Oliver Makes Her Mark

UCLA Medical Center’s Pattie Oliver shines with healthful, upscale room service and a wellness initiative.

At A Glance: UCLA Medical Center Foodservice Snapshot

•$11 million annual budget

•35 tons of food and supplies received each week

•1,500 patient meals served daily

•$7 million annual cafeteria sales

•6,000+ catering evens per year; $1 million+ annual catering sales


FoodService Director - Patti Oliver - UCLA Medical CenterWith her striking good looks—think long blond hair, model’s figure, vivacious blue eyes and 500-watt smile—Pattie Oliver easily could be part of the Hollywood scene. But this California woman, a registered dietitian whose credentials also include MS and MBA degrees, is right at home as director of nutrition at 669-bed UCLA Medical Center.

When Oliver came on board eight years ago as chief clinical dietitian, she faced a daunting task: she was being groomed to one day take the helm from her boss, the beloved and widely respected Silver Plate award winner Carlton Green. But since Green’s retirement two years ago, Oliver has succeeded not by copying him but by being herself.

“Carlton made a great financial impact here with a department that had been in a very poor state when he arrived,” she points out. “But following a successful person—actually a legend—was a challenge, especially since he left such a very high functioning department. Also, few people have the speaking skills and stage presence that he has. For example, each year we have a holiday party and Carlton would put on a costume, sing and dance and really give them a show. That first Christmas after he left, my staff wanted to know what costume I would wear.

But, more appropriate to my personality—and without donning a costume—I said a few words about the staff’s contribution to our department’s success. Carlton and I speak often—he’s still my great mentor and friend—but we all have to be who we are.”

Taking the lead: In choosing her career, what Oliver wanted most was to work in a “helping field.” During her freshman year at California State University at Northridge, a nutrition course sparked her interest. “Several times in my career I was going to be promoted into management but twice I made the decision to go back to a more patient-related position,” she recalls. “I guess I have a knack for stepping in and taking the lead, so I knew eventually I’d move into administration. Therefore, in 1995, I went back to school to get some formal management credentials, and earned an MBA in 1997 from the University of La Verne [CA]. When Carlton hired me, he made it clear he wanted someone with the educational background to eventually take his position; he was a firm believer in having someone for every key position waiting in the wings.”

Today, Oliver finds herself very involved in two major projects. The first has thrust her into the gearing-up stage of the implementation of one of the first healthful fine-dining hotel-style room service programs in a medical center. The second project brings her back to her original reasons for choosing a career in dietetics by immersing her in developing a many-faceted employee wellness initiative.

FoodService Director - Patti Oliver - UCLA Medical CenterMoving right along: Following several postponements, come September, UCLA Medical Center is slated to move patients and staff across the street and into the new Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, a 550-bed facility touted as one of the most technologically advanced centers in the world—with a first-class room service program to match. While the kitchen and cafeteria are “beautiful,” according to Oliver, they were both designed a decade ago, predating both Green’s and Oliver’s arrival and the subsequent growth in cafeteria participation; she concedes this may prove problematic.

Although Oliver hasn’t had much input on the physical layout, the many aspects of creating and implementing the fine-dining room service program are center of her plate. “Executive chef Mark Dyball and chef manager Gabriel Gomez have planned this menu to include more than 32 entrees, 18 vegetarian choices and no fried foods,” she says. “We’re rolling it out this month at our Santa Monica UCLA facility; they’re already doing a manual style of room service but we’re automating it. The Santa Monica kitchen will be a training area for us prior to our September move, plus we’ll also pilot room service here on our VIP floor with private rooms.”

Most of the menu and service planning has been effected over the past two years under Oliver’s direction. In April, she was still holding weekly meetings to iron out the many technical aspects of implementing the computer program. “One portion includes interfaces for the diet order program, another for the food allergy program and a third for the patient information program,” Oliver explains. “Most computer menu systems don’t accept free text, so each element has to be assigned a code. The process has taken over a year and has included training every nurse and physician to understand that there are only a certain number of diets they can order. We’ve always wanted to decrease the number of special diets, and this move allowed us to actually reduce the number from about 100 to 24.”

Training her staff, which will increase from 180 FTEs to about 190, is also critical since the tray line of old will soon disappear. As a result, new positions, most requiring patient interface, will be created.

Wellness for staff: Meanwhile, during the past year Oliver has been called upon to make wellness a priority for the medical center staff, as mandated by Dr. David Callender, the medical center’s ceo.

“I was named chairman of the initiative and it’s really brought me full circle to focus on nutrition,” she asserts. “We have created a Web site with articles written by our dietitians and a weekly display cooking station in the cafeteria featuring a healthy entrée—the recipe and nutrition breakout are available—with both the chef and dietitian participating. ‘Live life well’ is our slogan and a green apple is our logo; we put that apple logo, attached to little wooden toothpicks, on all items we consider to be heart healthy.”

Oliver admits she had some concerns that the average of 5,000 transactions daily and, in turn, the approximately $7 million in annual cafeteria sales, might drop with the implementation of the wellness initiative. Those fears, so far, have not come to pass.

“Thursdays, when fried chicken is on, have traditionally been our largest selling days,” she explains. “The lines are out the door. Now, that’s the day we also do display cooking with healthful items such as Harvest Roast Turkey Salad. There’s still a long line for fried chicken, but cafeteria sales are up by 3% and I get so many positive comments every day.”

Keeping positive but not daring to think too far ahead—say five or ten years into the future—Oliver quips: “Just get me and my staff into that new hospital. We’re ready.”