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

Growing into the role

As far as chefs go, Johnson is a bit of a late bloomer, even though he has been working in restaurants since he took a job as a dishwasher at 17 at a truck stop near his hometown of Slinger, Wis.

“I didn’t have any real desire to get into foodservice,” he says. “It was more like, I needed a job and my friend’s dad owned the truck stop, so …”

What he wanted to be was an actor, so while he continued to work in restaurants he acted in local and regional theater in the Milwaukee area for five years, until he realized he wasn’t going to be able to support a family this way.

“I was married and we were about to have our first child,” he says. “I hadn’t had my interest or passion in foodservice ignited yet, but since I had spent all these years in foodservice it only made sense for me to go to culinary school.”

So he enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago and earned an associate degree. He then returned to Milwaukee, prepared to set the restaurant world ablaze.

“I pounded the pavement, looking for that head chef job because I thought I was ready—which I clearly was not,” he recalls.

He worked at a Milwaukee restaurant for a while and then took a job with Sodexo at a Wells Fargo account, in Menomonie, Wis. In 2007 he left to take a job at Harwood Place, a retirement community in Wauwatosa, Wis.

His work there caught the attention of the general manager at Hotel Metro, in Milwaukee, who wanted the hotel foodservice to do more local sourcing and increase sustainable practices. But several months after Johnson accepted the job, the GM was let go and the replacement wanted to take foodservice in another direction. Four months later Johnson landed the Watertown job.

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