George Miller Jr.: Old Dog, New Tricks

By Paul King, Editorial Director

George Miller Jr. has been involved with Air Force foodservice for a long time—more than 45 years. But the chief of Air Force Food and Beverage Operations hasn’t run out of ideas yet. At a time when other men might be contemplating retirement, Miller has launched a major program called the Food Transformation Initiative. Under the pilot program, Miller’s department has contracted with Aramark to handle the foodservice at six Air Force bases.

George Miller, Silver Plate U.S. Air ForceAt a Glance: George Miller Jr.
•Chief, U.S. Air Force Food & Beverage Operations
•Randolph AFB, San Antonio, Texas
•Years in foodservice: 48
•Years at current job: 14
•Meals per day: 255,000
•Annual Sales Volume: $372 million

George Miller Jr. has been involved with Air Force foodservice for a long time—more than 45 years. But the chief of Air Force Food and Beverage Operations hasn’t run out of ideas yet. At a time when other men might be contemplating retirement, Miller has launched a major program called the Food Transformation Initiative. Under the pilot program, Miller’s department has contracted with Aramark to handle the foodservice at six Air Force bases.

“Aramark was hired to provide the full foodservice scheme: new menus, new delivery processes and new training techniques,” says Miller. “It’s giving us more flexibility, such as expanding our hours of operation. We have gone from nine hours a day to about 12 or 13 hours, to allow people the ability to eat when they want. We’re hoping for improved meal counts and higher quality of food items. Aramark can change out the menu more rapidly than we can. A college feeding operation is what we’re driving ourselves toward.”

That’s a tall order for the Air Force, which has 276 dining facilities and flight kitchens, as well as more than 250 “non-appropriated”—meaning they receive no government funding—food and beverage operations at more than 100 Air Force installations around the world. But people who know Miller well are confident that if anyone can effect the transformation, he can.

An NCO during his 30-year military career—he retired as a chief master sergeant—Miller has steadfastly fought to improve the quality and the skills of the programs and the people in his charge. When he retired in 1993, he went to work for Old Country Buffet, only to return three years later as a civilian, full of ideas he could implement in Air Force dining facilities.

George Miller, Silver Plate U.S. Air ForceHe has worked hard to make meals healthier for service personnel, to get more fresh food into more far-flung locales around the world and to streamline the whole process so that he could funnel more money into the food itself.

“The biggest challenge we have is finding money,” Miller says. “We can’t just say we need more funds. We have to show what we’ve been doing to reduce costs or to find better ways of doing things.”

From butcher to cook: Cutting is something Miller understands; after all, at the time he enlisted in the Air Force, he had been trained as an apprentice meat cutter at a grocery store chain in the California Bay Area where he grew up.

“They put me in the foodservice career field when I enlisted, which made sense,” he recalls. “But when I went to my first duty station, I was made a cook because the Air Force was phasing out meat cutters.”

Not that young Miller minded.

“I thought it was pretty neat back then,” he says. “I enjoyed it because it was something different. I got interested and so I stuck with it. I moved up through the field into management.”

As he rotated through bases he became exposed to all the various types of foodservice carried out by this branch of the service. At F.E. Warren AFB in Cheyenne, Wyo., he learned about feeding in the remote missile silos that were part of America’s defense system. At Goose Bay, Labrador, in Newfoundland, he experienced flight line cooking, where meals were prepared for military support and, on occasion, commercial aircraft that landed there.

His first management role was for the Strategic Air Command, which he handled for several years out of Offut AFB in Nebraska. His last management role as an enlisted man was at Tyndall Air Force Base, Panama City, Fla., where he was chief of the food management team for the entire Air Force.

“Our job was to teach and train foodservice personnel, regardless of command structure, and provide guidance and direction to all the policy makers,” Miller explains. “We were moved out to San Antonio in a reorganization, and I retired here in 1993.”

His post-Air Force life was relatively short-lived, however.

“In 1996, the Air Force was into a new training program, and the general in charge asked me to come back,” he says.

As one might expect of someone who has had his hand in an institution for four decades, Miller has been responsible for much of how the Air Force conducts its foodservice business. He helped standardize menus throughout the service, a move he said was essential for an effective operation.

“We rotate our people very rapidly, and I realized we needed a streamlined process that could maintain itself when you have four or five people leaving an installation and four or five new people coming in,” Miller notes. “A standard menu gives new people a chance to get their legs under them, because the menu is set and just continues to run day by day.”

Five years ago, he helped established a wellness program called Fueling the War Fighter, an effort that he admits has met with some resistance.

“We’ve been trying to introduce a lot more healthy items into the operations,” he says. “Baking items instead of frying them, reducing the amount of trans fats, and offering more fruits and vegetables and fish.

“We started out in our basic training facilities, trying to break bad eating habits early on, to at least give customers different alternatives and drive down the medical costs. I think it’s working well; we haven’t had any negative feedback or press. But it’s hard to break a trend that some personnel have been doing since they were young. We can only give them the options. It’s up to them to choose.”

Honoring the troops: As someone who learned much of what he knows about foodservice in the Air Force, Miller has always taken a strong interest in the training aspect of foodservice. He says he wishes he could spend more time in the field with airmen.

“I like being out in the field, working with young people,” he notes. “We do a lot of training, and I like getting in there with trainees. I will put on a chef’s coat and get my hands in there with the flour or whatever and cook. They like to see that, and I enjoy talking with them.”

That is one reason why the John L. Hennessey Award program, which Miller became involved with in 1973 when he was stationed at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio, is so special to him.

“The Hennessey program is probably the greatest selling point we have for our operations,” he says. “It is the oldest Air Force awards program, started in 1957, and it has high visibility because of its association with the National Restaurant Association. We are involved with them. We sit on their committees and some of their boards, and they do a lot for us, such as training opportunities and venues for our troops.”

The Hennessey Awards are chosen by a group of people called Hennessey Travelers, who visit all of the bases selected as finalists. Miller has been a Traveler seven times, an experience he calls “enjoyable.”

“You see a lot of good things and a lot of young people doing an outstanding job,” he says. “The competition is very keen; it’s like the Super Bowl of foodservice.”

Next steps: Much of Miller’s time these days is spent monitoring the Food Transformation Initiative, which he says will be a major change for the Air Force if it is successful.

“Currently we rely on individual contracts for each base,” Miller explains. “Some are where the contractor manages the entire operation, and others are food attendant contracts, where they handle cleaning, sanitation and some service. With each base having a contract, those costs quickly begin to escalate. We thought that a central contract should drive the cost of the contracts down.

“The other reason for the change is that the Air Force can’t retool fast enough to keep up with all the trends and changes in the industry. By the time we get a new concept in, the industry has already moved down the road to two or three newer concepts, so we’re always playing catch-up.”

The relationship with Aramark has already had some side benefits for the Air Force, Miller notes.

“We’re tweaking our menu worldwide, based on some of the things we’ve learned from Aramark,” he says. “We’ve learned about some new products that we thought we never could introduce, and we’re also looking at different ingredients, like spices, that we never thought about using but now make sense. So we’re learning how to use them.”

Whether the Air Force goes with centralized contracts, Miller says the service will not stop teaching personnel to cook; even under the Aramark contract, military personnel still do all the food prep.

By the same token, Miller will not stop coming up with new ways to improve the overall foodservice program.

“Right now, we’re also tweaking our automated tracking system for food products,” he explains. “Right now, I can tell you how many pounds of green beans we served yesterday in every Air Force facility around the world. I want to tweak that to where we can tell what kind of green beans we used: Fresh? Frozen? We could then use that information to leverage the market better, to get better prices for our products.”

What Others Say About George

Dave Mickler, U.S. Air Force, retired:

Mickler, who worked with George Miller for five years at Tyndall AFB in Panama City, Fla., said Miller genuinely cares about the men and women under his command.

“The thing that stands out most in my mind is his concern for the young folks in the field. He was always stressing we had to make sure they were taken care of and that they had everything they need to do their jobs. He reminded us to never forget where we had come from, and to always work to do whatever we can to make things better.

He has so much knowledge and experience, he always seemed to have the answer to whatever we needed. Working with him was fantastic; we always seemed to be on the same page. He was quite a mentor to me.”

Bill Spencer, chief, Air Force Food & Beverage Support Branch:

Spencer says his boss is all business on the job, and has never been one to back down from a fight.

“George’s biggest asset is that he really cares about the troops. He is willing to fight for Air Force foodservice. When he goes to DoD (Department of Defense) meetings, he is not the type of person to just go along with what the group says. He will argue his point of view. But his knowledge makes him well-respected with the DoD arena, and often the things he fights for end up becoming DoD guidelines. He’s very dedicated to the job. He gives up his leave every year because he wants to make sure that everything gets done, and that’s not a move most people would care to do. Off the job, he is very easy to get along with, but on the job he is totally serious, and the job comes first.”

Jim Kreuger, chief, U.S. Air Force food and beverage research and development:

Kreuger says Air Force foodservice succeeds because Miller runs it like a business.

“Four words I would use to describe George Miller are expertise, dedication, knowledge and commitment. He’s been at this for a long time and he knows what works and what doesn’t. A lot of times, going to someone who has been through something before can benefit you because of that. We hear a lot from people outside the military about ‘new ideas,’ and they don’t realize sometimes that they aren’t necessarily new, but that they are things that have been tried before and didn’t work. George brings that experience of knowing what has been tried and what will work.

The other thing George has really worked on here is standardization of menus and procedures. We run Air Force foodservice like a major corporation, and the standards we’ve put in place ensure that everyone knows what’s expected of them. It makes it easier for everyone involved, especially when we have to deploy. Everyone is on the same page.”

Read more Silver Plate profiles: Dee Hardy, Lora Gilbert, Steve Sweeney, Bruce Thomas