At Overlook Hospital in Summit, New Jersey it would be easy to mistake Michael Atanasio as President, CEO and Manager of everything that goes on at the facility. In addition to this position as Director of Food and Nutrition Services, Mr. Atanasio co-chairs the Green Committee and heads up the Diversity Committee at Overlook.
As he put it, during the day he could be “discussion a blueberry muffin or purchasing a few hundred thousand dollars worth of medical equipment”. Michael Atanasio took some time to speak with us about his career as well as the ever-evolving healthcare dining industry.
Mr. Atanasio, how did you get into the healthcare foodservice industry?
I started out about 33 years ago. I have a culinary arts degree that I started with and I worked in restaurants, country clubs and hotels. Eventually I looked at the healthcare industry and I found that it had a very different, more desirable life & work balance. So I got into healthcare but was able to keep my restaurant job at night and I was honored with a few prestigious awards and I competed in culinary competitions. I continued my education and wound up with my Masters Degree in Business Administration with a concentration in finance and healthcare. Healthcare has been rewarding in many different ways both personally and professionally.
A lot of things fall under your umbrella outside the realm of traditional dining. What are those and how have they impacted your daily job?
Well it is very dynamic and very busy as many people are. I prefer “organized chaos”, if you will. However I do things methodically and I invest a lot of my own time into putting the right people in the right job. During the course of the day I could be discussing a blueberry muffin, a medical director’s contract or purchasing few hundred thousand dollars of medical equipment.
In addition to my department I manage other initiatives. I co-chair the green committee and I am the chair of the diversity committee. So there are a lot of competing priorities.
How do you build a team of people around you that help make the operation run smoothly?
I’ve always been a big advocate of the saying, “the sign of a good manager is how the place runs when they are not there”. My goal is always to have people who can do my job. I am not one who is threatened, I encourage. For example I put together an intern program for frontline employees to prepare them for a supervisory level position.
When I sit down and ask where would you like to be in three years, if they want to be a manager or supervisor, I tailor a plan to help get them there. Our greatest success story is that one of our pot washers is now a physician’s assistant.
How are you attracting young professionals to an operation like Overlook?
What attracts people is the opportunity, the growth potential and the learning experience. There are also a number of external things that push people into food and nutrition. Many years ago there was no Food TV and no Food Network and those things sort of glamorized a lot of the industry.
How have the needs and expectations of your patients changed?
There have been monumental changes. Expectations have changed significantly. Folks get a lot of education from TV and the internet so that has forced many operators to elevate their game. Quality and things like sustainability and eating local has changed a lot. Organizations are also spending money recruiting very talented chefs.
Speaking of local eating, is there pressure to serve “farm to table” and is it realistic in your environment?
I think we would rather do something than nothing. There is always a desire to buy locally. Can I do it 100% for Overlook? Not Yet. We have our own gardens and beehives, and we work with a program called Jersey Fresh. I am also working on an initiative called clean eating, where we are working with our vendors to know exactly where our produce comes from. I have a lot of support from the administration here and sometimes it just require a little more thought and creativity.
How do your food and beverage vendors play into your success and how do you get your products? Are you bidding constantly or do you have select vendors?
We work very closely with our vendors. We are not unlike most hospitals in that we participate in a group purchasing organization or GPO. So we do have select vendors. We don’t go out to bid unless there is cause to so and our normal vendors cannot provide a speciality item.
What kitchen renovations have you done recently and what is coming up in the future?
At the end of December 2015 we redid the floor in the kitchen which is huge for us. We pulled up the old floor and poured a polymer, non-skid sealed to the floor. It is non-porous and leak proof. That was a monumental undertaking. We took that opportunity to also do a little bit of redesign and make the kitchen a little bit more ergonomic.
What healthcare food service associations do you participate in and what is that experience like?
I am very much engaged in the Greater New Jersey Society for Healthcare Food Service Administrators. I am a past president and sit on the board. I am currently on the Association for Healthcare Food Services benchmarking committee and have served on their selection committee. It is a great organization and historically I was always a part of the legacy organizations that came before it. There are great benefits to national and local involvement. you have networking opportunities and resources. There’s a great camaraderie on all levels.