. HHP works directly with hospital administrators to introduce healthy food options, such as Root & Sprig, into their facilities. The benefit to this business arrangement, Colicchio said, is that hospitals can work with just one company instead of a host of retail tenants.

Hospital dining, with its built-in customer base, may be a safer play for restaurateurs as their industry continues to recover from the economic battering it experienced during the pandemic. According to the market research firm Technomic, sales in the once-unstoppable fast-casual market dropped more than $5 billion in one year, from $59.7 billion in 2019 to $54.4 billion last year, although the firm expects revenue to grow to $61.9 billion this year.

Root & Sprig, Colicchio said, won’t act as the food service provider for hospitals. It won’t, in other words, provide in-room meals for patients, although friends and family members can bring a Root & Sprig meal to a patient’s room. The fast-casual will, however, serve as a more nutritious option for hospital workers who have historically turned to junk food during busy shifts that frequently leave little time for full meal breaks.

“We really want to hit a sweet price so people who work in the hospital can use it as well,” Colicchio said. “You have health-care workers who just don’t have healthy options in the hospital.”

There were more employees than diners at Root & Sprig on its first day of operation in Washington, at least when I visited on Tuesday morning. It’s a streamlined counter operation. The kitchen, like many in office environments, is not equipped to cook meals to order. You won’t find burners or flattops or grills. You’ll find an electric cooker and a conveyor oven, devices that toast bread or fry an egg. Much of the menu is prepared ahead of time and ready for pickup in a refrigerated case.

The menu favors sandwiches, gourmet toasts, salads, soups and breakfast items. Dishes are clearly identified as vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free. Most of the offerings are meat-free, and the menu has nothing available for beef eaters, a pair of decisions that align Root & Sprig with other restaurants and food companies that have decided to cut back on meat, red or otherwise. The menu is also aligned with the current medical advice on a healthy diet, which includes more plants and less red meat.

How far and wide could Root & Sprig go? Two other locations, one in Philadelphia and another in Denver, are scheduled to open this fall in hospitals yet to be named.

“I believe there is probably 19 more in the pipeline,” Colicchio said.

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