Tony Almeida has been relentless in his pursuit of improving the food service at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey for the past 25 years. In addition to being one of the first hospitals in the northeast to offer room service dining and bring in certified chefs, Mr. Almeida’s infectious positivity and desire to put his employees in an up-to-date and enjoyable workplace make him one of the best in the healthcare foodservice industry. This is reflected in his award for Exemplary Leadership from the Association for Healthcare Foodservice.
How did you get into the healthcare foodservice industry?
I started washing pots and pans in 1974 after school. From there, after I graduated I was not sure what my career path was so I took a full time job as a grill cook, then I went to sanitation supervisor and finally to line supervisor. I spent nine years doing that and during that time I was going to school part time and I got my degree in hotel and restaurant management
I went to Muhlenberg Hospital then back to Elizabeth General where I managed a little restaurant in the hospital. I came to Robert Wood Johnson in 1988 and was promoted to director in 1991. So I actually just celebrated 25 years at the hospital.
After 25 years at the same hospital, how have you seen the dining needs of your patients evolve?
The food service has really changed substantially, especially in the past 15 years. We were one of the first in the northeast to start room service dining back in 2003. Room service is big and also the addition of talented culinary professionals. Here in New Jersey a lot our facilities have really stepped up with certified executive chefs on staff like we have here at Robert Wood Johnson.
All that has really made a positive impact on the overall dine-in experience for our patients. The patient population has changed. Now when our patients come to the hospital they know they are going to get excellent medical care but they expect to get excellent food service as well.
When it comes to your team at the hospital, what is your approach and who succeeds in the culture you’ve built?
We have been really fortunate here. For the last 25 years our management team has been pretty much the same. We have only had one change in the last year, where my assistant director left.
The big thing we look for in anybody that joins our team is that they are owners. They have to come in and own what they do. We don’t need renters. Renters are here just to get a paycheck. If you want to get a paycheck, you’re going to have to go somewhere else.
On that note, what are you doing to attract young professionals into healthcare dining?
You can’t become stagnant. You challenge them every day to become better and think outside the box and go for new heights every day. When we hired our new clinical assistant we said, let’s do a nutrition symposium. And he had not done it before, and that is a lot of work doing a whole day conference. And he did it and brought 100 people into a room and gave them a great learning experience. You have to support them, and they will take the ball and run with it.
What people don’t know is only thirty percent of our operation is serving patients. We do a lot of catering, and let me tell you, no one touches our catering either in the quality of the food or the presentation. Being a teaching hospital there are always conferences going on. Almost daily we have some kind of major function that takes a lot of our time.
Moving on to your menu, there is tremendous pressure in the restaurant industry to serve farm to table. Is this realistic in a healthcare dining environment like Robert Wood Johnson?
Every Thursday now we have a New Jersey farmer who is about 25 miles away and from May to October she will be coming in selling produce from Jersey Fresh that is grown on her farm.
For us, we still have budgets in healthcare to maintain and buying local gets to be really costly. If we get a good deal from our primary vendor then we will jump on it, especially fresh vegetables.
What role are your food and beverage vendors playing in your success?
We are looking at our vendors as our partners. We cannot be successful unless we are on the same page as them. They are essential at helping us introduce new items and keeping us within our budget restrictions.
What is your approach to your kitchen? Are there any recent or future renovations coming up?
We’re actually very fortunate here at Robert Wood Johnson. We put in a brand new kitchen in 2002 and a brand new dining room. In the first quarter of 2016 we are revamping the dining room again, adding 65 seats to it and giving it a more contemporary look.
Also we designed our kitchen is a very friendly environment to work in. The colors are very bright and light. You don’t mind hanging out in the kitchen for eight hours a day. It is bright, its fun and it is a positive atmosphere to work in.
Lastly, could you talk about your role at the AHF (Association for Healthcare Foodservice) and what the benefits are of belonging to an organization such as the New Jersey chapter?
Personally I don’t know here I would be today if it wasn’t for my involvement in the Greater New Jersey Society for Healthcare Foodservice Administrators. I have been on the board of directors for the chapter for 26 years. Attending conferences with high level professionals and networking opportunities is one of the best things you can ever do as a professional.
Thanks for speaking with us Mr. Almeida and good luck with your kitchen renovation!