Food service managers feed, get feedback
Theresa Austin, food service manager, laughs when asked about some of the feedback she receives on the meals at Mother of Perpetual Help assisted living residence in Shrewsbury.
"They only remember your last meal," she said with a chuckle.
If one meal is not so popular -- she's toast, to use a food analogy.
"A lot of them will score it. I'll walk through the dining room and they give me thumbs up or thumbs down depending on what they like. They're pretty vocal about what they like or don't like," Austin said.
For example, a menu with clam chowder will not suit a lot of people, she said, but there are several others who are thrilled to see that option.
That's why Austin and the food service managers at two other residences on the Cardinal Carberry campus of Cardinal Ritter Senior Services offer a number of alternatives at each meal. And they are keenly tuned in to the likes and dislikes of their clientele, meeting informally and formally with residents or groups of residents.
"We try to make home-style dishes," Austin said. "Some of our most popular meals are things people ate at home as kids -- French-onion chuck roast, mashed potatoes, turkey and dressing, pie and cake."
At the same time, she said, a number of people have travelled around the world or are used to eating different foods. "I'm a big fan of 'other' foods. We try to sprinkle in a variety. Today we had quesadillas. One of our most popular lunch dishes is a Greek chicken caesar salad with crumbled feta cheese in it."
Diners were a little hesitant when they first tried the salad, she said, "but now they eat it up." Similarly, "we do a caesar-style tilapia instead of just breaded or fried. They like that a lot. In fact, they ask, 'When are we having that again?'"
Austin, a member of Seven Holy Founders Parish in south St. Louis County, meets once a month with residents about the menu and listens to their views. A survey was conducted listing their top five entrees, soups, salads and desserts.
With 75 residents at Mother of Perpetual Help, Austin knows that she could get 75 different likes and dislikes. But she knows what works. They like roast pork, pork chops and pork steaks. She knows that when she has barbecue chicken that some people can't handle the sauce so she offers plain chicken as well with an option of barbecue sauce on the side.
Two entrees are always offered, and she knows that sometimes one of the entrees will be more popular. But she will offer the second for the minority who enjoy that item. If they don't like or can't eat pizza, they can have the alternative sliced chicken sandwich with lettuce and tomatoes, for example.
And there's other alternatives. "They can always order an omelet, ham sandwich, grilled cheese or a combination like a grilled ham and cheese omelet with green onions, maybe. They get a lot of variety, " said Austin, who grew up in a family with seven children and started cooking at a young age.
She went into the restaurant business at age 16 and by the time she was 17 she had her mom and sister working for her. Off and on -- mostly on -- she's worked at restaurants, private clubs and for the last dozen years or so in senior living facilities. Austin has been at Mother of Perpetual Help more than seven years,
"I try to do their favorite stuff. My goal is to keep them happy and well fed," she said.
John Lewis, manager of food service at Our Lady of Life Apartments, said, "This is my passion. This is what I love to do. What I like most is working with the residents -- being able to give them what they're looking for -- it's customer service, making sure they're happy."
Lewis noted that the food staff relies on the feedback of residents. There's a comment box, and he attends council meetings. "They share with us the feedback. We do a variety of things to ensure they are happy," he said.
The aim is to provide both restaurant-type meals and familiar home-style meals, Lewis explained. "One resident told me a meal she had reminded her of the meal her mother made. She was saying how good it was. That was quite a compliment if you can mimic something from that time frame. And it gives you an idea how important food is to the residents," he said.
Food is a conversation piece, he noted.
"The feedback keeps me going. If they like something, I stick with it. If a multitude don't like it, I try to improve it or if it can't be improved to their liking I try to find something else to replace it."
The meals are rotated on a five-week cycle, with Sunday brunch on an eight-week cycle, with the cycles being seasonal. "We keep mixing it up. We don't want people to say, 'It's Thursday, we're having meatloaf.'"
The offerings include two entrees, a starch, two vegetables, fish of the day and dessert. Seven items are available a la carte, also. "We try to meet their needs. If it's as simple as a sandwich, we give it to them," said Lewis, who has been in food service 21 years, with Cardinal Ritter nine years and a manager five years.
A focus also is put on healthy food, including low-sodium bases. "They have the opportunity to choose what they want according to their health, taking everything that is healthy for them. We don't take things away though. Some people like things the way they like it. We try to accommodate to the best of our ability."
'Let's try this'
Theresa Coleman is the new kid on the food service block, having come to Mary Queen and Mother Center about a year ago.The menus rotate on a spring/summer and fall/winter cycle. "I offer a fresh eye -- 'Let's try this' -- not knowing if it will work or not. Half the time though, they say, 'Yeah, we've tried that.'"
The suggestions she makes are first pitched at food committee meetings held once a month. "The residents are encouraged to speak up, and they have no problems discussing new items. I offer suggestions and ask what they like. The residents pretty much pick the menu. I pick the recipes."
Popular menu items include spaghetti with Italian sausage, other pasta dishes, sandwiches, beef brisket, crab cakes and barbecue.
Coleman, a member of St. Gabriel Parish in south St. Louis, is a registered dietitian. At Mary Queen and Mother, a skilled nursing center, she sees the importance of residents maintaining a stable weight, even if they're not eating the healthiest option. "It doesn't matter so much when you're 95 if you're living on ham and eggs and getting multi-vitamins as long as your weight is stable."
The aim is to "keep them happy and give them what they want. If they don't like what I planned for a menu, we have an alternate choice. We also make some stuff as ordered. If you want a hamburger or a grilled-cheese sandwich, we'll grill it up."
Theresa Austin, food service manager at Mother of Perpetual Help assisted living center, provided the recipe for this meal, which has proved very popular there.
Caesar Style Tilapia
1/3 cup of Caesar salad dressing
1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 lb tilapia, thawed and blotted dry
1/3 cup salad croutons, Caesar or garlic work well,
crush croutons in food processor
Grated parmesan cheese
Mix dressing and lemon juice and spread over tilapia fillets. Sprinkle with croutons crumbs, a little parmesan cheese and dust with paprika.
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