Farm-to-Table Dining and Menu Engineering

Farm-to-Table Dining and Menu Engineering

Farm-to-Table Dining and Menu Engineering


Cynthia Thurlow Cruver: Hey, everybody. Welcome back. This is Part 2 of the Mike Peacock episode at Cosmic Soup. I think we’re floating in this soup right now. I see some carrots and potatoes going by.

Mike Peacock: [Laughter]

Cynthia: We’ve got a lot more to talk about. Mike, welcome back.

Mike: Hey, thank you. It’s good to be back/still be here – never having actually left the first time.

Cynthia: [Laughter] This next segment is just super dear to my heart. I love farmers’ markets. I’m an organic gardener. I grow my own food. Last year, my poblanos were crazy good.

Mike: Oh!

Cynthia: So delicious.

Mike: Did you make chile rellenos?

Cynthia: Oh, yeah. Pat makes those for me all the time.

Mike: Oh, my god.

Cynthia: That’s my favorite.

Mike: That’s one of my favorites. Do you do the deep-fried battered style or do you do more of like the omelet style?

Cynthia: Neither. Pat makes these. They’re like quinoa and cheese, this delicious stuffing. It’s vegetarian, but pretty cheesy. He actually blisters them and he uses a man style, a carpenter’s welder’s torch. [Laughter]

Mike: Yeah!

Cynthia: To blister the peppers. Then he takes the skin off, takes the little seeds out and stuffs them. Then he just bakes them in a delicious, pretty simple sauce that’s tomato-based.

Mike: Mmm.

Cynthia: The peppers are so perfect because they’re not crunchy. They’re soft. But there’s just a little bite there and the cheese is amazing. I love quinoa so, together, it’s my favorite dish.

Mike: Yeah, quinoa is like one of those epic superfoods that go well with everything.

Cynthia: I know. It’s a blank canvas that you can do anything to.

Mike: Woo-hoo! But I got you off-topic. Sorry about that.

Cynthia: No, that’s okay. I could talk all day long about fresh foods and cooking.

Farmers, farm to table cooking and bringing foods from the gardens and/or farms into kitchens, that always seems to be a really big hurdle for some organizations to handle. Why do you think that is?

Mike: I think that probably when it comes down to it, again, it partially stems from, “Well, we’ve always done it this way,” where you have your main purveyor, your Sysco, your FSA or US Foods, or whatever other company you use based off where you’re at in the world. I think that it’s easy to just kind of rely on a system that’s already in place and, hopefully, that purveyor can provide you something different from time-to-time to kind of break the monotony a little bit.

I also think that there’s a fear that it’s more expensive to use fresher products. It’s true that sometimes it is. Then I think that also on the cost factor, a lot of places have set up their initial budgets with a really, really, really low plate cost goal and I think that that’s hurt them in the long-run.

I think chefs, culinary directors, and managers are trying so hard to hit a plate cost for margin purposes that they have locked themselves into a program that they can only buy bad food. That’s something that needs to change immediately. I think that if that’s your model, you’re really, really, really hurting yourself in terms of potential new clients coming in.

As you and I talked about with branding, if your food is garbage then what are you going to offer to somebody when they can just go down the road someplace else and get something fresh. If you’re having your plate cost expectations set so low that you have to buy prefab products or things like that then you’re really hurting yourself.

I think there’s the financial fear. I also think that there’s a fear that people don’t really know their communities. They don’t know what their region is known for. I think that there are people that really are just lazy and don’t want to do the research to find out what they can get locally.

Then on top of that, there’s the fear that, “I don’t want to bring in extra vendors because I’m going to hurt my rep’s feelings. I don’t want to bring in extra vendors because now there are more processes to manage and I’m already so far behind on my days.” There’s an organizational element that I think is keeping people from doing it.

I don’t really think it’s that hard to implement. I think that it’s just a fear of the unknown. I think it’s people that are still locked in their old-school ways. If you were to go to a culinary school right now, you’re getting ready to talk to the graduating class, I guarantee you that no chef who is going to come out of a culinary school is going to say, “I want to go and work for a place whose sole focus is on plate cost and using a vendor that they’ve had for 20 years.”

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Mike: That’s just not how they’re going to view it. They’re going to be like, “Oh, hey. Cool. Are we going to get our produce down the street? Do I know my fishmonger by name?”

Cynthia: Yeah.

Mike: Those relationships are just simply not there.

Cynthia: That’s what makes life rich, right?

Mike: Yeah.

Cynthia: It’s that fabric.

Mike: Yeah.

Cynthia: Who is the fishmonger?

Mike: Yeah.

Cynthia: Who is the baker? Who is the cheesemaker?

Mike: Yeah.

Cynthia: Who are the farmers at the farmer markets? Then you have all of these amazing stories to tell residents about where the food came from and it tastes delicious. There’s just so much value in that.

Mike: Yeah. I think especially for places that are getting set up as a new establishment, that’s when it’s the perfect opportunity. Don’t wait until you’ve got everything built and then get your budget planned and then bring on a chef and then have that chef try to work within that budget. In an ideal situation, your chef or your culinary director can be a part of that budgeting process. You can be talking about menus and vendors during that time when you’re setting your budgets. That’s when it’s really optimal.

It does become challenging when you bring somebody on to a longstanding system and they’re trying to figure out how to work within that system when the philosophies that they have always known don’t necessarily match with the philosophies of how to buy product for that particular location. That’s just something I think for people to keep in mind who are in the process of building or in the process of budgeting. Really look at what kind of stuff you want to have and kind of come up with your concept before your budget is finalized, at least as far as food goes.

Cynthia: Yeah, well, okay. Let’s play community therapist.

Mike: [Laughter]

Cynthia: Let’s say that I am an executive director and I’m in Palo Alto, California. I’m in the food basket of the United States of America where everything grows.

Mike: Mm-hmm.

Cynthia: Like lettuce, tomatoes, and peppers. Everything grows there.

Mike: Yeah.

Cynthia: My kitchen is using a lot of prefab food.

Mike: Okay.

Cynthia: Let’s pretend that I go to my chef or my dining director. What should I say to them, then what should I tell them to do, and what should my expectation be? Can you talk through that process? What would that look like?

Mike: Are you talking about approaching somebody about changing their system?

Cynthia: Yeah, so I’m the executive director, I go to my chef or my dining director, and I say, “You know what? For my residents and their satisfaction, I would really like to start using food from the farmers market. I want to do that.” Then sometimes chefs or dining directors will say, “Oh, that’s absolutely not possible. We could never do that because of this, this, this, or this.”

Mike: Right.

Cynthia: But if I wanted, as the executive director, to maybe push them a little further, what would I say? What could I say to them to help me get what I want?

Mike: Well, so first and foremost, and you and I have actually been through this. I worked for you. There were times when you’d come to me and say, “Miquelo… So, I’d really like to have pork and polenta on the menu.” I’d be like, “That’s like a $10 dish and we’re serving $20 dishes,” right?

I’ve been through this conversation on both sides numerous times. The first thing to do is, like we get back to it, you have to be honest. You have to have a conversation in a nonthreatening way. If you’re armed with things like customer comments and things like this, you’ve run your focus groups, you’ve got your stuff ready to go and say, “Hey, listen.”

Before you approach them with that stuff, you say, “Hey, listen. Where do you think we are? How do you think the food is? What’s your perception? What would you like to do differently? If you could start over from scratch, what would you really want to do?” Just kind of see where that person [is].

If they go, “You know I’m really tired of what we’re doing. I think we could do some cool stuff.” But if that person says to you, “Man, we’re doing everything great. Everything is perfect. There are no problems,” right off the bat you know you’re going to have a confrontation. That’s just the reality of it.

I think the first approach should be, “What do you think of what we’re doing? What would you like to do? What are some improvements that you think we could make?” Just to kind of gauge their openness to things.

Then you could say, “I’d really like to talk about where I think we can be. We’ve got some feedback recently. We’re in the process of doing a rebranding. We really want to try some new things. The industry is changing. Here’s where we’re at. I’d like you to be a part of this planning process. What do you think?” That’s how I would approach it initially.

Cynthia: Mm-hmm.

Mike: Most people, if they actually give a hoot about their jobs and if they have pride in what they do, they’re going to be on board with that approach because it’s very non-threatening.

It’s different if you say, “Man, people hate the food here. We have to change this now.” Granted, that might be a conversation you have to have at some point. But if it’s not at that point, then I don’t suggest jumping into the pot with that level of aggression. I just think you’re going to create a barrier that’s going to be hard to break down.

Cynthia: Yeah.

Mike: Getting people involved is always a good first step. Sometimes you have a decision to make. Your management team, are they leading you in the direction that you want to be led? If they’re not open to changing their style then you’ve got a problem. That’s just how it is.

Cynthia: Yeah.

Mike: I think it’s important to consider people’s capabilities. I think you would already know, honestly, at this point. If people are constantly complaining about food and you haven’t done anything about it then you’re a part of the problem, I mean just black and white. If you think that there’s a solution to it, you owe it to your residents, your staff, and everybody to address the issue, for sure.

Cynthia: Yeah. Surprisingly, the management teams in communities, I’ve seen this over and over and over. I kid you not. There is this reluctance and almost a fear of going into the dining department to say, “Hey, I’m going to do this really special event. I want my food to be like this,” because they’re inviting a younger cohort. They’re inviting 72-year-olds into their community for a cocktail party food event and the food has to be fresh. It has to be beautiful and delicious.

Mike: Sure.

Cynthia: I’ve actually been in conversations with marketing directors who are shaking in their shoes to go talk to the chef and ask for that.

Mike: Yeah.

Cynthia: I don’t know. I just think someday we need to do a whole show on that, like how to get the best out of the culinary department that we can.

Mike: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Again, having been in that role myself many times, the last thing that you want is your employees to be afraid to approach you for either ideas or suggestions. If you’re going to run your kitchen like a dictator, then you’re not going to have good stuff and you’re not going to have good employees. That right there tells me that if you’re in a situation where your marketing department has an event and they’re afraid to approach your culinary team about it, there’s probably a huge problem.

Cynthia: Yeah.

Mike: It’s probably the ego of the person who is in charge.

Cynthia: Well, this is an exciting subject, designing menus.

Mike: Yeah.

Cynthia: Which is another thing I absolutely love to do, as you know.


Cynthia: When you’re designing menus for communities, what are the elements, the most important elements to consider? How can we start to encourage creativity and innovation in menu design?

Mike: I think the most important thing to consider when talking about implementing new food is look at where you’re at. I think location is the number one most critical element. What is your area known for? Are you on the coast? Are you known for seafood? Are you Midwest? Are you known for your cattle? Are you in a super rural area that’s known for their vegetables? Are you in a really trendy, hip area that’s all cultural fusion and really high-end stuff?

You have to know what your area is known for, the very first thing, because you don’t want to go into, say, California, and the first thing that you want to put out in California is I want to have a barbeque menu. That just doesn’t make sense. It’s not what California is known for.

That doesn’t mean you can’t have Tuesday be barbeque rib day in the summertime out on the patio or something. Absolutely, but you make that an event. You make that something different.

You’re going to base your core menu ideas around what’s fresh, what’s seasonal, what’s local, and what’s easily accessible that you can get. Bringing it back that kind of farm to table element, that should be the first thing that you consider is your location.

You also have to consider the capability of your staff, the capability of your chef and your front of the house manager. You have to consider your kitchen layout, what equipment is available, what’s the size of your dining room. How many residents do you have? How many meals a day are you going to do?

How many different menu concepts will be at the facility? Are you going to run just off a cycle menu or are you going to have a pub menu? Are you going to have a light night menu? Are you going to have a separate breakfast menu?

All of those things have to kind of come into play because you have to really think about what’s the flow going to be like. How many items am I going to be putting out at one time? How many people is it going to take to pull this off?

I think that a lot of people come up with these really great ideas like, “I have this awesome menu!” Then they execute it poorly because they either don’t have the staff that’s capable of producing that or they don’t have a layout that’s conducive to that.

If you have a menu that’s designed around all sauté items and you’ve got a 6-burner stove and you have 12 sauté menu items of 20 items and one person is getting blasted with 50 pan-seared scallops all at one time, guess what. That’s just not going to go well.

You have to really look at spreading it out. Have some stuff on the grill, some stuff on the pantry station, some stuff on the sauté station, some nice cold items, some nice hot items. You have to understand how long it takes to produce this stuff. Are you going to serve appetizers? There’s just a lot of stuff that comes down to designing menus.

Cynthia: You’re so good at that. The restaurant was tiny. The kitchen was just tiny and we pumped so much food out of that kitchen and it got very hot and it got a little bit crazy at times. But you were so good at planning menus that did exactly what you’re saying. You had the sauté. You had some dishes that were ready to go. They just needed some heat.

Mike: Yeah.

Cynthia: Then you had some cold dishes. It was really a perfect method.

Mike: There has to be a balance and you have to not overwhelm the production. In that case, yeah, I remember Destino. We had a six-burner stove with a vapor hood, mind you. [Laughter] We weren’t even supposed to be doing full sauté until they came back in and recertified us for that, which they did.

But I remember thinking, “Yeah, okay, well, we have to limit the amount of sauté now because of this regulation.” We started doing things like casseroles, cassoulets. We did the pulled pork or the pork and polenta. We did cassoulets. We did baked mac and cheeses. We had soups ready to go. We had really cool salads, entrée salads.

You had stuff that you can start on low heat and not create epic amounts of fire. If you’re doing sautés and you’re deglazing with wine and things are flaming up like crazy, you have to kind of avoid that if that’s something that you’re not allowed to do, right?

You really have to look at how many items are going to come out of that kitchen at one time. What can you do ahead? It helps if you can take reservations and get a gauge on kind of what you’re looking at. In a lot of communities, yeah, they know how many residents they’re going to be feeding, so you can take a look at that. If you’re going to do a timed seating, you kind of know what time everybody is going to show up. You engineer the menu based off all the factors that you have at your disposal.

Cynthia: Yeah. It’s like a puzzle.

Mike: Yeah, and you really do have to mix it up. You can’t just do all of the same stuff all coming out of one station. Otherwise, you’ll sink.

Ruby’s on Bainbridge that I used to work at was the same setup. It was very small. We used to do 250, 300 covers on a 6-burner stove and almost everything was done on that stove but all the appetizers were pantry apps. Then you could have somebody help stage things. You have to have the right staff in place also.

If you’re going into a community and you’re designing a menu, you really have to look at the layout, the staffing, the number of residents, what kind of food and, of course, where you’re location is. Those are the key elements.

Cynthia: Those are really good tips. Okay, so now we get to talk about food—

Mike: Woo-hoo!

Cynthia: –dishes. When you think about your favorite dish or what is your favorite easy dish that you think any community could cook today that would make their residents really happy?

Mike: Well, when I think of easy dishes, I think of dishes that take less steps and that you can kind of walk away from for a while. I think a pot roast, a simple pot roast where you kind of season it up. You sear it. You throw it in your braising liquid and you let it sit in the oven for four hours. Then you come back later on after you’ve done all your side work, your prep work, and you’re ready to serve it up. It’s just falling apart. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like fall off the bone meat who is not a vegetarian, of course.

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Mike: Pot roast is not difficult to do. You throw your potatoes and your veg and your meat kind of all in one place, so that’s a good one.

Also, something like a roast, like a prime rib. Prime rib is not hard to do. Season it up. Throw it in the oven at one temp. Let it sit there for a while. Change the temperature. I like to start low first and then hit it with high heat later, kind of backward from what a lot of people are taught. But, yeah, a nice roast is good.

I think probably the number one thing that is fun to play with that has infinite possibilities is mac and cheese. You can do so much stuff with mac and cheese. Smoked gouda mac and cheese, dill Havarti mac and cheese. Maybe you want some crab or some lobster in your mac and cheese. Maybe you want a bake with like a breadcrumb crust, or maybe you just want to keep it super simple and traditional but just use really good cheese and a different shaped pasta. There are infinite possibilities with mac and cheese and I think everybody grew up eating mac and cheese in some capacity, so lots to play with on that one.

Cynthia: That’s why in any good restaurant that’s truly a boutique-y restaurant owned by the chef, they will almost always have some form of mac and cheese on the menu.

Mike: Yeah. Yeah, you’ll always see a mac and cheese. You’ll always see a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich, but maybe it’ll be like a roasted tomato bisque and an emmentaler sandwich or something like that or a croque-monsieur or something like that, some kind of a fancy grilled cheese and tomato soup. Comfort foods that you can take and just kind of elevate it to the next level.

Cynthia: Yeah.

Mike: Don’t be afraid to experiment, for sure.

Cynthia: Exactly. There are so many dishes like that like coq au vin. I think coq au vin is so easy to make and it’s an interesting dish because it’s French. It has a story. It’s delicious. It’s affordable to make. Also … (indiscernible, 00:21:28). Well, you know me. Duck breast.

Mike: Yeah, absolutely.

Cynthia: Just zip-zip, pan fry it, throw it in the oven, sauce.

Mike: Yeah.

Cynthia: From a customer service perspective, now we’re going to shift to the front of the house. Customer service, what do you see as the potential for improvement in communities? Then how could the change be implemented?

Mike: Well, you know, we kind of already talked about that a little bit, but I think more direct communication with residents. You’ve got to get their feedback. You’ve got to get their feelings. You have to actually listen to them.

We’ve all filled out comment cards at restaurants. You know that probably 90% of the time that stuff just goes right to the garbage can or the manager looks at it and pulls out all the awesome ones and throws away all the bad ones, right? They just perpetuate the problems. You have to listen to the comments, listen to the feedback, consider it, and acknowledge it, especially if people go out of their way to put their name on something.

“Hey, I’m John Smith, and I told you that my meal sucks. I expect you to get back to me on this.” Then get back to them. Bite the bullet. Suck it up. Put on your big kid pants. Face the music. Then make it better. You have to get past that.

I’m also really big on, like I said, the surveys and focus groups. That goes for employees. Again, make your employees happy. Your customer service is going to be better.

Use names. Greet, engage, thank the big get behaviors that we used to call them. Say hi to people. Engage them, and not just generic, “Hey, how’s it going, Mr. Smith?” Like, “Hey, John! Great to see you! Hope you’re excited for dinner tonight!” It doesn’t have to sound like that, but it has to be like, “I’m glad you’re here. Thanks for coming by.” Even though you’re going to see them every day, invite them back. You have to have an organic conversation with people.

That also means that you, as a manager, have to be that way with your employees. Don’t beat them down. Don’t make them feel like crap. Make them excited for the service.

Have a little pre-shift meeting. Get everybody pumped up. Let everybody get on the same page. What’s going on? Here’s what we’re doing. We’ve got 80 people coming in here. Here’s what we’ve got on the menu today. Do a tasting. Let everybody taste the food so that everybody knows what’s going on.

All that stuff leads to really good interactions. Nothing should be scripted. Everybody should feel like they can talk naturally. Don’t blow people off as grumpy, old people. You don’t treat people like they’re an inconvenience or treat them like a child. Talk to people like they’re real people.

Here’s the thing. As a kitchen guy, you have to be okay with the special requests sometimes, especially if it’s doable. I can’t tell you how many times somebody put in a request to the kitchen and the chef just freaks. “Oh, what are you doing? I’ve got this all prepared. Now you’re messing up my whole system!”

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Mike: Dude, stop being a baby. Stop freaking out. It’s not the end of the day. It’s different if somebody wants an entirely new item that’s not on the menu or things like that, but something like, “Hey, can I get those fries with no salt.” If that’s a problem for you then you need to go away.

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Mike: You know, “Hey, can I get the sauce on the side?” or, “Hey, can I get a half a portion if it’s possible?” Sure. Okay. That’s fine. Whatever.

Silly things like that that send people through the roof just blows my mind. Be accommodating in the kitchen. You’re dealing with people that sometimes have dietary needs. You have to be a little flexible.

At the same time, as far as feedback goes, if somebody says, “Hey, I’d really like to have spaghetti on the menu sometime,” then that’s what specials are for. Take some feedback. If Betty Smith from Room 127 is nostalgic about a dish and you get enough people that say I’d like to have something like that too, then create a special and say, “This is inspired by Betty today.” There you go and now you’ve got them involved in things.

Cynthia: Yeah. In Texas, It’s Kings Casserole. It was so funny. Everybody wants Kings Casserole. It’s a delicious dish and it’s the favorite regional thing that people just want it on the menu.

Mike: Yeah.

Cynthia: I remember being in a branding engagement. We were just working on research for branding, but that casserole kept coming up over and over again. The residents were mad. They would say, “Why can’t we just have Kings Casserole?”


Mike: Yeah.

Cynthia: In our presentation, we were like, “Number one, you’ve got to put this dish on the menu at least sometimes.” [Laughter]

Mike: Yeah. Of course, you know what will happen is you’ll put Kings Casserole on the menu and then Betty Smith will say, “Well, that’s not how my mom made it.” [Laughter]

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Mike: Then they’ll be made that you had the Kings Casserole but it’s not their Kings Casserole, right?

Cynthia: That happens.

Mike: Get people involved and, as far as the front goes, for customer service, make sure that the place is inviting, that it’s clean, that it’s organized, that people can navigate it, that it’s shoppable is what we say in the retail business. Make sure that your layout is friendly. Do you have a spot for walkers, for oxygen tanks? Are your tables too close together?

Their mobility sometimes is limited. The easier that you can make their job to get to the dining room, get fed, and be happy is just going to make everything better.

Look at your menus. Can they read the fonts? How is the lighting? Are people squinting when they’re looking at your stuff? All of that stuff leads to a better experience.

Really, though, it has to be organic, friendly, and sincere. That’s at the end of it. If you’re struggling in the physical capacity, you’ve got old tables or your layout is suffering, at least if you kill them with kindness – well, maybe that’s a bad phrase. If you’re super kind and friendly, then they will overlook a lot of the other faults.

Cynthia: [Laughter] Yeah, for sure. One of the customer service things I learned a long time ago about dining and it’s so true, from the moment a customer comes into your restaurant, and these are restaurants—

Mike: Right.

Cynthia: –and they sit down, there is one question on their mind and they’re thinking it the entire time. “Are you going to fulfill my needs? Can you take care of my needs?”

Mike: Yeah.

Cynthia: “Are you going to take care of my needs?”

Mike: Yeah.

Cynthia: What that results in is, like, “Am I going to get water? I need water. Are you going to remember to bring my soda?” my wine, whatever that is. “Are you going to get my order right? Are you going to bring it on time? Is the food going to be hot?”

The diners have all of these questions, and so the psychology of the very first seating, people sit down, you give them their water. If you could bring them some bread if that’s what you do, make sure they have a little crudités or something.

Mike: Yeah.

Cynthia: That immediately sets the tone for the whole customer service experience.

Mike: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Cynthia: Now, that’s a good segue into, what do you think residents want when it comes to their dining experience, from what you’ve seen?

Mike: Yeah. Again, it’s not rocket science and it blows my mind that this message gets so convoluted. Really, what people want is hot, fresh, esthetically appealing meals delivered in a reasonable time by friendly, knowledgeable people. Right? They want to be treated respectfully. They don’t want to be rushed or scolded or told no. They want to eat when they’re hungry, not because of what time it is and they’re told they have to eat at a certain time. They want options and they want to be treated as family and friends, not just residents or customers or people that you have to serve because it’s your job.

Really, they just want to relax and enjoy it. A lot of people, their dining time, that’s their social time. Nothing sucks more than being sat. I’ve been there. You go to a busy restaurant and you get sat. The place is crowded. The servers are stressed out. Then they’re just slinging your food at you as fast as possible and they’re not checking up on you. They’re not refilling your water. They’re not getting you your bread. They’re not asking you how your meal was.

It should be a relaxing, enjoyable experience. That’s what they want. They want to feel that they’re important, not that they’re in the way. I see that happening a lot where people are treated as if they’re an inconvenience. That model needs to stop.

If you see that, that has to be an aggressive conversation. That’s got to be, “Whoa! Hold on here. This is not how we do this.”

Cynthia: Mm-hmm.

Mike: If you let that happen and that perpetuates it, then that’s going to affect all other areas. People can get great food and have the service be terrible. They’ll complain about the service and that will make it sound like the food is bad, and vice versa. You can give somebody great service and then if the food is bad, it all kind of goes together. You have to really make every element harmonious to provide the ultimate experience. You can’t do that if you’re just rushing people and looking at your job like you’re just performing a role.

Cynthia: Yeah. That’s true. We’ve had some engagements where we’ve helped with front of the house service and it’s so cool to watch. We start with training the front of the house. Well, number one, asking them, “How is it going? What do you need?” Finding out, gosh, they just need some simple things. They needed new shirts because they were way too hot with the shirts in a hot climate.

Mike: Right. Right.

Cynthia: They wanted some new aprons. They didn’t have bussing stations. Their dining room is massive and they would have to walk, I kid you not, like hundreds of yards to take dishes into the kitchen.

Mike: Yeah.

Cynthia: We set up bussing stations. Here, put your dishes here, and the dishwasher is going to come out and get them or the bussers can come out and get them and you don’t have to do that anymore. That was step one.

Once the servers were respected, they were heard, and they got just a couple things that they really needed, they were so much happier. Then we gave them some tools like these are three questions. Ask the residents one of these three questions. “What did you do today, Mr. Smith?”

Mike: Right.

Cynthia: Or, “Gosh, I love that shirt. Where did you get it?” Just simple stuff. Start the conversation. Then it sets the whole tone.

Mike: Yeah, absolutely.

Cynthia: Now, we’re to the Cynthia questions, the fun questions about everybody. Everybody has to answer these. Describe your dream community. Imagine in a land far, far away and you’re 75, maybe 85 – who knows. You’re thinking, “Well, I’m ready to downsize. My giant outdoor kitchen is just too much for me now.”

Mike: [Laughter] Right.

Cynthia: [Laughter] What is your perfect community? Where do you want to live?

Mike: Well, I’ll tell you what. I’ve asked this question a lot now and I’ve got some really good answers out of this. I think my opinion has kind of been swayed by some of the really cool things that I’ve heard. But I really see it like if money was no object and we’re just going to really talk about just our crazy ideas, I would view a community like a resort. You’d have a few different concepts. You’d have kind of this all-in-one encompassing of different restaurants. There’d be activities that you could do, outdoor activities, tours, things that you could do as full-day excursions if you wanted to, things that would take into account all people’s capability levels, desires, and stuff like that.

Community involvement, get people out there to do activities in the community as well. Gardens where there are herbs and produce being grown. I would really like to have a horticulture program that can sustain at least the produce, herbal elements of the kitchen. I’d like to have chef’s tables, wine tastings, happy hours.

Here’s another cool thing. Thinking about what we’re doing right now, I would like to take this concept from colleges where we could have an in-house community radio show or podcast that’s run by the residents to kind of get out that creative thing and, to take it one step further, it’d be really cool to have a closed-circuit TV channel where you could air the in-house events and specials and have somebody host these events. Then the residents could watch this on TV and see themselves or tune into the little radio station that they could have that doesn’t require a lot of bandwidth or listen to the podcast on their in-room iPads or whatever.

Then classes and workshops where they can learn and interact. That’s kind of what I see this as.

Cynthia: Well, that sounds so cool. There are a couple of our clients like Bayview. They create their own movies, actually. They write their own script. They film their films. They have them edited and then they have a red carpet service.

I also have seen a community that does have its own radio station. It’s so cool.

Mike: Ah, how awesome is that?

Cynthia: Now, we’re going to wrap up here with the last question. What are the three things that you think a community could do today? They have to be kind of easy, like, literally, I could do these three things starting now that would make residents happy.

Mike: Sure. Yeah. Well, invest in your employees. Just talk with them. Learn from them. Give them feedback. Give it timely.

Nobody should have any surprises. Everybody should know where they’re at. Train them rather than let them fail. That’s step number one is invest in your employees.

That goes for your managers too. Make sure you pick good managers and invest in them. Make sure people know your expectations.

Number two, I would say evaluate your cheapest food possible mentality. Don’t be afraid to order good product. Don’t get it all from one place. You can bring on another vendor. You can try stuff just for specials.

Focus on using food as your selling point to actually drive census, as I learned from you recently. Use your food as a selling tool but take some pride in what you’re doing with your food.

Then step number three is, execs, administrators, culinary directors, managers should all dine in the venues themselves and welcome their staff and families to do the same because if your employees won’t ask their families to eat where they work, you know there’s a problem. It also lets the staff know that you’re kind of checking on their progress.

Don’t announce it. Don’t say, “I’m going to come on Friday at 6 o’clock with my family.” Just show up. Walk through the dining room. Walk through the kitchen. Check on stuff. Watch it in progress.

Heck, maybe – maybe – I know this is a crazy concept.

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Mike: Maybe pull a shift once in a while. Maybe if you’re a CD that you walk out there and talk to some tables. Oh, my god. I know it’s crazy. Maybe if you’re a chef, get out of the kitchen and go talk to the residents. “Hey, how was your food today? I cooked this for you.” If you’re not willing to tell somebody that I cooked this for you, then you’ve got a problem.

Cynthia: I love that idea.

Mike: Yeah, people in all departments should be wanting to eat the food that you’re serving. I think that asking people to dine in the venues not just because I get an employee meal and I’m going to sit down at the table in the kitchen and scarf it down in 30 seconds and eat on my feet or all the bad habits that kitchen people have. That’s something that I would really encourage is get all your people to dine in your venues.

Maybe give them incentive. Maybe give them a coupon that they can use once a month like a guest pass to bring a family member in and they get a discount or something like that. There are any number of ways to do it.

Cynthia: Yes.

Mike: It doesn’t cost you anything. It doesn’t take any extra time. When you see your people eating in your establishment, if your residents see your employees sitting down at a table when they’re not on shift, that sends a positive message.

Cynthia: That’s true. I would ask. I think we should make a dining challenge, and that would be for executives to dine in their dining rooms once a day for 30 days.

Mike: Yeah!

Cynthia: Every day, but they have to do it at different times.

Mike: Yeah.

Cynthia: I have seen that a lot where the kitchen goes, “Uh-oh, so-and-so is here.” [Laughter]

Mike: Yeah.

Cynthia: Then everybody scrambles. That executive does not get the same food everybody else does.

Mike: It’s the same thing you run into in the corporate environment or in retail, like, “Oh, my god. I’m going to have a regional visit on March 16th.” Then what do you do? You blow your payroll. You call every employee in. You get in the corner. You take down the cobwebs. You scrub the windowsills. You clean the baseboards. You bring in the carpet shampooer. Then that person walks in and they’re getting an experience that is not indicative of the environment that is going on 99% of the time.

Cynthia: Absolutely.

Mike: Yeah. If you want to get the real scoop, you’ve just got to show up and people have to be not ready for you. If, as a crew, you’ve got your stuff together, you should take every day and approach it like, “I could get a visit from the president today.” Every day, you should look at your operation that way. That way you’re ready for it. You don’t have to scramble for it.

Cynthia: Yeah, absolutely. Well, Mike, thank you so much. I think we could talk for days about food, recipes, and communities.

Mike: Right.

Cynthia: This has been really fun. I do have one thing and don’t worry. It’s just a thing. It’s the F-word of the senior living industry.

Mike: Uh-oh.

Cynthia: You did say it a few times, so I think you’re going to have to throw some quarters in the pot. It’s the word “facility.” As you know, we don’t say that word.

Mike: Oh, facility.

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Mike: I have to get out of that habit. Yeah.

Cynthia: It’s hard to break, but anyway.

Mike: It’s super hard.

Cynthia: I think you owe $0.75.

Mike: I will gladly throw my $0.75 into the F-word jar.


Mike: I will work on not using that, as all of you should work on that as well. Apparently, it’s a bad word.

Cynthia: It is.

Mike: I understand.

Cynthia: You’ve been amazing. You do an amazing job and you’re so creative.

Mike: Oh…

Cynthia: Your food is fantastic. Your management skills are just, you know, second to none.

Mike: Bless your soul.

Cynthia: I’m happy to have this time with you. Now, I am going to hand this back to you to be the host again.

Mike: Oh, my god.

Cynthia: Wrap this up.

Mike: Okay. I’m putting my host hat back on. If you guys like what we’re doing, don’t forget. Please, send us a comment and send us your questions. Send those emails to and we’ll answer those questions in our upcoming mailbag episodes.

Don’t forget also to follow us on Twitter, on Facebook, @3rd3rdmarketing, and also subscribe to the show on all the platforms: Spotify, iHeartRadio, iTunes, Pod Bean, you name it. If there’s a platform we’re not on, you let us know. we’ll get on there. Don’t forget also that we have this stuff posted on our 3rdThird website, so you can check out all the episodes and all the links right off our website.

Thanks again for joining us and we will talk to you next time on Cosmic Soup.


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