People

Lenny DeMartino: Warrior for Health

At a Glance

Accomplishments

 Ever since he was 12 and working in a pizza parlor, Lenny DeMartino has found satisfaction in serving people. Now, as general manager at Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield—a Parkhurst Dining Services account in Pittsburgh, Pa.—his love of service has taken him to an unexpected place by transforming him into a living example of what his programs can do: Change unhealthy lifestyles, help lose excess weight and increase sales and customer satisfaction.

Since joining Parkhurst in 2002, DeMartino has been faced with the task of overhauling Highmark’s menu, with a major focus on healthier dining. “Highmark is a health insurance company, so we’re trying to get our folks, especially our employees, to be cognizant of eating and living healthier,” says Paul Long, director of facilities management for Highmark. “The new healthy menu has been great, and the employees seem to enjoy it. I think Lenny is a real customer-oriented person and he displays that day in and day out.”

DeMartino says his goal was to make healthy foods—such as whole-wheat penne with red pepper pesto and portabello mushrooms—the default rather than an option.

“When I first came to Highmark there was a typical café menu of cheeseburgers and potato chips. When Highmark executives wanted to make healthy items the focus, I embraced it,” DeMartino says. “I began replacing the ‘bad’ items with more grilled, baked and broiled foods. I eliminated the daily grill specials and replaced them with a stir-fry bar. I made a commitment to myself that I was going to make these changes full force.”

At the 300-seat Blue Café—where DeMartino and his staff serve about 1,200 people a day during breakfast and lunch—DeMartino says he was able to showcase the healthier items by putting them at the forefront of the menu. Along with changing recipes of old standards to make them healthier, DeMartino also features Parkhurst’s Whole Body menu line, which offers dishes that balance calories, fat content and sodium. The catering menu was changed, replacing items such as bacon with the healthier alternative of turkey bacon. Although DeMartino still has some non-healthy items for sale, he isn’t promoting them on the menu.

Lenny Demartino“They can still order french fries, but they have to ask for them because we now feature baked sweet potato fries,” DeMartino says. “With the catering menu, if a customer wants regular bacon and sausage, they would have to work a little harder for it [and request it] because it would not be staring them in the face. Slowly but surely, I am seeing our guests make better food choices.”

In addition to changing the café and catering menus, DeMartino also developed a Healthy Snack Corner, where customers can choose from several Fit Picks—nutritious snack items such as fruit bars, Naked Juice and baked chips. DeMartino and his colleagues also installed several HIPs—healthy interruption points—around the cafe servery. The HIPs are small stations that have fruit displays, healthy eating literature and nutritious pre-portioned snacks such as granola or mixed nuts.

“The points have been popular as a healthier impulse buy, especially at the cashier station,” DeMartino says. “The days of chocolate bars and chips at the cashier’s station are a thing of the past.”

With so many healthier dishes, DeMartino recognized it was time to change his own lifestyle to set a good example. Through eating at the Blue Café every day and controlling his portion sizes, he lost 30 pounds in the past year. His executive chef, Tim Fetter, lost 45 pounds since joining DeMartino’s team nine months ago. 

“I came to the realization that you really have to change your lifestyle,” DeMartino says. “So I’ve been focused on trying to eat healthier every day and the weight slowly started to come off. It was much easier since we offer so much healthy food for breakfast and lunch.”

Spicing things up: One of the recent accomplishments DeMartino is most proud of—besides his weight loss—is his new “Healthy Weekly” newsletter. The newsletter was born out of his desire to communicate more directly to his guests about the plethora of healthy options available daily. Employees can sign up to receive the newsletter, which currently contains only the week’s menus but will soon include articles and health tips.

“To my surprise, I started with 15 people and now have more than 60,” DeMartino says. “I’ve been blown away by the tremendous support I’ve received with the publication. We are looking at possibly sending it out to all Highmark employees in the near future.”

Another recent venture for DeMartino was the introduction of Parkhurst’s Hemisflavors program. The program brings the foods of one of seven different countries to the café each week. DeMartino says these options try to follow the healthier eating mandate by using ethnic flavors that aren’t normally associated with healthy cooking. Items such as Moroccan beef, chicken curry and bean stews. “The Hemisflavor program combines traditional-style preparation and spices with local produce, which gives them global cuisine with local flavor,” DeMartino says. The program along with the healthier changes in the menu have resulted in a 10% to 15% sales increase, DeMartino adds.

Marketing watch: When the Hemisflavors program debuted in January, DeMartino went all out to promote it in the café. The countries rotate each week so DeMartino changes the décor to coincide with the featured country’s cuisine. He decorated the servery with the colors and flags of countries the program showcases such as Mexico, Morocco and Greece. He also plays authentic music from that week’s country.

“I have always tried to think outside the box when creating a new look and feel for the café,” DeMartino says. “Many guests comment on how the music really gets them to feel the mood of the featured country. I really became passionate about incorporating all the senses with the sounds and smells.” Elsewhere in the café, DeMartino hired a local artist to design new signage and planted a fresh herb garden along the café’s windows to make sure his guests dine in a warm atmosphere that serves as a respite from their offices.

Staff recognition: Making his guests happy is DeMartino’s top priority, but he believes that can’t happen without a cohesive team behind him. To make his staff feel valued, he gives them lottery tickets on their birthdays as well as recognizing achievements during his daily pre-service meetings. Also, to coincide with the Hemisflavors program, DeMartino has some fun with his staff by encouraging a game of Pictionary with the Hemisflavors features of the day. For example, for a tomato bean soup special, the employee would draw a tomato, a bean and a bowl of soup. “But they try and be a little creative with it,” DeMartino adds. He gives out prizes for the associates who are chosen as the best Pictionary players.

DeMartino’s efforts to relate and support his staff do not go unnoticed. Executive Chef Fetter says, “Lenny is very easy to talk to and I don’t have to worry about stepping on eggshells or anything like that. I can go to him with any problems or issues we might have and he’s always willing to compromise to get a solution worked out.”

Sated by service: DeMartino’s love of service began at an early age when he started working at a pizza shop at the age of 12, moving to manager by 15.

“I grew up in a really small neighborhood south of Pittsburgh called Lincoln Place. It’s a real tight-knit community,” DeMartino says. “I went into the food business because it had been a passion of mine since working—under the table—at the pizza shop when I was 12. I really liked it and it was a big responsibility for someone so young but I learned that I loved to serve people and make them happy,” DeMartino says. “When I see a smile on someone’s face when I serve something or cook something, that is where my passion lies.”

DeMartino attended Indiana University of Pennsylvania in Indiana, Pa., where he earned a degree in hotel/restaurant/institution management. After he graduated, DeMartino worked with Ruby Tuesday restaurants for 10 years, six of those as general manager, where he says he learned a lot about how to succeed in the business.

Time giver: In his time at Parkhurst, DeMartino has found different ways to satisfy his passion for serving besides what he does in the dining room. For the past six years, he has been co-chair for the Caring for Kids campaign. The program collects money for the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Eat ‘n Park Hospitality—Parkhurst’s parent company—is the largest fundraiser for the Caring for Kids campaign in Pittsburgh. DeMartino took his devotion to the cause one step further this past year by organizing a motorcycle run, an event that raised $2,500 for Caring for Kids in a matter of weeks. The run will now be an annual event, says DeMartino. Since DeMartino has been a chairperson for the Caring for Kids, he has helped Parkhurst raise $75,000.

DeMartino’s dedication to others seems to be the theme of his more than 15 years in foodservice. Customer Relations Manager Lynne Marchese, who works with DeMartino to organize special event dinners for Highmark’s clients, agrees that DeMartino’s customer orientation is what sets him apart.

“Recently we hosted 350 people for an event tied to a performance of ‘The Lion King.’ I wanted to do an African-themed dinner, so with Lenny and his staff we went through pages of African-themed recipes and they put on a spectacular show,” Marchese says. “Lenny is super willing to do a lot of out-of-the-box thinking for me, which is what makes him so great.”

It is challenges like these that motivate DeMartino to keep improving his levels of service. “I want people to remember that I love to serve people,” DeMartino says. “I’m pleased to go out of my way to make people smile and people say, ‘wow, that was great service.’”