It started with nutrition — and the perceived lack of it for the soldiers, especially the single ones living in the barracks.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Heidi Ann Wallace, the 13th Expeditionary Sustainment Command food advisor, noticed that fewer and fewer soldiers were coming into the dining facilities to eat. Instead, they were often going out to restaurants off post or ordering fast food delivery.

Many of the complaints Wallace said she was hearing were about the lack of variety, more nutritious food and vegan or vegetarian options for those soldiers who wanted to eat healthier.

So Fort Hood’s dining facilities for soldiers are undergoing changes in the hope of attracting troopers back through the doors. As part of the effort to provide a better service to the soldiers, the facilities will be known as “Warrior Restaurants” from now on and will have a more restaurant-like feel.

Wallace said the restaurants are being upgraded to have more of the atmosphere of a civilian restaurant and will soon offer free wi-fi service, large TV screens and themed decor. The menu is also being expanded to include more vegan and vegetarian-friendly options.

The Always Ready Warrior Restaurant on West Fort Hood is pioneering the effort, she said. Once the facility is fully online, the rest of Fort Hood’s Warrior Restaurants will follow suit and serve as a pilot program for the Department of the Army.

“We had started to see a decrease in the number of soldiers who were using the dining facilities. Soldiers in the Army have a basic allowance for subsistence entitlement (to pay for food) of $386.50 a month. Married soldiers get their entitlement, but single soldiers don’t,” Wallace, from Brooklyn, N.Y., said, adding that single soldiers have their BAS deducted every month to pay for their meal card, which lets them eat at the dining areas. “So we’re aggressively going after the soldiers who have their entitlement taken away because they’re going out to restaurants and the (Post Exchange) and spending money that’s already been taken away from them. So we want to ensure that these facilities offer the same menus you can find outside of them, so they are not going outside and spending more money.”

The initiative to rebrand the dining facilities to Warrior Restaurants began in January and Wallace said they expect to do a lot of advertising on Facebook and other social media over the next 30 days. The hope is that within the next three months, they will have brought awareness to all of the soldiers and Army civilians in the community about the new menu. Once everything is ready, all the remaining dining facilities on Fort Hood will be set up as Warrior Restaurants.

“We’re hoping to set it up to become the Army standard,” she said. “Big Army is interested, they’re looking at it, and they want us to be the pilot. We’re setting the standard. I’m excited for the troops, and I’m excited for the 92Gs (culinary specialists). They’re learning a lot, they’re excited, and I’m excited for them and my dining facility manager.”

The Always Ready Warrior Restaurant manager, Sgt. 1st Class Jeanne Whitfield, said healthy options on the menu was the main thing most of their customers were asking for when they took over the building in January.

“They’d be like, hey, you don’t have enough protein, or I’m vegan and I don’t eat meat,” said the Goldsboro, N.C., native. “So we started focusing towards their needs, so we can get them in the door. Once we realized exactly what they wanted, we geared towards what they liked. If we weren’t able to get it, we got with the vendors to see about getting a better selection.”

Not only are the culinary specialists focusing on more healthy options, they are also focusing on other areas, such as cutting down the need for fast food deliveries.

“So on the weekends, we just started this month where they can come in and get their pizza made for them,” Whitfield, who serves with the 553rd Field Feeding Company, 61st Quartermaster Battalion, said. “They tell us what they want, we put the toppings on, it takes about seven minutes to cook and they’re right out the door. We have vegan burgers. We’re giving them more options so they can come here instead of going out to other restaurants and spending their money.”

The 15-year Army veteran said the initiative has been effective and the number of civilians using the Warrior Restaurant has gone up tremendously.

“Now my main focus is the soldiers in the barracks. My goal is for them to say hey, is today hot dog bar day? Nacho bar day? Every day we have different bars,” Whitfield said. “Our goal is to be like a food court with different varieties. If you don’t want tacos today, you can eat Italian. And each area has healthy options embedded in them.”

Currently, the Warrior Restaurants look more of the style of a high school cafeteria, she said, but the 61st QM Battalion is on board with getting everything to give the facility more of a restaurant feel.

“Money is being set aside, paperwork is done and just waiting for final approval,” Whitfield said. “We’re pretty much writing the standard operating procedures for moving forward.”

For the culinary specialists learning how to make the new menu items, the chance to be a part of a change that will benefit the soldiers they serve is exciting.

“I think the rebranding and new menu items, soldiers will see it as a restaurant, and with the different options instead of eating the same thing every day, will make them want to come in more often,” said Spc. Blessing Lawson, a 22-year-old culinary specialist from Yokohama, Japan who serves with the 553rd FFC. “I used to be pescatarian (someone who does not eat meat, but does eat fish) and when I first joined (the Army) and came here, there were no options for vegans and I used to be so mad.

“Now that we have more options and a lot of variety — I actually know a friend who is a vegan, and there used to be no food for her; there was only the salad bars and some vegetables and rice. With us having these options, she’s like, I can actually eat here now instead of spending my own money.”

Pvt. Kamron Johnson, an 18-year-old culinary specialist from Autaugaville, Alabama, said soldiers should be excited about the new options coming up because it will give them a healthier body and a chance to stop spending so much money.

“I think this is a great start. The military didn’t have many options for vegetarians, so I’m glad we have these healthier options,” he said. “Healthier options help our soldiers grow stronger, boost up their performance for everyday activities. I think they (soldiers) will see the new options and will want to come in and try the new options we have.”

So far, the soldiers who are coming in have been pleased with the changes.

“The food is honestly really good here — they have a huge selection,” said Spc. Jordan Combs, 23, of Pana, Illinois, with the 303rd Military Intelligence Battalion, 504th MI Brigade. “I’ve been on a diet for awhile and the selection here is really healthy, which has been helping me out. Eating healthy, I’m trying to keep up with the proteins, cutting back on the fats and carbs. Having that selection of vegan and vegetarian options helps me, too.

“Out of all the DFACs I’ve been to, this one is the best. I would definitely recommend it to everyone.”

In the end, the new image and modern menus boil down to People First and maintaining the combat readiness of soldiers through nutrition, Whitfield said.

“There are a lot of changes coming that are going to make them want to come in. The competition against regular restaurants? We will be in that competition,” she said. “In fact, we will beat the competition if you just give us the chance.”

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