She may describe herself as an accidental administrator and foodservice professional — her sights were initially set on clinical work in nutrition and dietetics — but there’s no accident behind Mary Angela Miller being the first foodservice operator to be honored with an FE&S Top Achiever Award. During her 28-year tenure at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center (OSUWMC) Miller has proven time and again that getting things done, building effective teams, embracing change and digging deep to pull actionable solutions out of complex, often chaotic circumstances, is both her strength and her passion.
And she’s blazed a trail that few in healthcare foodservice have, rising through the ranks to become an administrative director who now oversees multiple departments, including Food and Nutrition Services. She’s also a professor in OSU’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. She has been and continues to be a tireless advocate for the medical center’s foodservice programs, which are recognized as some of the most efficient, safe and progressive in the nation, as well as for the industry at large.
Miller’s rise was relatively rapid. She applied at Columbus, Ohio-based OSUWMC in 1990 to lead the medical center’s new clinical wellness/weight management initiative. Perhaps sensing her capacity to handle whatever might come her way, she was encouraged to also interview for the foodservice director’s post, which had been vacant for nearly two years. Despite having no foodservice background and little management experience, she landed the position and dug in to turn around a program that had been feeling the effects of a leadership void.
The unexpected left turn into foodservice was, Miller says, a happy accident for which she’s forever grateful.
Creativity and Technology
Over the next two decades, Miller reached a career milestone that underscored the fact that, foodservice roots or not, she had secured her place as one of the industry’s best and brightest. She won the 2008 IFMA (International Foodservice Manufacturers Association) Silver Plate Award in the healthcare category for OSUWMC’s innovations and embrace of technology to reduce costs and improve efficiency. A telling example: OSUWMC was the first foodservice program in the nation to begin transporting patient meals via robots, improving efficiency, cutting labor costs, reducing injuries and diverting employees from pushing carts to hospitality-focused activities.
Miller and Julie Jones, who was one of her first promotions and who now leads OSUWMC as director of Food and Nutrition Services, built a program that marries a strong culinary focus with superefficient production systems.
“We have the best technology, a staff of 33 chefs and a tiny kitchen with a cook-chill system that handles our dining-on-demand room service program for more than 1,000 beds,” Miller says. “We’re very, very efficient on the prep end, and leveraging technology is a big part of what we do. We’re a not-for-profit, state organization, which forces us to think differently. As a public institution, we have to rely on creativity and technology to achieve our goals, not on money.”
Since Miller’s transition to a full-time administrative position, which officially took effect in 2005, the OSUWMC campus grew from four hospitals to seven, with many ancillary satellite operations scattered throughout Columbus, Ohio. Her administrative scope — foodservice and beyond — expanded as well. Billed revenues under her management grew from $1.8 million in 1990 to $150 million; expenses from $6.4 million to $50 million; and personnel from 250 to 850.
When Miller came aboard, OSUWMC had one cafe in the main hospital. Today, it has 11 BistrOHs (bistros spelled with Ohio flair), plus kiosks and mini cafes located in hospitals, ambulatory care sites and staff support buildings throughout Columbus. Nutrition Services now also subcontracts five retail restaurant brands, whereas in 1990 there were none. Retail sales to staff, students, visitors and outpatients now make up the majority of foodservice revenues.
Her team’s newest big idea? A mobile, food truck-esque nutrition education center. “I’m not taking credit for this, but it’s going to be the coolest thing ever,” Miller says. “It will go to every big OSUWMC event and will have a chef and a dietitian on it offering on-site food and nutrition education. And we’ll have the technology to broadcast what they’re doing out in the community back into our patient rooms. It’s phenomenal, and another example of using technology to leverage innovation.”
As big as the Silver Plate Award was for Miller, it was just the tip of a very big iceberg. Her many honors and awards show the full scope of her talents. They range from top academic achievements, to management and leadership awards, spirit awards, special service and operator of the year awards, to concept innovation and purchasing awards.
A registered dietitian, charter Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and licensed dietitian in the state of Ohio, Miller serves or has served on multiple national, state and local associations as a top officer, delegate, committee chair and/or advisory board member. On the foodservice side, she’s been president of the National Society of Healthcare Foodservice Management (HFM), Central Ohio Chapter of the American Society for Healthcare Food Service Administrators (ASHFSA); then served as inaugural board member of the Association of Healthcare Foodservice (AHF) when the HFM and ASHFSA merged. She currently co-chairs its membership committee.
Miller has also been a national judge for the Food and Beverage Innovations Award and is an active member of IFMA’s Gold & Silver Plate Education Foundation, which helps to fund foodservice students’ education. She also sets aside time for mentoring programs, women in business organizations, manufacturers and scientific organizations to which she lends her expertise and energy. Her commitment, passion and immersion in the industry are crystal clear.
As someone with neither a foodservice nor administrative background, Miller says her involvement in industry groups has been both enjoyable and vital to her success. “I would not have been nearly as effective as a foodservice leader without it,” she notes.
Continuous learning, Miller adds, is one of the best parts of her job. “I enjoy working at a large academic medical center, surrounded by so many smart people. I’ve been here a long time, but I love when I can still learn something from someone here and use it to solve a problem or explore an opportunity.”
Support and Resources
As an administrator, Miller sees her primary role as managing people and providing her directors with the support and resources they need to do their jobs. Jones, who has worked with Miller for more than 27 years, notes, “She’s our biggest advocate and champions OSUWMC Nutrition Services inside and outside our organization. I also appreciate her commitment to supporting the larger healthcare food and nutrition community.”
Miller says the experience she gained as a director serves her well as an administrator. “In healthcare foodservice, there can be no excuses. You have to deliver on time, on schedule, no matter what. You also have to learn to manage an incredibly diverse staff and satisfy very diverse customer needs. I believe that experience prepared me to be an administrator just as well as, if not more so, than the MBAs or medical and health administration degrees that many of my colleagues have. I never dreamed of being in foodservice or hospital administration, but the right opportunities sometimes find you and I’m forever grateful for that.”
Quick Facts:Mary Angela Miller
- Education: BS, Nutrition, Youngstown State University; MSc, Case Western Reserve University; Graduate Certificate in Health Services Management and Policy, The Ohio State University
- Industry involvement: Longtime member and leader at HFM, AHF and ASHFSA;
IFMA Gold & Silver Plate Society; Food and Beverage Innovation Awards national judge
- Family: Six sisters, two daughters and two granddaughters
- Weekday wakeup time: As late as possible. I’m a late-night person.
- Go-to food when dining out: Any item I haven’t tried at any restaurant I haven’t yet dined at.
- What do you think about while driving? Who can I call next? I use commute time to catch up with long-distance friends.
- What one word would your co-workers use to describe you? One said “passionate,” and another said “Type A,” but that’s two words.
- What one word would your family use to describe you? I asked my sisters and got “indefatigable,” “loyal,” “nonjudgmental” and “intelligent.”
- What’s your superpower? Elasticity. Bend, stretch, curve, whatever it takes to get around an obstacle to achieve a goal.
- What was the last picture you took on your phone? A shot of some OSU pillows I sewed as a gift for a friend who’s an alum and a huge fan.