Bringing Ritz-Carlton-Style Dining to Senior Living

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For Chicago’s The Admiral at the Lake, a continuing care retirement community located on the city’s north side adjacent to Lake Michigan, its recent re-construction called for taking the community’s dining program not only to a restaurant-style operation, but to one of the best restaurant style operations in the country.

It’s a national trend: the latest in senior living dining is taking big cues from restaurants and hotels when it comes to menu preparation, sourcing local ingredients, and compiling a fleet of foodies to prepare and serve chef’s creations. Gone are the days where cafeteria-style dining served as a selling point for prospective residents.

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But rolling out a restaurant-style program comes with its share of decisions: how to structure the “meal plan,” how to account for guest diners, timing of meals and to-go options, to name a few.

For The Admiral at the Lake, located on Chicago’s bustling North Side, competition is strong. The 33-story high rise community went under construction in 2009, affiliated with Kendal Corporation, an operator of 13 communities across several states, and reopened its doors in 2012 just as the U.S. economy began to emerge from recession—all in the midst of some of the nation’s most highly acclaimed restaurants.

The community has achieve occupancy of around 75% as of this spring, with dining as one of the pillars of its marketing process.

To re-define the dining experience, the Admiral composed a team of food-focused individuals from the Ritz Carlton, Chicago’s Nikko Hotel, Union League Club and a host of top-rated and James Beard acclaimed restaurants from across the city and beyond. At its helm are executive chef Alejandro Arreola, formerly of The Ritz, and Culinary Services Director Joe Bochnia.

When the Admiral re-opened, the new building included in-room dining, a bistro-style option Bistro 929 and a waterfront formal dining room with panoramic views of Lake Michigan.

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The dining experience, after working out some upfront challenges has become a major selling point for the community, says CEO Glenn Brichacek.

“Dining is undeniably one of the more important experiences,” he said during a recent SHN visit to the Admiral’s kitchen and dining room. “It’s quality of life and something everyone has to do. It’s always top of the list and is the question asked most often.”

Incorporating Residents into Dining

The Admiral staffs a team of roughly 45 people to man its dining services on a daily basis. Resident participation is encouraged.

With the help of the community’s Gardening Committee, the Admiral grows its own herbs and vegetables from pea shoots to garlic sprouts.

It has learned at least one lesson in the process.

“For the first year, we have asked the gardening committee to stagger the planting. Last year it would be feast or famine, but now there’s a rhythm to the harvest as we go. That was part of the learning curve,” Bochniak told SHN.

Residents also participate in food demonstrations delivered by Chef Arreola, who brings local and national food trends to his work at the Admiral, including his frequent visits to Chicago’s fine dining scene including his own favorites from local celebrity restaurateur Paul Kahan.

“We’ve been interested for a long time in local and sustainable,” Arreola says. “We try to incorporate that into our menus.”

Specialties coming from the Admiral kitchen vary daily and include some more experimental options—though continually well received among residents, chef Arreola says.

Taking cues from around the globe, typical menu items range from Turkey Kofta, a Middle East-inspired dish to striped sea bass, a daily vegetarian entrée, featured salad, chicken cacciatore and espresso semifreddo for dessert.

“We hear about senior living food,” Arreola says. “But when I came here it was totally different. It’s the same level as any restaurant.”

Working through the kitchen kinks

At the Admiral, the dining program was not always so well defined. An initial rollout followed by a focus group yielded feedback prompting management to do a mini-overhaul of the original points system residents were using for their meals.

“We wanted to think about the overall amount meals so residents could do waterfront dining one meal a day and enough points to have brunch on Sunday and bring friends in each month,” Brichacek explains. “We wanted to make sure friends and family are here.”

First, that meant shifting from a designated meal-per-day plan to a points system to allow for more flexibility.

“We started the points system and didn’t do it exactly right,” Brichacek recalls. “There were too few points. We did have enough for residents to eat once a day, but hadn’t figured in a couple of things. With multiple items on the menu, one meal a day allowed the mid-range of entrée offerings, but we were hearing that they didn’t want to be held back. So we gave more points.”

The changes have served well for marketing to new prospective residents as well as including friends and family—even when considering a wealth of dining alternatives offered in Chicago, known for its award-winning dining venues and ever-changing restaurant scene.

“Many people used to ask, ‘What if I don’t want to eat in,’ says marketing director Sian Stevens. “Now they just want to dine in.”

Written by Elizabeth Ecker

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