Bruce Thomas: Leading the Way

By Becky Schilling, Editor

Bruce Thomas, Silver Plate, Geisinger Health SystemAt a Glance: Bruce Thomas
•Associate Vice President of Guest Services
•Geisinger Health System, Danville, Pa.
•Years in foodservice: 38
•Years at Geisinger: 22 (six in current position)
•Meals per day: 5,984
•Foodservice employees: 205 FTEs

When Bruce Thomas started at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pa., in 1987, as an administrative diet technician, he already had 10 years’ experience in the hotel and restaurant industry. Thomas remembers not being convinced the switch from commercial to non-commercial was right for him. “I had a conversation with my wife saying this career is not for me,” he recalls. “I was confused. With all the patient stuff and learning all the diets, it was complex.”

After expressing his concerns with his director, Lynne Ometer, Thomas’ responsibilities were changed to include incorporating technology to create efficiencies within the department. That switch was the catalyst that drove Thomas—now the associate vice president of guest services at Geisinger Health System—to stay in healthcare foodservice.

“What I learned was we made the information system more complex than it actually was,” Thomas says. “I spent a lot of time in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s just bringing the technology up.”

The director’s chair: In 1997, Ometer left and Thomas was hired as her replacement. “I continued to do what I was doing,” Thomas says. “I rolled out technology wherever we could. Where we are with technology in foodservice is light years ahead of where other people are. A lot of people have information systems, but I think the key for us is that we’ve utilized every aspect of that technology. We’re not just piecemealing it or picking out the diet office functions. We’re utilizing it across the board. We’re purchasing, we’re generating purchase orders off of that system, recipes, diet office, nutrient analysis.

Bruce Thomas, Silver Plate, Geisinger Health System“When I took over as director, one of the things I learned early on was being able to access information and being able to track historical trends and have that information at your fingertips was important,” Thomas added. “What I found out was that when administrators asked for things, they wanted them yesterday. I think that helped me a lot.”

The technology also helped tremendously as the system grew. “When I was first appointed director, it was just the Geisinger campus,” Thomas says. “Within two years I was system director.” Thomas took over foodservice for the system, which within the next 10 years would include the South Wilkes-Barre Urgent Care Center and Marworth Drug and Alcohol Rehab Center in Wavery, Geisinger Wyoming Valley Hospital in Wilkes-Barre and the Pine Barn Inn in Danville. Thomas knew centralizing the foodservice departments would create better efficiencies—what started off as a 70-bed hospital in Danville, Pa., now encompasses 818 inpatient beds, serving 2.5 million people in 40 counties. He used the technology to set up standardized purchasing and payment procedures, as well as menus. The diet office is also being centralized. At Geisinger’s main campus in Danville, the diet office was moved out of the production kitchen to an off-site location. From that location, Thomas hopes to create a diet office for the entire system, which would standardize all patient menus. Currently, there are four different diet offices throughout the system.

The technology was used in other ways as well, including payroll deduction, which was rolled out systemwide in 2004 and includes other departments such as pharmacy, and temperature tracking, which started in 2003 and includes all of the system’s refrigerators, including those outside of foodservice.

Thomas also realized changing the kitchen culture was important. “I came into a typical hospital setting where there was, and I’m not saying they were bad, but it was people who had been here for 30 years and they made the food the way they had always made it,” he says. “It was institutional food.”

Bruce Thomas, Silver Plate, Geisinger Health SystemTo change that environment, Thomas used the technology to create standardized recipes for the cooks to follow. He also brought in culinary expertise. Thomas hired Geisinger’s first executive chef in 1998. “We needed to get someone to take us beyond hospital food,” Thomas says, “and we felt an executive chef was the right thing to do.” In 2004, Thomas hired Steve Cerullo as food production manager. Thomas starting grooming Cerullo to take over his position as foodservice director, which Cerullo did when Thomas was promoted to his current position, associate vice president of guest services, in 2006.

Moving up: When Thomas moved into his current role, he took on additional departments, including environmental services, the print shop, mail services and patient transport and valet services. However, he remains heavily involved in foodservice. For example, in 2008, Thomas spearheaded a healthy menu makeover, called Geisinger Healthy Selections Program, for the retail operations. The program is used systemwide.

“We weren’t unlike many other facilities,” Thomas says. “We were trying over the years to be good role models in foodservices, but what we were finding was we could put healthy out but it didn’t sell.

Bruce Thomas, Silver Plate, Geisinger Health SystemWe used to take things like a pierogi casserole, so it’s potatoes and onions and cheese. The cooks would spend hours tweaking that recipe. Then they’d take a piece of fish, throw some bread crumbs on it and put it in the oven and call it healthy and wonder why the pierogi casserole sold and the fish didn’t. We developed this program that said we aren’t going to change the behavior of people overnight, but what we want to do is start to move toward selling items that are healthier for you.”

Thomas estimated that at the start of the program, about 25% of the retail items met the American Heart Association guidelines, which the program used as a baseline for determining healthy items. The goal was to increase that to 40% or 50% within the first two years.

One of the first steps in the program was No Fry Fridays. Thomas admits that No Fry Fridays were not popular with customers, but he says once people realized the department wasn’t going to budge they accepted it and moved on. In the first year of No Fry Fridays, the amount of french fries served was reduced by 50 tons.

Another big change that came as a result of the Healthy Selection program was changing the Geisinger Medical Center’s lobby operation. The location was built in the ‘70s and the back-of-house equipment consisted entirely of grills and fryers. The fryers were converted to pasta cookers and french fries were removed from the menu.

Despite early customer grumblings, sales were not affected. Sales increased 8% the first year of the program, and the amount of hamburgers served was reduced by 40,000 pounds. Thomas attributes that to better marketing and presentation of the healthy items.

“We spent a lot of time training the chefs not to mess with the pierogi casserole and to spend more time with the healthy items to make them look more attractive, and then they would sell,” Thomas says. “We found that worked. We spent more time making the healthy items more attractive and we featured them as opposed to just sticking a sign on them that said this is our healthy side of the day. We made people want to eat them. We changed the whole image. If you walk into a place and the first things you see are burgers, hot dogs and fries, you have that perception that the specialty is burgers, hot dogs and fries. Whereas if you see a nice fruit display then you get a different perception.”

At the main cafeteria in Geisinger Medical Center, the first thing customers see upon entering is EZ Takes, a grab-and-go-cooler that features healthy items, including Get Light Lunches, a complete meal in a box for 500 calories or fewer.

Industry service: Thomas’ dedication and leadership were once again on display during the consolidation of the National Society for Healthcare Foodservice Management (HFM) and the American Society for Healthcare Food Service Administrators (ASHFSA). Thomas was HFM president in 2009, the critical year when previous whispers of a merger became reality.

“My role as president was to really look at [the possibility of a consolidation] and decide if it was something we wanted to do moving forward,” Thomas says. “We decided we needed to make a decision and not let it sit on the back burner. We spent a lot of time talking about this. We realized that it was the right thing to do for the industry.”

The biggest hurdle in the consolidation was the question of self-op or open membership for operators. The six-person group charged with creating the new association, which included Thomas, decided to keep HFM’s self-op mission. Thomas says if the self-op mission hadn’t been adopted, two groups would have continued to exist. “If we merged the group under a different mission, there would have been a group of very strong HFM members who would have been a splinter group,” he says.


What Others Say About Bruce

Bob Davies, chief support services officer for Geisinger Health System:

Davies says Thomas’ greatest attribute is his communication skills, which have helped to get a $16 million expansion project approved for the main campus.

“This project has been on a back burner. But it wasn’t until Bruce took it on and wrote the business plan, which was very compelling, that it was approved. It took two years to make it through. The first year it almost got approved.

It was very close to the top of the ratings system. I will tell you our internal rating system for capital projects is geared toward clinical projects and not support services projects like this. I would credit that [success] all to Bruce and the way he put that business plan together.

The way he lives his life is so balanced. He’s got his priorities in mind and he doesn’t let things go. He responds quickly. He has his values set very well. I look at him with his family and his coworkers and his team, he’s got his values and priorities in the right place.”

Steve Cerullo, director of foodservices at Geisinger, Danville:

Cerullo also says Thomas’ communication skills set him apart.

“His greatest attribute is his ability to work with people to get accomplished what he wants to get accomplished but not in an overpowering way. He doesn’t work above or below anyone. He works with any group of people, from our board of directors and CEO to the entry-level folks, and he’s just that approachable.

I’ve had the luxury of traveling with him to industry events and he is known and loved in the industry. He still has a lot of input into the things that we do. There is a big focus now on healthy selections, and he helped us change the mind-sets of a lot of the employees, both inside and outside foodservices, about the quality of food and service.”

Mary Angela Miller, administrative director at Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus:

Miller has known Thomas for more than 10 years and worked with him while they were both on the board of directors of HFM.

“The consolidation of HFM and ASHFSA would not have happened in the way that it did, and I think it happened the best way it could have happened, if Bruce had not been the appointed leader of that task force. Because he is so sound, fair, calm and knowledgeable, everybody trusted him. Trust was important. I really think he is an industry changer. He was the right leader at the right time. When you go through something like that there are always rumors and concerns, but there was never ever an issue of trust and that’s because Bruce was at the helm.”

Read more Silver Plate profiles: Dee Hardy, Lora Gilbert, George Miller, Jr., Steve Sweeney