Tony Almedia: Jersey Boy

Tony Almeida is a classic example of what hard work, a thirst for knowledge and a touch of “attitude” will get you. He’s made the climb from pot washer to the guy running the whole operation. But this is no one-man show; Almeida appreciates the value of building the right team and letting them lead.

At a Glance: Anthony Almeida
•Director, Food & Nutrition/Environmental/Host Services
•Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, New Brunswick, N.J.
•Born in: Elizabeth, N.J.
•Degree in restaurant & institutional management from MiddlesexCounty College
•Enjoys cooking, golf and dancing

•Almeida manages foodservice and other support services for Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, a 608-bed teaching hospital affiliated with Rutgers University. His annual foodservice budget is $18.5 million and there are 155 FTEs in the department.

•In his 18 years as director, Almeida has seen retail business grow from $650,000 to more than $4 million. He has overseen the three-phase renovation of a 30-year-old kitchen, opened the 16,000-square-foot The Dining Room on the second floor of the main building and implemented one of the largest hospital room service programs in the country, which has drawn visitors from more than 90 hospital foodservice departments.

•Almeida attributes his success to the dedication of his management team and his employees, many of whom have been with Robert Wood Johnson at least as long as he has. But Stephen Jones, the hospital’s president and CEO, said Almeida’s success lies in his ability to motivate those same employees to want to do their best. “Tony is a leader, not just in foodservice but in a variety of ways for the entire hospital.


FoodService Director - Silver Plate 2010 - Tony Almedia - Robert Wood Johnson University HospitalTony Almeida is a classic example of what hard work, a thirst for knowledge and a touch of “attitude” will get you. He’s made the climb from pot washer to the guy running the whole operation. But this is no one-man show; Almeida appreciates the value of building the right team and letting them lead.

“When I was 14 I started as a pot washer for a little Greek hot dog stand on Elizabeth Avenue, in Elizabeth, N.J., after school, making a dollar an hour. And then I got a job at Elizabeth General Hospital as a utility worker, and I worked there through high school. When I graduated high school I really didn’t know what direction I wanted to go in, but my boss, Marty Cohen, was a good leader, and I really enjoyed working for him. Because I enjoyed foodservice, he said I should go to school for it. That summer, after graduation, I actually had gotten promoted from a grill cook to a supervisor. So I started going to school and decided my goal was to become a foodservice director. I worked for him for eight years before I moved on to another hospital but actually came back for a while because he had another opening for me at Elizabeth General.  Then I got the job at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital.

I love foodservice. I love the role, what we do, not just patient feeding but the retail piece as well because, you know, we can make a big difference in an institution.

In healthcare foodservice, you’ve got to be an expert in three different areas. You’re not just focused on patient feeding. You’ve got the retail piece, which gives you a lot of flexibility and creativity, and then you have your special events. That’s where you can really show off. There are thousands of people coming through this institution every day, and we can really make a difference in their lives. Our employees—nurses, doctors, technicians—work under stress every day. Our job, when they come to spend time with us, is to get them away from that stress and give them good quality food and terrific service so that when they leave they can go back refreshed to take excellent care of their patients.

One of the great things about Robert Wood Johnson is the great management team and our senior leadership. Our president and CEO, Stephen Jones, has been here 28 years, and he is a real strong supporter of the department of food and nutrition. Anything we’ve put on paper and brought to administration, they pretty much have supported and been behind us 110%. Look at the caricature of me out there in the dining room. It started out as a joke, but administration gave it the OK. Or the character’s face on our packaged salad labels. There probably aren’t too many other people out there in healthcare who would have approved that.

One of the other advantages I have here is a great foodservice management team. We’ve been together for 18 years and we’re not afraid to take risks. Our philosophy is, let’s try it, and if it doesn’t work we can go back to doing it the old way. But if we don’t take risks we’ll never accomplish anything substantial.

FoodService Director - Silver Plate 2010 - Tony Almedia - Robert Wood Johnson University HospitalRoom service dining is a good example of that. We knew that it would be a big deal because of the size of the facility. A 608-bed hospital delivering room service dining to 50 different nursing units can be a little challenging. Our president and CEO at the time asked us to see what we would need to do to implement it. We started doing our research, calling facilities, trying to get as much information as possible. The problem was, there weren’t too many 600-bed hospitals out there nationally doing room service, and none in the Northeast that had a successful program. We heard a lot about the failures out there, of what a nightmare it had turned out to be and how people had to get rid of the program. But one of our mottos is, ‘failure is not an option.’ Fortunately, administration gave us all the resources we asked for. All they said was, ‘Make sure you do it right.’ In 2003, when we began the program, we actually designed it to serve 400 trays per meal. Right now we’re serving 550 trays per meal, and our program is able to do that, which is a good indication that we did our homework and planned for the future.

We’ve had people from more than 90 hospitals—three of them foreign—come visit us about our room service program. If we can help other people avoid some of the headache and growing pains we went through and become more cost-effective, then we’ve given back to the industry. It takes a lot of our time and energy; the average visit takes four hours, and some people stay over so they can see us do the dinner service and then breakfast, but we don’t charge a dime. We know that people will reciprocate over time.

We’re very proud of The Dining Room, our retail operation. The hospital had begun building two new buildings in 2000. Our old facility, which we called Woody’s Diner, was in the basement. It had no windows. We tried to make it as nice as possible, but we just didn’t have enough room for growth. So we went to administration and said, ‘You know, with the growth of the hospital we need to expand our retail operation.’ We were very fortunate: They gave us prime space on the second floor, 16,000 square feet—all glass, looking out on the main entrance. In our last year at Woody’s Diner, we did $2 million in sales. Last year, we did $4 million in sales here. It’s a great venue. It’s light and colorful; we made it fun. We tried to copy what was going on out in the business and industry segment, rather than healthcare. We visited some of the pharmaceutical companies’ retail operations and got some ideas of the direction we wanted to go. We wanted to set the standard. We wanted to be unique and different. We wanted people to talk about their experiences when they came into The Dining Room. I think we’ve captured that and it’s been really successful for us.

We have a really energetic team who love what they’re doing. If they didn’t, I don’t think they would have stayed 18 years, facing the challenges that we face in healthcare these days—budget cuts, Press Gainey scores and all that other fun stuff. It’s really a total team effort—and not just the management team. I have an awesome employee work force. If you asked me as a director, what’s the most satisfying comment you’ve received, it would be having one of my employees come up to me and ask, ‘What were our cafeteria sales yesterday? We had such a busy day; did we do $15,000?’ They’re more excited than I am sometimes. When this is the feedback you get from your employees, it doesn’t get much better than that. I truly believe that if employees are engaged, if they enjoy what they’re doing, the end product is going to be over the top. As the director, I don’t even have to become involved with it. They just take the ball and run with it.

FoodService Director - Silver Plate 2010 - Tony Almedia - Robert Wood Johnson University HospitalI’m a Jersey boy. Growing up, I was in trouble a lot. I didn’t like rules; I broke a lot of rules, but I always wanted to excel whenever I did something. When I was a pot washer I wanted to be the best pot washer there was, to get it done in the quickest time. When I was in the dish room I wanted to get out of there and leave the room sparkling clean. One of my favorite positions starting out was when I was a sanitation supervisor at Elizabeth General. At the end of the night, when I sat in the kitchen at the tray line—and back then everything was stainless steel—I could see my accomplishment. Sometimes I’d let my employees go home a little early; I’d stick around to punch them all out.

Our biggest challenge with the economy is trying to keep the retail piece growing. And last year is a good example. Our goal was to increase cafeteria sales by 2%, and the beginning of the year was when the economy really started to become a challenge. We saw, for the first time since we opened The Dining Room, that sales were flat. You don’t want to see sales start to dip, because that’s when people say, maybe we should cut some FTEs. So it was really important to maintain a positive bottom line.

Then we got lucky because we introduced the Dunkin Donuts coffee concept in June of 2009, and we actually finished with an increase of 1.4%. Dunkin Donuts was an interesting decision. This was the first time that we had had the opportunity to introduce it, because it was kind of new to healthcare foodservice, and Sara Lee had bought the rights to it. Once we heard on the street that this was now an option, we were one of the first to go out and pursue it. We noticed every day how many people would walk into the institution carrying Dunkin Donuts coffee. Starbucks and other concepts wanted to come into RWJ, but we just noticed by looking around how popular Dunkin Donuts was. I have to tell you, out of all the things we do here, this concept has had the most positive impact from our customer base of anything we’ve done. There were nurses on line saying, ‘Oh, I’m so happy I can come into work and get my Dunkin Donuts coffee.’ I’m thinking, it’s just coffee, but it really turned people on. We asked our customers, because it would be more expensive, ‘Would you pay more for the coffee if it were Dunkin Donuts,’ and they said yes. Isn’t that incredible?

One of the advantages we have here with the design of The Dining Room is that we have the space to introduce a lot of different items. Our 24-foot salad bar is the centerpiece of the operation, and with 24 feet you have the ability to offer a lot of variety. Our goal is to introduce as many items as possible, from healthy foods to grilled items, and let the customers decide. My philosophy is to give them as much variety as we possibly can. If they want to eat healthy, they can. If they want their burgers and fries, they can have that too. New Brunswick is a college town, and where we are located it is literally a three-minute walk to 20 foodservice establishments. So there is a ton of competition. We want to keep our employees here. We want to keep that revenue generated by Robert Wood Johnson.

When you’re in an institution this size there are always changes and you’ve got to be prepared to accept new responsibilities and move on, because if you’re not you’re not going to survive. So, when the challenge of running environmental and host services came along, even though it’s not my expertise I looked forward to taking on that challenge. Overall I think we’ve done a very good job with it. It makes for a long day when you have 355 FTEs under you, but it’s rewarding also. And having these two areas working together, it makes things really easy. For example, for special events I don’t have to go around chasing the housekeeping director for assistance because we’re all on the same team.

Over the years, I’ve had to become more organized, more structured and learned more techniques about how to be an effective leader. I’ve also learned that when you’re running two departments with that many employees you can’t do it alone. It’s like being the coach of a football team. I’m the leader, but I need to have the right assistant coaches and players to have a winning team.
 

Theme days for us are very important for two reasons: One is financially. Every time we do a theme day we increase our sales 10% to 20%. But I think the more important part is employee engagement. The employees really enjoy getting involved with the theme. For the guests coming in, it takes them ‘away’ from Robert Wood Johnson hospital for a few minutes. You know, they come in, there’s music playing in the background, there’s special food. It’s a public relations tool that gets us miles and miles of good will from employees. And it’s a great distraction for visitors to get away from worrying about their loved ones for a while. Theme days are hard because it throws off your production schedule. But nobody ever complains; we can throw practically anything at our production staff and the only response we’ll ever get is ‘no problem.’”