Those who are skeptical about the quality of foodservice programs in today’s senior care facilities would be pleasantly surprised by the operations at Legacy Retirement Communities in Lincoln, Neb. Alongside the casseroles, chicken fried steak and other traditional comfort food are menu items reminiscent of an upscale steakhouse, such as beef tenderloin, lobster and prime rib.
This community’s forward-thinking approach is geared toward the next wave of seniors. “Baby Boomers are coming, and the bar will be set higher,” says Robert Darrah, director of dining services.
FE&S spoke with Darrah about his operation and the senior care foodservice segment as a whole.
FE&S: What are the biggest challenges in the senior care foodservice segment, and how do you address them?
RD: Keeping everyone happy can be challenging. Due to aging, medications and health conditions, food just doesn’t taste the same to many seniors. Our chefs use fresh herbs, spices and creative cooking methods. Another challenge we face is specialized diets. Our menu is based on a restaurant style of service, and meeting the changing needs of our resident base can be a challenge. Gluten-free diets seem to be on the rise, and we’re seeing that grow on a monthly basis.
FE&S: What makes your operation unique?
RD: We’re locally owned and self-operated, where a vast majority of retirement communities are run under contract management. All of the decisions for the company are made locally, and this gives us a slight edge. By partnering with the Association of Healthcare Foodservice, for which I am treasurer-elect, it equips me to meet the challenges. As I manage all aspects of my facility, it allows me to provide what is in the best interest of my residents and facilities, rather than feed the bottom line of external contractors.
FE&S: What equipment innovations have had the biggest impact on your operation?
RD: The evolution of equipment from 20 years ago has been the key. From combi ovens to boilerless steamers, the improved safety factors have made our kitchen more modern and energy efficient.
FE&S: What are the things you look for in terms of your foodservice equipment?
RD: Cost obviously is our number one concern, but I’m willing to pay for a higher-cost piece of foodservice equipment when it comes to durability and reliability. Our equipment is on 18 hours a day, and we don’t have the time to worry about downtime and repairs. We’ve all fallen into the trap of taking the lowest bid on a not-so-name-brand piece of equipment, only to have it break down over and over again to the point that it’s just cheaper to replace it rather than repair it again.
FE&S: Please describe your menu offerings.
RD: Each evening, our residents have the choice of two main entrees as well as nine à la carte meals. We offer a wide variety, from beef tenderloin and prime rib, crab legs and lobster tail to comfort foods such as meatloaf, chicken fried steak and casseroles. We have a wide variety of soups, salads, fresh-baked breads and desserts, as well.
FE&S: Have there been any changes to your foodservice operation recently or are any changes planned?
RD: We have pubs in our facilities that are used for special events, activities, etc. I’m working on opening these areas from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. with a sports bar-type theme menu serving food and beverages. It will be a social area to gather and give our residents an option for a lighter meal. This will be a place they can invite friends over to watch the game and dine.
FE&S: How does your equipment support your menu?
RD: Our chefs prepare 90 percent of our menu from scratch. Our kitchen is very simple and old school, yet filled with modern equipment to make use of our chefs’ skills and provide a quality meal.
FE&S: How has the senior care foodservice segment evolved in recent years?
RD: It’s all about expectations. In this economy, people are looking to get the most value for their dollar. Our residents have worked hard their entire lives. Some have traveled extensively; others have not. Regardless, in each of our facilities the dining experience each night is a five-star experience. Residents can invite their family and friends in each night to experience it, as well. We’ve been told by residents and members of the community that we have one of the best restaurants in Lincoln, yet we’re inside a retirement community.
FE&S: What do you predict for the future of senior care foodservice?
RD: The expectation will be for more dining options and services, such as sushi, tableside dining and flexible dining hours.