Food for Thought: Dining Director Reflects on a Complicated Year
To say that COVID-19 changed the way we do things might be the understatement of the millennium. Over the past year, we had to adapt our communities to new regulations and standards to combat the pandemic for a good part of 2020 and into 2021.
Across the board, we were forced to rework vast swaths of daily life at our communities – all to curb a frightening unforgiving virus that swept the globe. The virus targeted the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions, immediately adding another layer of sensitivity and challenges that had to be dealt with in short order to save lives. Social distancing became the norm – again creating a long list of challenges for facilities that were nearing capacity, and limited in space.
Thankfully, our 23 communities were able to weather the storm. Although not completely unaffected, early efforts and a commitment to service helped keep our mortality figures low, while other facilities outside our circle were harder hit.
Aside from hospitals and care communities in general, the next hardest hit industry was food service. Countless restaurants were forced to shutter with little or no notice. Most eateries did not provide pick-up, carryout or delivery options at the time and needed to adapt quickly. The result was a mass shortage across the country for items like napkins and disposable silverware. There were even incidents of price gouging in some cases.
With all this being true, it’s inconceivable how daunting of a task providing nutritious and delicious cuisine to more than 1,200 residents spread across 23 different properties spread across five states must be. The thought alone might be enough to make even the most seasoned dining and purchasing managers take pause. But, for Travis Shreffler, our National Director of Dining and Purchasing, it was all in a day’s work.
His third day of work, to be exact.
Travis took the reins as the company’s head of dining less than a handful of days before the state-mandated closures began to roll in. Having spent most of his healthcare career in dining services, Travis had a plan when he accepted the position, but promptly realized that sweeping changes were on the horizon.
“We threw that plan out pretty quickly,” Travis said, adding that he saw opportunity in the enormous challenge that was ahead. “I thought, ‘The typical system is gone. We get to graft the future.’”
Finding Flexibility in a Rigid World
Travis’s first challenge was moving away from the classic dining hall approach to serving breakfast, lunch and dinner at PSL’s 23 communities. Most of the buildings were constructed with a main kitchen and dining area where guests would gather to eat in a group. When COVID-19 made that impossible, Travis and his team began delivering meals to patients in their residence rooms, like hotel room service.
“We became more flexible at a moment’s notice,” Travis said.
One of the first challenges Travis experienced was not securing supplies, but where to store them.
“We were fortunate enough to get all the PPEs [Personal Protective Equipment] and supplies we needed, the problem was we didn’t have a centralized shipping location,” Travis said. “Deliveries went directly to the communities, and we didn’t have enough storage space.”
The answer? A large section of Travis’s garage at his house.
“I got to be great friends with the FedEx guy,” Travis said with a laugh. Although it was cramped, having the deliveries in hand allowed Travis to distribute the goods as needed with no delays.
Travis said that switching from a dining room setting to room service provided a unique set of challenges.
“When you’re caring for residents in a memory care setting it’s difficult for them to quarantine in their rooms for long periods of time,” he said. “We had to be flexible with the style of service. We quickly found out that disposable servingware was not the way to go.”
Travis said using disposable dinnerware piled up quickly when serving three meals a day, every day. Eventually, PSL settled on sturdier utensils, like what’s used for room service at contemporary hotels – somewhere in between formal silverware and disposable.
Streamlining the Process
Travis said that, in the food industry, there are generally two significant costs – raw food and labor. Through his experiences, Travis realized he had a better shot at lowering the monthly spend for raw food than he did in cutting day-to-day labor. Raw foods are generally uncooked, unprocessed and sometimes organic. Think fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, eggs, meat, fish and dairy products.
When Travis took over the position in 2020, PSL communities used several different vendors, for a variety of reasons. As part of his hiring, he was tasked with finding one broadline distributor that could provide not only fresh produce, but also provide seasonal and local goods as well. A broadline distributor is a vendor that sells a wide array of products.
“We wanted everything to be uniform, but we also wanted each region to be able to have its local, seasonal produce,” Travis said. “Most of our communities have residents that are meat and potato eaters, but we have some coastal communities that prefer local seafood – things like that. Regardless of region, it’s all comfort food to the residents.”
Travis said he was able to work out a deal with Sysco Food Systems to provide all the basic needs, and took advantage of an existing program to partner with local communities for some specialty fresh meats and produce that are native to the region.
Sysco Food Systems is an American company that distributes food products, kitchen equipment, tabletop items and smallwares to restaurants, healthcare providers and educational facilities and hospitality businesses like hotels and inns. The publicly traded company (SYY on NYSE) was founded in 1969, currently has around 69,000 employees worldwide, and generates around $55 billion in revenue annually.
Revolutionizing Dietary Needs
Surprisingly, Travis said he doesn’t get a lot of health-related questions when future residents visit a community and speak with him.
“Residents don’t typically ask or care about gluten-free foods,” he said. “They want to know if the food’s good. That’s it.”
Travis said when he does get questions about all organic meals or gluten-free foods, it’s typically from a concerned adult child of the prospective resident. But, he said, every community kitchen can and will accommodate dietary restrictions or necessities, if directed by a resident’s physician.
A useful resource that Travis and the PSL team utilize at all communities is Grove Menus, a revolutionary menu planning program created by a professional dietician. The program allows community menu planners the flexibility to pick and choose items to craft a healthy meal. Its broad features allow meal planners in the Heartland to stick to meat and potatoes while coastal communities can enjoy their seasonal, local catch.
“It really allows us to craft a unique in-house menu,” Travis said. “It also lets us apply the same recipes and standards to all our communities.”
“The best feature of the service is that the menu won’t print if it doesn’t meet the predetermined nutritional needs,” Travis said. “It literally locks you out so you can’t print an inadequate menu.”
Grove Menus was created in 1994 by Diane Fager, a registered dietician.
“The menus are made by a dietician, so the health standards are high,” Travis said. “It’s one of the best tools out there.”
Travis oversees on-site department managers at our 23 communities. Some larger communities have two managers, one that handles day-to-day operations while the other takes care of the administrative duties. At each community, those department managers oversee the kitchen crew, including cooks and other staff.
On-site kitchen staff typically work eight-hour shifts, with an overlap during lunch – the busiest meal of the day. Some staff begin the day around 6:30 a.m. Later-day shift members head for home around 7:30 p.m.
‘A Conduit, Not an Expert’
Travis has a long career in dining services, operating multiple communities as a Dining Director, an Executive Director and Regional Dining Director. As he put it: “I grew up in the industry.”
When the position of National Director of Dining and Purchasing came along, Travis took a closer look even though he was happy with his job at the time. However, the top spot with our company presented something unique.
“In the industry, the lead position often focuses on dining,” he said. “The fact that this position was both – dining and purchasing – made sense. Because, as a Dining Director, a big focus is on finances, and raw food costs are highly controllable. We can control what we purchase, how we purchase it and how it’s prepared.”
Travis sees himself not as an expert in dining services, but more as a conduit to help communities reach their full potential. He said his biggest challenge in the position thus far has been his inability to visit every community because of pandemic restrictions.
“We meet virtually, but it’s not the same,” he said, adding that he plans to wrap up his initial community visits in the next 30 days.
The Path Ahead
The future of food service at senior care communities is bright, Travis said. The lessons learned from the first year on the job will help guide his decisions down the road.
“We learned [during the pandemic] that we need to know how to change quickly,” he said. “The typical system is gone. The dining spaces that we currently have were built two decades ago, and they’re not set up like they should be based on what we just went through. It’s become clear that footprints like that don’t make money.”
Travis believes the future of food service at senior care and memory care facilities will consist of smaller dining spaces, extended eat times, and even utilizing outdoor spaces if possible.
“I think the future will be more of a come-and-go meal service that’s more flexible, along with more hotel-style room service,” he said.
Travis said his plan is to meet and exceed resident expectations. And don’t be surprised if you spot him engaging with residents and families at one of our 23 memory care communities in Michigan, North Carolina, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
As he puts it, “it’s not what you eat, but who you eat with, that matters.”