Bill Leffler: From Hotels to Health to Happiness
OK, let’s have a little quiz: Fact #1: when he was 12 years old, Bill Leffler’s parents ripped down the back of their home in Lexington, Kentucky to build extensively equipped “his and hers” kitchens. Mom spent time baking, and dad dabbled in pickling, putting up jams and jellies and pretty much anything else that tickled his fancy. Fact #2: Bill’s three cousins were students in the respected culinary program at Johnson & Wales University; two became chefs and one managed a catering firm. Now cover your eyes: Armed with that information, do you suspect that young Bill would end up being: (1) an astronaut, (2) an ice road trucker, or (3) a chef? (Circle one.)
You guessed it! (Goodness, I hope you did.…) Even at the tender age of 14, Bill was already manning the dishwashing machine at a local Italian restaurant. At his New Hampshire preparatory school, he instantly gravitated to the institutional kitchen to whip up goodies for students, faculty and staff. When it came time to settle on a career, he flirted momentarily with earning an acting degree, but mom and dad dug in their heels and he landed squarely in Johnson & Wales’ culinary program, graduating in 1985.
His first job was at the Sheraton Washington Hotel in Washington, D.C. In fact, it was there, during a Fire Safety Training Day, that he met Paul. Nobody ever accused Bill of being shy, and the slightly more restrained Paul loved Bill’s… shall we call it, “active participation.” Apparently that elusively seductive combination of fire safety and extroverted behavior charmed the young man with whom Bill recently celebrated 27 happy years.
As is typical for up-and-coming chefs, Bill expanded his skills by moving from big kitchen to big kitchen. By 1988 he was cooking in such venues such as the luxurious Willard InterContinental Hotel, The Capital Hilton and the Hyatt Regency in Bethesda, Md. His responsibilities doubled when he took a job with Ameristar Hotels, supervising the kitchens at The Radisson in Old Town Alexandria and the Holiday Inn Hotel and Suites in Arlington. As head chef for both facilities, he had to direct his attention to, in his words, “whoever had the larger fire to put out.” He means that figuratively, of course (at least I hope so…).
If that job sounds like a 24/7 commitment, you would be correct. Bill put up with that rat race (again, figuratively) for about 18 months until he had had enough. His friend Matt Barrazotto, son of one of the presidents of Washington’s famous Clement’s Pastry Shop, suggested that Bill look into a chef position at Marriott Corporate Headquarters in Bethesda. This was one of the many facilities operated by the mega food-service giant, Sodexo, which contracts with institutional venues of all types to manage their culinary service divisions. Bill found himself with a staff of 45, feeding 3000 people a day.
One of the draws of Food Network and Cooking Channel is the glamour that goes with being a professional chef. Well, that’s true—if you’re on Food Network or Cooking Channel. Otherwise, it’s a high-pressure, often thankless job where at any moment you could lop off a finger or singe off a nose. Bill Leffler loved Sodexo, but wanted out of the kitchen. He moved to Medimmune, a Maryland-based biotechnology development enterprise, as GM of their food service facility. He was responsible for feeding about 1000 people a day.
In 2010, Bill took over the management of Sodexo’s dining operation for the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C. Shortly thereafter he landed the general manager position at the Department of Transportation in Southeast Washington, D.C. where he and his team of 30 fed 2600 people every day.
In March, 2012, a great career opportunity opened up for Paul in Philadelphia, and the two men pulled up stakes and moved there. “I considered myself very lucky to be able to stay with Sodexo,” says Bill. Lucky indeed: He was named the Director of Food and Nutrition at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Langhorne, Pa. With a management team of 16, Bill and his 100 employees feed patients, staff, volunteers and visitors in over 20,000 individual transactions a week.
“We’ve made major strides in quality, execution, and presentation. St. Mary’s is no longer a ‘scoop and plop’ operation.” (Think high-school cafeteria.) Sodexo’s focus at St. Mary’s emphasizes wellness. “Meatless Mondays” and “Fryer-Free Fridays” combine with healthy recipes to keep the self-insured facility’s healthcare costs as low as possible. Members of the medical staff receive a 30% discount on meals when they choose healthy items. The facility even hosts an on-site farmers’ market.
In 2011, friends invited him and Paul to the little town of Rehoboth Beach. “We loved it,” smiles Bill. “It was a glorious September morning at the beach when we looked at one another and said, “We can do this.” They built a home in Harmon Bay, and spend as much time there as they possibly can. “Being here in Rehoboth Beach centers me. The stress simply melts away the minute we enter our neighborhood.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Bob Yesbek is a Rehoboth Beach resident. Email Bob Yesbek