A new food program is on the menu at Erickson Living’s retirement communities throughout the U.S., and it’s making residents very happy.
That’s according to Patrick Plumadore, the company’s vice president of dining. Under Plumadore’s leadership, Erickson Living celebrated the full rollout of its new “signature dining” program earlier this month. The new program swaps buffet-style dining and batch cooking for made-to-order menu items like seared steaks, shrimp, and stir fry.
Before the change, the company only offered around five menu items that rotated on a daily basis, Plumadore says. In the kitchen, staffers would whip up big batches of chicken, fish, or beef, and then serve them in dishes as ordered.
“We would cook 25 or 30 pieces of fish at a time in order to maintain enough volume as residents came into our dining program,” he said. “And 20-minute old fish is not that appetizing.”
Easy as it was for staffers to do, the batch method of cooking was reducing resident happiness, Plumadore says. Some diners complained about things like the temperature of the food and the limited variety of the menu, for instance. Plus, cooking food in bulk was not engaging for the chefs.
“When you go to culinary school, you don’t dream of doing 30 pieces of fish at a time,” he joked. “That’s not what you see on the Food Network. It’s not sexy.”
Ordering something different
So, in 2014, Plumadore set out to overhaul the company’s kitchens and menus. The first step was launching a pilot made-to-order dining program at Erickson’s Highland Springs Retirement community in Dallas.
The pilot program included some big changes. Plumadore vastly expanded the menu from 5 to 25 items. He compartmentalized the work by delegating chefs to different stations throughout the kitchen. He also added a computerized ticketing system to make the process more efficient. And he began tracking all sorts of metrics, from the number of steaks that need to be on the grill to the time it takes to get food from the kitchen to a resident’s table.
“This was a massive change,” he said. “When you have cooks and waitstaff that are used to being able to order something and go back in the kitchen and pick it up in five minutes, that changes the timing altogether.”
Opening night was a disaster, Plumadore admitted.
“The computer system crashed not once but three times,” he said. “It couldn’t have been worse.”
But, by the second night’s dinner service, the employees were able to work out the kinks and the quality of the new program went up considerably.
“That’s where management went, boy, it works,” he said. “You have to go through these trials and tribulations.”
In the end, Plumadore says, the company did end up taking on some new expenditures. After all, training thousands of employees and upgrading dozens of kitchens isn’t cheap. But most of those costs were offset by the fact that they no longer had to prepare — and eventually waste — massive quantities of food.
“What we spent a little bit on labor, we offset with food cost reduction,” Plumadore said.
Residents are also much happier about the change in food quality.
“Residents [have said] the quality is so much better, the temperature is so much better,” he says. “The immediate response is… boy, that is the hottest meal that I’ve had in six years.”
In fact, the program has been such a success that it’s now prominently featured in the company’s marketing materials.
“When I started, dining was on page 34 of our pamphlets and brochures,” Plumadore said. “Now, it’s on page five.”
And it’s only getting better from here, he said.
“We’ll continue to tweak the program, but now that the system is set up, the sky is the limit.”
Written by Tim Regan
Photo courtesy of Erickson Living