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Refreshing Drab Design at a Senior Living Facility

The Bistro at Plymouth Place was in need of updating.  

zoomba kessler 1029Custom tables with a faux marble design have proven very practical in the space according to the designers.At 12 years old, The Bistro at Plymouth Place, a senior living facility in LaGrange Park, Ill., had become outdated and was no longer meeting residents’ needs.

Among the problems: The seating layout was dark and dimly lit, and residents had to stand in a long line at the entrance before moving through a cafeteria line to pick up menu items. It was not a place that residents came to relax and socialize; instead, they ate quickly and departed.

“Our initial goal for making changes was simply to update the furniture and paint, but as we worked with interior designers, they saw a bigger vision and encouraged us to open the space and create a statement,” says Cheri Boublis, director of Hospitality Services at Plymouth Place.

Initially, Boublis and the Plymouth Place administrators discussed making changes over two phases: the first for the furniture and paint, then another phase later for the service counter. They ultimately decided, however, it was more cost-effective to do the project all at once. “We didn’t see the benefit of being disruptive twice,” Boublis says. Plymouth Place CEO Jay Biere supported the plan, and the project moved forward.

The main project goal was to create a place where residents could gather to relax and socialize. Other goals included improving workflow, offering flexible menu options and enhancing guest experiences.

Located adjacent to the formal dining room for independent living residents, The Bistro provides a more casual option for dinner service for all residents and welcomes their guests. The Bistro also offers breakfast and lunch service; the formal dining room is open only for dinner and Sunday buffet brunch.

zoomba kessler 0994Residents at Plymouth Place enjoy seeing the day’s menu items on display before they decide what to order.

Residents enter The Bistro from the main hallway, where a design detail in the black-and-white floor tiles spells out “The Bistro.” “The design gives guests a very notable entryway and carries them through to the counter,” says Sheryl Allen of Sheryl Allen Interiors, Western Springs, Ill. She has a unique connection to the facility since her mother lives there. She was drawn into the project after helping the facility with a lobby refresh. The fact that her company mostly handles residential projects may be one reason The Bistro now has that homey touch, with sconces and drop-down lights that create unique dining spaces.

Removing a wall that separated seating spaces created a major transformation in allowing seniors to interact. Rather than a full wall, now only two load-bearing columns remain. It drastically improved circulation and opened the entire area, Boublis says. Also notable, the wood trim around the columns’ corners replicate the shiplap on the columns, a clever design tweak. The trim was added to strengthen the corners from the anticipated number of wheelchairs and walkers that may collide with the column corners.

The white shiplap meshes nicely with the gray, black and white color scheme throughout the space. Gold lighting accents, such as wall sconces and pendant lights, help create the appearance of a traditional bistro. “It’s an updated color palette from the rest of the facility,” Allen says. “It’s warmer and brighter.”

zoomba kessler 1023Staff use a high-speed oven and blender, which sit behind the service counter, to produce items at The Bistro.

The interior space includes custom-made tables with a faux marble design. “They are super practical,” Allen says. The design team opted for a custom product largely because of difficulties finding the exact size — 39-inch rounds — they wanted, she says. Weight was another stipulation for new tables with the goal to find a durable yet light piece that easily pushes together to create larger seating areas when residents have family members join them in The Bistro. “Residents gave input into comfortable and durable chair selection,” Boublis says. Floors are easy to clean and allow staff to move tables and chairs without scratching the surface.

“This was the first step in updating several elements in our dining services and our culinary program,” Boublis says. “We wanted it to make a statement of things to come with fresh food served on melamine plates and offering more interactive ordering.” The use of permanent ware supports the facility’s commitment to sustainability by reducing the amount of single-use items that land in the trash.

Rippe Associates, a Minnesota-based foodservice consulting firm, joined this project after Plymouth Place established its vision for The Bistro. “Given the scope of work and tight project budget, Rippe limited its role to equipment selection, the equipment plan and coordination with the design team,” says Connie Dickson, principal, Rippe Associates. “After completing the design work, the general contractor partnered with Boelter [a Wisconsin-based foodservice equipment and supplies dealer] to provide and install the equipment.”

zoomba kessler 1021Induction warmers and bain marie equipment allow guests a closeup view of menu items.

“We had to remove the miscellaneous equipment that cluttered the space and maintain the same footprint for the service counter to preserve seating but add flexibility to the menu,” Boublis says. “We also had to educate our staff and residents on navigating this new space that functions so differently than the prerenovated space.”

The service flow changed considerably from the old, traditional cafeteria that featured a linear service line and cashier at the end of the counter. In the renovated area, even before entering The Bistro, residents gain a sense of what’s on the menu for the day from the plated items on display. The residents especially enjoy seeing what their order will look like, says Boublis.

After entering The Bistro, guests immediately see three menu boards to the right, above the self-serve beverage area. Toward the middle of the room, staff prepare sandwiches and other menu items behind the order counter. A refrigerated case displays premade salads and other ready-to-go items, such as yogurt parfaits. Residents order and pay at the center service counter in front of the preparation area; they receive a number to place on their table and staff deliver items tableside.

Food Production

Food for the entire facility arrives at a central receiving area. Staff transport it into a centralized production kitchen. The culinary team prepares cold menu items such as salads and sliced meats and cheeses; for hot menu items they use double-stacked convection ovens, tilt skillets, a charbroiler, a flattop and deep fryers. They place menu items for The Bistro in pans and transport these items to The Bistro roughly 100 feet away either through the 170-seat formal dining room (if not during dinner service) — or through a main hallway.

The Bistro’s core menu loops in a five-week cycle. In The Bistro, staff grill chicken on a flattop grill and cook proteins for fajitas on four portable induction ranges. An induction countertop unit also holds entrees in view of customers. A hot holding unit keeps sandwiches warm. Staff use a high-speed oven to heat flatbreads sandwiches. Soups remain warm in bain marie units, again in view of customers.

The Bistro also contains a high-speed blender for making shakes and smoothies to order. The self-serve beverage area — available free to residents throughout the day — includes a coffee maker, two beverage dispensers and a dual ice and water dispenser.

Prior to the makeover, the beverage lineup was nestled into the wall that existed where the columns now stand.

zoomba kessler 1016Plymouth Place residents spend more time in the newly remodeled space, socializing or reading in addition to dining there.

“The designers did a great job of creating storage in every place possible throughout The Bistro,” Boublis says. “The location of The Bistro is not right next to the kitchen, so we included enough hot/cold handling to make it sustainable for a meal period. We also maintained a utility closet to keep the floor clean and plenty of hidden space for trash and soiled dishes. This really reduced the visual clutter.

“Another big difference between the old and new facility is that this iteration of The Bistro can transition to dinner service easily,” Boublis says. “And, with built-in lighting dimmers, we can change the look and feel of the service areas. We can also easily open the cafe curtains and enjoy lots of outside light throughout the day.”

The refresh required no additional staff, and Boublis points out that the production kitchen maintains a streamlined food production system. Also, she notes that residents express their satisfaction by coming to The Bistro more frequently than before the renovation. Participation numbers haven’t seen a huge spike since residents did use the space prior to the renovation. “What has changed,” says Boublis, “is how residents use the space. It’s now used as an area to read a newspaper, meet a friend or have an informal meeting, so residents are finding more reasons to be in the space.”

zoomba kessler 1011The service flow in the new space directs guests to one central location to order and pay versus the previous cafeteria-style layout.

Key Players

  • Owner: Plymouth Place
  • CEO: Jay Biere
  • Director of support services: Katie Freese
  • Director of hospitality services: Cheri Boublis
  • Executive chef: Lily Corpus
  • Interior designer: Sheryl Allen Interiors, Western Springs, Ill.; Sheryl Allen and Lisa Wennerstrum, owners
  • Foodservice consultant: Rippe Associates, Minneapolis: Connie Dickson, FCSI, principal, and Mark Nilson, senior project manager
  • Equipment dealer: Boelter, Chicago office
  • Construction: Clarion Construction Inc., Lombard, Ill.

Facts of Note

  • Plymouth Place: A senior living place with four levels of living: independent living, assisted living, Greg’s Place memory care and the healthcare center. Each level of living has its own dining room and meal plan. These dining areas are available for residents, as well as their guests and friends from other levels of living.
  • Opened: November 2019
  • Scope of project: Redesign of an existing cafe
  • Size: 1,722 sq. ft., includes 250 sq. ft. serving area and 1,472 sq. ft. dining area
  • Seats: 48
  • Average check: $8 for visitors. Breakfast is free for residents; residents deduct lunch and dinner fees from a monthly allowance in their account.
  • Total annual sales: $375,000
  • Daily transactions: Breakfast, 125; lunch, 125-150; dinner 50
  • Hours: 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Monday through Friday; 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday; 7 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., Sunday for brunch
  • Menu specialties: The Bistro offers freshly prepared soups, salads, sandwiches, desserts, espresso-based beverages, shakes, smoothies and grab-and-go products in a self-service style.
  • The Bistro staff: 6 employees
  • Total project cost: $600,000
  • Equipment investment: $40,000
  • Website: