Betty Perez has gone to great lengths to infuse the foodservice department with her passion, energy and zest for life.
At A Glance: Betty Perez
•Director of Food and Nutrition Services
•The University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-The University Hospital, Newark, N.J.
•B.S. in dietetics, Oneonta State University College, Oneonta, N.Y.
•Dietetic internship at New York Hospital in New York City
•Two children: Cory, 25, and Kris, 21
•Born and raised in Suffern, N.Y.
•Enjoys traveling, snow skiing, golfing and Yankee baseball
•UMDNJ is a 519-bed acute care, Trauma I hospital. Perez's department serves 4,800 meals each day. She oversees eight retail locations, a catering program and the Gift Shop Emporium.
•In 1992, Perez directed the transition of the food and nutrition services department from contract management to self-op. In 2003, she made the same transition for the hospital's gift shop.
•As director, Perez has tripled retail sales to reach $3.4 million a year. Retail sales increased 9% in 2008.
•Perez is characterized by her passion, high energy and people skills. She says she has a relationship with each of her 110 FTEs and makes sure every employee is recognized for his or her work.
•In 2006, Perez reorganized the department following a 20% staff cut. She was so effective that she actually
•In January 2009, Perez began a leadership development program to help supervisors improve their communication, marketing and financial skills.
Betty Perez says she feels like she grew up at The University Hospital, part of The University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-and with good reason. In her 26 years at the hospital, Perez has taken the food and nutrition services department from contract to self-op, revitalized retail operations and built a close-knit team that prides itself on creativity and a strong work ethic. Perez has dedicated almost her entire career to the hospital-she has only worked at one other hospital. In 2007, the hospital's staff repaid Perez's dedication by saving her life after a ruptured brain aneurysm required emergency surgery.
"When I was growing up, everyone on my street had daughters about my age. All the moms were friends so all of the daughters became friends too. We didn't have Nintendo and PlayStation. We would always have these make believe tea parties. I just always liked to do stuff with food. So when I went to school I studied dietetics. Before I came to UMDNJ, I taught a beginning cake design class.
I decided when I studied dietetics that I wanted to be a registered dietitian, which I am. I was accepted to UMDNJ for my internship and I was an alternate at New York Hospital. I accepted to come here and then I got a call from New York Hospital saying someone had declined and that I was in. So I went to New York and they offered me a job when I graduated. What I love about healthcare foodservice is you get to deal with people. I need a job that has a lot of interaction with people. I always tell my team, you guys have the best job. You are right at the bedside of the patient; it couldn't get more exciting than that.
I always ask my staff, ‘do you own or do you rent?' And I tell them, ‘this is our establishment and we own it, and failure is not an option.' My colleagues say I am very competitive. And I'm like, ‘no, we just want to continue to strive for excellence and make a difference in our service.' I don't want to do something half way. I hate the word mediocrity. If you can't do something all the way and do it justice, why would you want to do it?
Right now we have bragging rights [in the hospital]. We get evaluated for patient satisfaction on Press Ganey, and the last one that came in showed, of all criteria patients rate when they are in the hospital, the No. 1 rated, highest percentile rating was quality of food. Diet explanation was number two. Whenever we do something good, I want everyone to know it, so that everyone on the team knows the vision that we are trying to go after. You build excitement about what you are trying to go after and you get everyone involved in the process.
I always say, you've got to love what you do to make a difference. You have to be really passionate about it. We're in the hospitality business to serve people. And that really means you need to do everything you can to satisfy the needs of your customers. Many times that requires going above and beyond, and that's what we do.
I would say that my biggest accomplishment has been growing services, so that we are really able to make a difference to the patients, expand on our retail venues and continue to always try to pick the services up. I'm also really proud of our two contract conversions. In 1992, we took the entire department self-op and in 2003, we took the gift shop, which I am responsible for, self-op as well. It's all about continuing to grow our business and satisfing our customer expectations.
The other thing that has been very rewarding is working with the team to create a lot of career ladders. I sometimes feel that professions aren't trying to do that enough. You want your people to be the best that they can and to be really proud of who they are and to tap into their potential. I'm very accessible to the team. I'm very big into the human connection. I'm always saying, ‘why don't you try it?' You obviously need to make sure they have the tools they need, but then you can empower them to explore.
The balance of it all is the most challenging part of my job. As a director, I am responsible for delivering a quality service. But that's just a small part of what's expected. I get put on a lot of other projects that have nothing to do with food and nutrition services. One of the assignments that I have is being one of the team leaders to make sure The University Hospital is compliant with all human resource standards for Joint Commission. That's major, especially since this is a big organization-there are 6,000 employees.
I had a major health scare in October 2007. A brain aneurysm ruptured. That was a big wake-up call for me. I'm very positive, so many times when people meet me, they think, well, she's had this peachy keen life; there are no obstacles in the way. And I've had probably one of the most challenging lives. When I survived the brain aneurysm, my oldest son said to me, ‘mom, you really are like a cat. I think you're on life number four.' I said, ‘how many lives do cats get,' and he said, ‘nine.' I said, ‘that's good, I still have five to go.'
What happens with something like that, it makes you see different priorities pretty quickly. You always think that you will live forever, but you really need to live every day as the best day and live it to the fullest. So I'm crazier than ever because I just don't want to put anything on hold. I want to experience; I want to do it; I want to see it. And the people that you love the most-your family and your friends-I've made a point to spend a lot more time with them.
If I didn't have the team I did here, I don't think I would be alive. They said I was their miracle and I said, no, you are my miracle. So I have a different appreciation for my life. And I just don't hold back on anything; I just go for it. I always say that in life you can't sweat the small stuff. And I really feel like 95% of life is the small stuff. It's funny because I really know what it's like to be a patient here.
Life is interesting and you've got to just love the journey that you're on. I'm well again. I didn't have a lot of sanity before I got sick and I'm not sure it's gotten any better.
If I had to describe myself in one word it would be passionate. Sometimes in the department they are like, the whirlwind is back. I'm really into the human touch. To me, it's all about passion and human connection."