Betty Perez: Performance Perfector

More venues, more $$$: Over time, Perez has been able to grow retail sales at UMDNJ from about $1 million (during the 1980s) to more than $3.3 million today. The Gift Shop Emporium brings in an additional $300,000 each year, bringing total retail sales to $3.6 million annually. “We’ve added venues over the years—actually this main building opened in 1979 with one cafeteria,” she points out. “We added the carts, the restaurant and we’ve been very assertive in marketing our catering, which has accounted for $650,00 annually.”

The Cruising Café carts were implemented early in 2000. Although both medical and dental school buildings are connected to the hospital, the carts provide convenient pit-stops for students on-the-run. Combined carts sales now contribute about $1,200 per day without cannibalizing cafeteria transactions.

According to Perez, the job provides “a great engaging experience and learning opportunity every day, and the latest came knocking this past August with the mandated 20% staff reduction. “It’s a challenge considering that volume is rather constant,” she explains. “We serve approx. 1.7 million meals annually including 345,000 patient meals, 420,000 nourishments and 1 million non-patient meals—all while having to deliver outstanding patient service and satisfaction.”

There are now 100 FTEs in the food and nutrition services department plus 1.5 FTEs in the gift shop. Prior to the major organizational change—and for the past four years—Perez also managed the department of patient transport. Now that that job has been assigned to nursing, some of her time has been freed up—a blessing since she’s lost her executive chef as well as the campus retail services manager overseeing the seven retail venues.

Staff development: Although minus its executive chef, the department’s food production quality and standards have remained intact, Perez contends. “I strongly believe in staff development, so all of the culinarians are graduates of the “Destination 10’ program that chef Don Miller runs at his Culinary Academy in San Diego,” she explains.

“I had Don come on-site for a full week. Here, he could focus on the certification of our hot food production team. That was an exciting culinary experience for the department. I also have one Culinary Institute of America graduate and other cooks who are graduates of two-year culinary arts programs. Plus, once they’re on staff, we really look to develop them further. We have a very multi-cultural staff and whatever their passion is in food, we encourage it.”

Often that encouragement results in the development of a special event or promotion such as the recently held New Orleans Jazz Fest. “It’s a great way for their passions to be shared through promotions for the staff and patients,” Perez says. “One of our hot production culinarians loves food and jazz. He helped develop the menu and, since we love to provide entertainment, he played lead guitar with the jazz group that we hired. I’ve noticed that our patrons love to be totally engaged with the whole experience—they want to feel it, hear it and taste it!”

Patient promos, too: Even though the average patient stay is only five to six days, Perez has created a special selective promotion menu that changes on a monthly basis. This Patient Spirit Lifter program recently offered a “Cowcium” menu with the objective of promoting 3-A-Day consumption of calcium-containing foods such as milk, cheese and yogurt for stronger bones.

“We focused on snacks that were higher in calcium,” she says. ”We run this after the lunch meal since patients enjoy the extra attention and appreciate any treat you give them beyond their main three meals. We always try to take a unique twist on it and also use it as an educational opportunity.”

Patient satisfaction is, of course, key to the success of any healthcare foodservice operation. At UMDNJ, the meal delivery system is primarily cook-serve with a selective one-week cycle menu in place (see story above). But for heightened satisfaction, Perez introduced an in-room service trial program, Meals of Distinction, in 2004 on four patient care units including oncology, new moms, teenagers and a medical surgical unit.

Cashless benefit: Looking ahead, Perez aims to broaden the appeal of the in-house debit card, named Gold Card, that currently has about 700 users, and promote more widespread cashless retail sales to target a 20% sales increase. She’s “lobbying” to get a payroll deduction option for Gold Card carriers. Today, customers give the department money to load onto their cards while “earning” a 5% incentive for doing so.

As Perez and her department continue to make adjustments for the recent staff reduction, she’s developing a business plan for creating a new 1,500-square-foot retail concept to operate in the recently opened ambulatory care center. “Our own Café Express Gourmet-To-Go is probably a fit,” she says. “We have the talent to create our own brand and that keeps it exciting for our staff. We expect it will generate at least $300,000 a year, but we’d have to hire staff.”

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