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.
“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.
Patient menus: Retail operations are only half of Atanasio’s focus. He has also been working to revamp the patient menus. His big project has been bundling meals, much like you would find in a restaurant. “Instead of the traditional meatloaf, chicken and something else and then you pick your sides and your starch, we are bundling it,” Atanasio says. “For example, you can get honey-glazed chicken with oven-fried potatoes and Capri-blend vegetables, or country-style pot roast served with mashed potatoes, peas and carrots.”
Atanasio says bundling meals is one way to “get out of the hospital realm” while in the hospital. Another way he is accomplishing this is through a packaging change for pediatric meals. Instead of delivering meals on trays, pediatric patients will soon receive meals in a lunchbox. Atanasio is still considering whether that lunchbox will be metal or paper with graphics.
Another small change is for patients on puréed diets. The menu no longer has the word “puréed” written before every menu item. “They know they are sick,” Atanasio says. “They don’t need us to drill it into their heads.”
The maternity menu has also seen a change. Last September Atanasio started a Dinner for Two program for new mothers. The meal is delivered on a table with a tablecloth, china, a vase with flowers and a bottle of sparkling water. The food is delivered in domes like ones used in hotel room service.
“The menu for the Dinner for Two program is very upscale,” Atanasio says. “Where most hospitals go wrong is they do an entrée like a filet mignon, which is extraordinarily difficult to maintain the temperature and the integrity unless you literally grill it and bring it right up. I made a menu that is really nice and as foolproof as possible. We have grilled shrimp scampi on sugarcane skewers, eggplant Parmesan, lasagna rolettes and osso bucco.”
Since starting the Dinner for Two program Press Ganey scores in the maternity unit are up 40 percentage points.
Come together: Atanasio is the first to admit he’s had help with the department’s transition. “I’d like to say I did it all, but our success, in a large part, is not attributable to me.”
Ryan says Atanasio’s management style has led the team’s turnaround. “The way Michael manages is through a group effort,” Ryan says. “He doesn’t directly assign to one person. It’s everyone’s responsibility so everyone takes ownership of what we’re doing.”
“Getting the employees more engaged was a big initiative,” Atanasio says. “When you have a good foundation with your employees, other things come easier.”
One way Atanasio got the employees more engaged was with a quarterly department newsletter, which has department news, events, tips on healthy living and work safety and recipes. The newsletter also recognizes the employee of the month, another new program started last summer.
Several other changes also mark an upswing in camaraderie. New uniforms were purchased. All managers send a thank you card to one employee every month to compliment them on a job well done. A suggestions bulletin board is in place for staff to offer ideas for improvement. Every couple of months, Atanasio meets with each employee for 10 minutes to discuss concerns or ideas the employee may have.
In addition, Atanasio started a culinary training program for the cooks, during which they learn skills like cooking soups, sauces and gravies from scratch as well as the basics of food safety. At the end of the program, the cooks are given a set of knifes.
Even with all the team has accomplished in the past two years, Atanasio says they are only about 60% of where he wants the department to go. For Atanasio and his staff that means many more ideas are on the way.