It’s well before daylight when Julian Ramirez arrives to work on Dec. 16—one of the busiest days of the year for UTMB’s Catering Services.
“We’re really running this morning!” he says with a smile as he loads boxes of cutlery and plates into the back of a van.
As a catering attendant, Ramirez and his team are gearing up for more than a dozen events around the Galveston Campus, from the Health System’s annual holiday celebration—which provides food for 3,000 employees—to a student breakfast, several luncheons, retirement parties and an evening holiday party off-campus—all happening in a single day.
It’s just after 6 a.m. when I meet Ramirez at UTMB’s Open Gates facility, a historic mansion and conference center on 25th and Broadway Street, which is where the Catering Services offices are located. I barely have time to grab my coffee and jump in the van before we take off toward Jennie Sealy Hospital.
With the radio turned to a Top 40 station, Ramirez taps the steering wheel while commenting on how much he looks forward to this time of year—which can be hectic, but definitely not boring.
“I work with a great crew of folks that can work magic,” he says, adding that on average, they cater about 160 to 180 events a month, or 2,000 a year. “Coordinating all the various events and making sure everything flows on time can be overwhelming, but somehow we always make it work out. We often ask ourselves afterward, ‘How did we do that?’ But we work best under pressure and always have a smile on our face.”
The catering department is small and tight-knit, with five full-time employees. Ramirez has worked with most of his catering colleagues his entire career at UTMB, which goes back more than 20 years.
“Not only are they my co-workers, they are my friends,” he says. “We all have our off-days, but we’ll talk about it, clean it up and get it right. That makes a big difference.”
Ramirez pulls into the loading dock at Jennie Sealy, where kitchen and catering staff are waiting to help unload supplies for the Health System’s holiday party. He introduces me to the 15 additional contracted catering staff they have hired to help for the day as we head up to the main kitchen on the sixth floor of the Clinical Services Wing.
Morrison Healthcare partners with UTMB to manage the kitchen, which is divided into areas for preparing meals for hospital patients, as well as catering orders. Ramirez puts on a hairnet as he walks toward the section of the kitchen used for preparing catering orders. He grabs a pile of papers that list all the orders for the day and starts checking off items as he loads containers of hot food onto a cart.
While he moves quickly, Ramirez always takes a few seconds to slip in some NFL football talk with the other kitchen staff, including the head catering chef, Brian Peper, and UTMB Food and Nutrition Services Executive Chef, Bill Anchondo. Ramirez, a self-proclaimed No. 1 Dallas Cowboys fan, responds to a playful jab from Anchondo, “I’m coming into work in a full Cowboys suit for that!”
Pushing a cart full of breakfast and lunch items, Ramirez heads back down to the van to make deliveries across campus. I’m impressed with how many people Ramirez knows—each time we ride the elevator back up to the kitchen, he says ‘hi’ to the other occupants, referring to them by their first names.
“After 20 plus years, you get to know a few folks!” he laughs.
For the next few hours, we go back and forth between the kitchen and event locations, including Levin Hall, the Administration Building, Open Gates and Jennie Sealy—I actually lose count of how many stops we make, including picking up cakes from a local bakery for a few retirement parties. Over the years, Ramirez’s role has evolved into more of a supervisory position, ensuring all orders are correct and delivered on time.
“In the catering business, five to 10 minutes is a lot of time,” he says. “If we get held up, that causes problems and we don’t want any unhappy customers. I’d rather be a little early than be a little late.”
Flexibility is another requirement in the catering business. As Ramirez heads back to
Jennie Sealy to check on staff setting up the Health System holiday celebration, he gets word that The Joint Commission has arrived on-site to conduct a one-day extension survey. To make sure the celebration doesn’t interfere with the survey, everything must be moved to John Sealy Hospital.
Some of the staff’s eyes widen as they hear the news, but Ramirez calmly reassures everyone that it’s not a big deal. He helps reload everything onto carts and the group heads over to John Sealy to scope out the new party location.
“There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes into catering that people don’t see,” Ramirez says. “We do a lot of set-up and counting plates, forks and napkins, and moving tables and chairs—and then clean it all up afterwards. Oftentimes, there are several events in one location in one day. There might be a party for 40 people and they want round tables of eight, and then the party coming after them may be for 25 people and they want tables in a big square formation. We are used to reconfiguring rooms and transforming spaces very quickly.”
By the time the Health System party starts at 2:30 p.m., Ramirez and his staff have completely transformed the first floor hallway of John Sealy into a festive buffet-style dinner party. Hundreds of UTMB employees line up as Health System leadership and catering staff stand by to serve food.
Ramirez smiles, and reflects on how busy the day has been so far, and how much he has enjoyed every moment. He knows catering is an important aspect of UTMB, as it is often the first impression that people have of the institution.
“All the way around, we are here to cater to the university’s needs,” says Ramirez. “We try to accommodate everybody. I don’t care if you are at the top or the bottom on the totem pole, I’m going to treat everyone the same. We want it to look nice and taste good—that’s what our customers pay for. If they are smiling and satisfied at the end of the day, then we accomplished what we set out to do.”
I part ways with Ramirez as he starts preparing for several evening events that will keep him working until 1 a.m. While he has made sure most of the university is happy and fed for the day, he himself has barely had a chance to eat. But he’ll worry about that later—for now, he still has a job to do.
“I really do look forward to busy days like this,” he says. “It goes by so quickly, and, quite simply, I just enjoy making people happy.”