Justin Johnson: "Scratch"-ing the surface

Justin Johnson has revived the foodservice department by transforming the mindset of staff from "factory mentality" to a "thoughtful relationship" with food.

At a Glance

  • 90 beds
  • 850 staff on campus and at surrounding clinics
  • Three retail outlets: Harvest Market, Harvest Café and a kiosk near the emergency room


Justin Johnson has revived the foodservice department at Watertown Regional Medical Center by:

  • Converting patient foodservice from a trayline to a room service program where all foods are made to order
  • Opening a 95-seat restaurant in the hospital lobby, which has received plaudits for food quality
  • Creating an 11,000-square-foot-garden on the hospital grounds that, during the summer, supplies 80% to 85% of the department’s produce needs
  • Transforming the mindset of staff from “factory mentality” to a “thoughtful relationship” with food


In 2012, Justin Johnson was given a rare opportunity by the administrators at Watertown Regional Medical Center, in southeast Wisconsin. He was asked to create a new foodservice program at the 90-bed hospital, one that would purge the notion of bad hospital food from the minds of employees, patients and visitors.

“Administrators decided they didn’t want to serve ‘hospital food,’” recalls Johnson, a man who had both restaurant and non-commercial experience—but none in hospitals. “They wanted to approach food as medicine and they wanted people to have a memorable experience when they were here. But they said, ‘We’re not restaurateurs and so we don’t know how to do it.’”

Tina Crave, vice president and chief patient experience officer at Watertown, acknowledges this. “People see a hospital as a place to go when they’re sick,” Crave says. “But we’re part of the community and we should be more than that. We wanted a foodservice program that promotes health and wellness and at the same time gets away from the stereotypes that hospital foodservice has.”

To accomplish the task, Johnson switched to his default mode: prepare everything from scratch. He created a room service program where almost nothing is prepared until a patient’s order is first received in the kitchen. He applied the same philosophy to the Harvest Market, the 95-seat restaurant that opened in the fall of 2013 to replace the old employee cafeteria.

“Everything here is made from scratch,” Johnson says. “The only thing we don’t make in house is bread because of the volume we use.”

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