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Learn more about Food Management's Innovator of the Month, Chicago's The Clare senior center .

Innovator of the Month: At The Clare, the senior dining program is front and center as a resident amenity

High-rise CCRC The Clare in Chicago has made premium dining upgrades a priority, something that hasn’t changed even with the coronavirus interruption.

The Clare is a premium 53-story continuous care retirement center (CCRC) located on Chicago’s Gold Coast that incorporates both independent living and life care services, the latter in Healthcare at the Terraces units that offer assisted living, memory care, rehab and skilled nursing. Sitting directly across the street from Loyola University on N. Rush Street and a block from Water Tower Place, The Clare and its dining program must compete with all the commercial dining options in the immediate vicinity even in the current coronavirus-ravaged environment.

A decade ago, it wasn’t doing a very good job of that, or of much else, resulting in diminished resident occupancy. The turnaround to once again being a desirable alternative for affluent seniors started with the transformation of the dining program into one that residents will want to stay in for and enjoy.

A renovation project, undertaken in phases, led to the creation or expansion of several dining venues in the building. They included:

  • A new full-service bar to complement The Clare’s refurbished formal restaurant, the Grafton, which also has a private dining room for up to two dozen;
  • Expansion of the formerly all-takeout casual dining venue the Bistro to add indoor and outdoor seating as well as a 24-hour c-store component called the Marketplace; and
  • A new top-floor event space called the Abbey that holds special community events such as monthly wine-pairing dinners and can also be reserved by residents for private functions or business meetings that The Clare dining staff caters.

“Our program basically skyrocketed [following the venue upgrades],” observes Francesco Tardio, director of dining services. “We now have the opportunity to be very creative with menus. We’ve been able to offer more variety and more space for events, so it’s been a very good ride.”

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The Abbey on The Clare’s top floor holds special community events such as monthly wine-pairing dinners and can also be reserved by residents for private functions or business meetings that The Clare dining staff caters.

A particular point of pride, he suggests, “is to see our residents be so proud of the dining program here. At the end of the day, we always felt we were competing more with the restaurants and hotels in the streets than the retirement communities that might be close to us, so the fact that our residents felt comfortable enough to bring their parties here and host fundraisers here was a big statement about what we’ve been able to provide them as far as service goes.”

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The Bistro’s seating includes both internal and external courtyard seating for when the weather is warm.

The upgraded dining program led a resurgence that now sees The Clare as not only nearly fully occupied with some 360 residents, most in independent living apartments, but also with a waiting list. Meanwhile, the dining venues were attracting residents and their guests during all operating hours before the COVID pandemic shut things down last spring. One venue, the Grafton, did partially reopen for in-house dining at 25% capacity of its usual 80 seats over the summer, but a resurgence of the virus in the fall forced it close down again.

The summer return to the dining room “started a little slowly,” recalls Tardio. “The first week, people were still a little skeptical, a little afraid, but eventually we were pretty much able to fill up the available tables every night we had the dining room open.”

That also pleased the dining staff, who felt the absence of regular interaction as much as the residents, he adds.

“You don’t go into this business of food and beverage because you want to work in an office,” he says. “You want to be with people, you want to hear them and see their faces as they enjoy the food you serve them. That’s a big factor that’s missing right now.”

As of late January, plans called for another partial reopening of the restaurant and its Lounge Bar for in-venue seating by reservation for lunch and dinner starting Feb. 15 in accordance with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s recent decision to allow limited onsite dining in the city’s eateries. Tardio says he’s also contemplating a breakfast pickup service with a takeout buffet where staff will do all the serving, “so there’s a bit of interaction between the staff and residents even though they can’t eat in the dining room.” Breakfast was a major socialization time pre-COVID, he notes, with many residents lingering to chat over coffee.

Delivering safe, quality meals

During the pandemic-imposed shutdown, meanwhile, The Clare’s dining program has been proceeding with a strategy of providing meal delivery services three times a day to all residents out of the Grafton’s kitchen.

It is a fairly elaborate program that offers the entire Grafton menu—with a few slight modifications to adjust for maintaining food integrity and quality during delivery—and serves all independent living residents at all three dayparts. Residents can order by email, phone or paper form, with breakfast delivery starting at 7 a.m. and going until 10:30 a.m. Lunch is served between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. and dinner between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. Breakfast time averages 140 to 145 deliveries a day. Lunch is less busy, but counts pick up again for dinner, with daily averages in the 160 to 170 range. Tardio notes that “pretty much every independent living apartment gets a delivery at least once a day.”

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The Grafton, The Clare’s fine-dining restaurant, currently serves as the source of the CCRC’s meal delivery program to independent living residents and will begin limited in-venue dining in mid-February at 25% of its normal seating capacity.

In the times in between these windows, the Marketplace in the Bistro is available with an array of fresh grab-and-go selections such as salads and sandwiches plus more substantial selections like lasagna and meatloaf in a cooler, all prepared by the culinary staff onsite, plus frozen meals and pizzas.

The Marketplace is manned for eight hours but the rest of the time there is a self-check system in which residents fill out a form indicating what they purchased. As entry to the community premises is currently restricted to residents and staff, this “honor system” is viable.

While the delivery program does encompass the entire Grafton menu, it did get a modest overhaul to better fit it for takeout, Tardio admits.

“We did have to prepare some items a little differently so they would sit better,” he says. Fortunately, the winter has allowed more emphasis on hardier selections like stews and other comfort foods, “but we still have lobster and foie gras on the menu and worked on finding containers that could present the food as well as possible. It’s hard to be amazed at foie gras in a container, but I think our chef and his staff have really done a great job of keeping the quality of the food and our standards.”

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The Bistro received a renovation that turned it from a purely takeout venue to a sit-down casual dining restaurant.

The culinarian designing the menu and overseeing production is Executive Chef Hagop Hagopian, who has been with The Clare since 2012 and has won a number of awards for his chocolate creations, Tardio notes.

“We’re very fortunate to work with a very creative, award-winning chef who has been a force pushing the program here,” he says of Hagopian. “What we offer here is very unique, not what you find typically even at luxury retirement communities. Our goal has always been to operate more like a hotel than a retirement community and so the quality of the food is different, the service way more than what you normally find. We especially miss the special events we had been able to do, like the dinners on the 53rd floor, the ballroom style dinners, and hopefully it will be something we can eventually resume.

Other amenities

Another amenity introduced by the dining program during the COVID lockdown period has been the bar cart that navigates the hallways from midafternoon through the dinner period.

“It was something we started right away [after the lockdown started] because we knew the bar was a place where people came to socialize and they love Jackie, our bartender, so we wanted to keep her engaged—and the residents engaged with he,” Tardio says. “She loves to talk to them as she’s making drinks and we wanted to continue that as much as possible.”

the-claare-why.jpgEngagement is also something the meal delivery staff tries to do but the necessity to keep moving and make the drops as quickly as possible limits that. There is also the ever-present danger of passing COVID infection though the staff is tested five times a week and all safety protocols are strictly observed. Still, efforts to offer social stimulation are ongoing.

“We’ve worked with our director of resident experience to create events through Zoom where we’ve done wine tastings or events with Jackie where she makes a cocktail while explaining its history,” Tardio offers. “We have one coming up where we’ll do a bourbon tasting via Zoom where the chefs will create a little menu that we then pair with different bourbons. We’ll talk about the bourbon and its history so there will be an educational factor with it. People will be able to ask questions and taste together.”

Other events involve residents watching movies that they pick in their apartments, while the dining team creates dishes that go with the movie’s theme. Tardio says he hopes to begin migrating some of these occasions to in-person events with limited numbers of attendees as circumstances permit

The Terraces, for which Tardio also oversees dining services, has a separate meal service operation, using a dedicated area of the Grafton production kitchen where the food is prepared and transported to kitchenettes located on each of the Terraces floors, where it is plated and then delivered to the residents.

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