Michael Atanasio: The Ideas Man

By Becky Schilling, Editor

Michael Atanasio, manager of food and nutrition services at 525-bed Overlook Hospital in Summit, N.J., often bounces from one topic to the next in the same breath. He begins with the launch of a new convenience store, which transitions into a recently started VIP service for new mothers, which leads to a community cooking show. To some it might sound like chaos, but Atanasio is a man with a plan and lots of ideas.

“You might have hurdles to jump over, but Michael can see the end where it is bright and we can be successful,” says Debra Ryan, operations manager. “He can see long term. He has the plans and ideas in his head to be able to move forward and organize to get us to reach our goals.”

Atanasio came to Overlook in Dec­ember 2007 to transition out a contract company, which left Feb. 1, 2008. “I basically had three months to build a new department,” Atanasio says. “I had to do everything. I had to make new signage. I had to make new recipes. I had to make all new policies and procedures. I even had to do things like make new deposit slips.”

Building retail: One of Atanasio’s first orders of business was getting the retail operation up to par. The cafeteria was rebranded the Summit Restaurant after a name-the-cafeteria competition for hospital staff. “I wanted to carve out the café as a separate entity from patient dining and catering,” Atanasio says. “We don’t have a very big retail space and the kitchen is old, but we are doing a lot with what we have.”

In the past 18 months, retail revenue has increased more than 18%. Atanasio brought on Certified Executive Chef Todd Daigneault to help create new dishes, including an authentic tapas bar. A recipe of the month program was started, for which a staff-submitted recipe is featured in the café. Grab-and-go offerings were increased for time-strapped employees. Meals were bundled and sold at a discount. All nutritional information was made available. Farmers’ markets were set up once a month. Twice a year, a customers’ appreciation day is held and a special surf and turf meal is served.

FSD of the Month, Overlook Hospital, Grab and Go options“Our average check has gone up significantly,” Atanasio says about the turnaround. “We cleaned the café up, we are giving people what they want and we are making it more of their café.”

One new retail venture that helps give customers what they want is a convenience store, which opened in August 2009. Atanasio says the idea came about as a way to introduce initiatives to help care for caregivers. Hospital employees were surveyed to find out what hours of operation and what types of items they would like to have. Based on those results, the convenience store’s hours were set for noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. The bulk of the store’s offerings are staples like milk, eggs, produce and cheese. Cold cuts and some pre-packaged, reheatable meals from the café are also available. “The intent of this store is not for people to consume here but to buy and take home to save them a trip to the store,” Atanasio says.

Spread the word: Along with making operational changes to the retail locations, Atanasio also started a marketing push. He developed a welcome packet for new doctors. The packet includes an introductory letter, a directory for the foodservice department, information about the dietary department and a 20% off coupon for the café.

Atanasio isn’t limiting the marketing efforts to inside the hospital. He is also reaching outside to the local community. Atanasio writes a column in the Overlook View, a monthly magazine created in large part by the hospital, which is delivered to more than 150,000 residents in the surrounding areas. The column, “Culinary Corner with Chef Mike,” features a heart-healthy recipe, with helpful cooking hints and nutrition information.

Another venture that helps boost the department’s visibility outside the hospital is cooking classes. The department has been hosting classes for cardiac outpatients since last summer. Last fall, Atanasio decided to expand the program to offer cooking classes for the entire community, which start this month. The classes will be offered for a small fee, and Atanasio will act as the chef/instructor. Through the hospital’s in-house print shop, Atanasio has printed a lesson book for the class participants. “I will walk through fundamental cooking practices, including things like food safety and equipment recognition,” Atanasio says. He also wants to create specialized cooking classes, such as “daddy and me” for fathers and their sons. Atanasio says these classes are a great way for him to get back to his roots as a chef and manager at restaurants and country clubs.

From those cooking classes, Atanasio is working to develop a 30-minute TV show focusing on heart-healthy cuisine, which will run on a local TV station.

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