Tony Almedia: In Touch at RWJ

Tony Almeida is one serious guy—and he’s most serious in his determination to create fun on the job for the approximately 132 full-time equivalents (FTEs) in the food and nutrition department at 567-bed Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, NJ. He knows that if they’re involved in the process—whether it be a shift to room service for all patients, the opening of a new dining room with a substantially expanded menu, or planning a pull-out-all-the-stops gala theme day—they’ll come through like champs.

And they have. Thanks to their enthusiasm, turnover of full-timers is minimal, dining room sales are projected to reach $3.5 million this year (vs. $2 million for the old Woody’s Café), and
patient satisfaction scores are nearing the top of the chart.

Almeida wound up in foodservice seemingly by chance; the part-time job he landed, at the age of 16 in 1974, was as a pot washer at Elizabeth (NJ) General Medical Center, just a short walk from his home. Rapidly promoted to sanitation supervisor, then tray line supervisor, he graduated from high school with the conclusion that healthcare foodservice was the career for him. Soon after, he enrolled in the foodservice program at Middlesex County College (MCC) in Edison, NJ; then, in 1988, he joined the department of food and nutrition services at Robert Wood Johnson as assistant director and was named director three years later.

Today, his multi-department responsibilities include environmental and host services. Last month, 23 years after graduating from the MCC program, he received the school’s 2005 Alumnus of the Year Award.

Many hats: “I just love what I do—from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.,” Almeida says. “People outside the industry generally don’t realize that as foodservice directors in healthcare we have to be experts in patient feeding, running retail operations and in special events planning. Here, we’re doing 1,350 patient trays a day, running about $3.5 million in annual retail sales, as well as approx. $800,000 in special event sales.

“And, we have to be able to do them all well in order to be successful. Feeding patients is only 30% of what I do; seventy percent is retail and special events. Of course, the revenue you generate is what brings your patient costs down.”

Today, the dining room check average at Robert Wood Johnson is $3.20 with approximately $11,500 in total daily sales and about $5,000 a day on weekends. Retail and special event sales have helped to bring net cost per patient day down to $11.18.

In recent years, Almeida and his staff have faced two of their greatest challenges: opening a new dining room and implementing room service. In both instances, the foodservice staff remained enthusiastic and unfazed, he reports.

Sales in the Woody Café (now closed) were about $2 million prior to opening the new dining room. Sales increased by $1 million during the first year in the new location with the addition of a broader range of selections including a 24-foot-long salad bar. Almeida added only eight FTEs to help provide for the expanded service, so he had to “push people to be more productive,” he recalls.

“You develop a positive working relationship by being there with them, by rolling up your sleeves,” he says. “This was a contract account when I arrived in 1988, but the next year the contract was broken and we were all asked to stay on, with a bonus. We really turned [the attitude of] the staff around by creating a positive work environment.”

The dining room, i.e., the main cafeteria serving visitors as well as 3,500 employees who work in the seven inter-connected buildings on campus, is open from 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday, and until 6:30 p.m. on weekends. The new scatter-style serving line offers a gourmet pizza station and a recently installed hot panini station that serves about 250 customers each day.

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