River Region pair united in common mission

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 2, 2010

Two men — born in December 1964 and having the same name — are offering a hefty serving of good personality with their signature dishes at River Region Medical Center.

The 5-foot-5, 120-pound food service worker Keith Hughes, or Little Keith, and the 6-foot, 248-pound caterer Keith Russell, or Big Keith, are popular with patrons and employees. Both are 45 years old and Vicksburg natives.

“Everybody at the hospital knows them by name,” said Diane Gawronski, River Region’s marketing director. “They are very friendly. No matter how busy they are, they always have a couple of words for you.”

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Little Keith began working at River Region 19 years ago — about four months after his son, Keith Hughes Jr., was born there. With a new baby, he knew he needed more money than a career as a carpenter could provide.

Big Keith has been at River Region for about two years. He left a job at Infinity Brokerage in Chicago because he wanted to leave the “hustle and bustle of the city,” he said.

“I came in ’07 and stumbled around and landed a job at River Region as a cook,” Big Keith said. “That’s what I wanted to do.”

The fast pace in Chicago was nerve-wracking, he said.

“You make enemies every day,” he laughed, adding now he makes only friends. “You hustle here too — a different type of hustle.”

Little Keith said he, too, had long wanted to prepare meals — even as a child. “Cooking was easy. I stayed in the kitchen with my mom and dad.”

About three years ago, Little Keith’s friendly way with customers won him the Superior Treatment and Royal Service (or STAR) Award at River Region, Gawronski said.

“You have to demonstrate superior customer service,” said Gawronski. “That’s a big honor because you have to be nominated by one of your peers — somebody who works here.”

The STAR award has since been replaced by an honor called “Better Health Care Begins with Me.”

“I get nothing but rave reviews on them working together,” said John Pelton, director of dietary services. “Customer service is their forté as well as their good cooking. Customer service is a big part of what we do.”

Little Keith has devised a few favored dishes during his tenure, and Pelton said he encourages his creativity on the grill.

“(Little) Keith has started making a homemade chicken salad every day that everybody clamors for. They keep adding little things here and there that the customers seem to come back for, which is really nice,” Pelton said. “If they want to try something new, I don’t have a problem with it as long as I get a taste test.”

Big Keith, who flexes his culinary muscle in the hot line for customers and in the kitchen for patients, admits he has learned a lot working with Little Keith.

“Certain dishes I make, I watch him make them — but his are much better — his blackened chicken, his pasta, his hot wings,” said Big Keith.

Gawronski said the care Big Keith puts into preparation is important from person to person.

“Every patient, depending on the severity of their illness, might be on a special diet,” she said. “He’s not making hamburgers for everybody because somebody might be on a sodium-restricted diet or a diabetes diet or a cardiac diet. He has the capabilities to do different style foods for the patients and the cafeteria.”

Pharmacy Technician Lorraine Devine packs her lunch every day, but deviates from her routine when the two Keiths prepare their taco salad.

“I love salads,” she said. “But if I find out they make taco salads, I can’t have my salad that day.”

Amber Goodnight, also a pharmacy technician, said she doesn’t have to place an order for a hamburger and fries or her favorite, chicken wings, when Big Keith is working the grill.

“He always knows my order when he sees me because I always get the same thing,” she said. “He doesn’t even ask me what it is.”