When the coronavirus pandemic forced Pennswood Village, a retirement community in Newtown, Pa., to close its doors to visitors, the culinary staff started talking about how to keep residents safe while providing consistency and comfort during an uncertain time.
Dining Services Director Mary Cooley says the dining team ultimately decided to honor its menu, offering the same foods they always serve.
“We have a strong culinary team and a robust cycle menu,” Cooley says. “All of our fish comes in fresh. All the chicken is organic, free-range chicken. We work closely with local vendors. We’re really fortunate to have the support and the resources here to provide very high-quality food.” As long as supply chains held up, they would continue to offer grilled items and sandwiches to order, hot entrées, housemade soups and a full complement of salads and other sides.
Of course, not everything was the same. They closed all four of their sit-down dining rooms and are still serving all meals from a single venue, the cafeteria. It took them about two weeks to fully implement changes, such as social-distancing practices, individually packaged condiments and the removal of as many touch points as possible. To further protect residents, they created separate staff and resident meal spaces by placing a staff-only buffet in the otherwise unused main dining room.
Photo: The culinary team at Pennswood Village decided to keep its menu consistent to offer comfort to residents.
While many neighboring retirement communities chose to quarantine residents and deliver all meals to their doors, Pennswood Village opted to keep in-person takeout open. Residents can order meals for delivery. But they can also walk to the cafeteria as they always have, order in person and wait for their order to be packed up. One of the most significant challenges they’ve faced is to-go packaging that preserves plating appeal. For instance, instead of a generic cup for their Vietnamese salad, they opted for a disposable plate with a clear dome cover to show off the beauty of the meal. But they never found a good option for the bouillabaisse; they deliver it in a plain quart container.
To keep meals consistent, they made one significant purchase. When they saw that prices on beef and pork were expected to fluctuate, they calculated the cost of a huge bulk order of the proteins—enough to get them through the summer—and received permission to make the investment. The supply lasted through September.
Asked if they ran into other supply issues, certified executive chef Steve Plescha says there were shortages of dairy products, such as heavy cream and certain types of yogurt. But local ingredients were consistent. One fish vendor even agreed to package between 40 and 100 five-ounce portions of salmon every week, making it easier for residents to cook single portions in their own apartments.
Photo: The staff has tried to preserve plating appeal, even with to-go options.
The staff has also expanded their grocery service. Before the shutdown, residents were able to order staples such as sugar, tea bags and oatmeal from the cafeteria and pick it up a few days later. Now they’ve formalized the process. Residents order using an app or call in their orders for delivery three times a week.
To provide fresh produce options, the culinary team arranges a selection of produce at a weekly stand, like a fresh-air market. Cooley says they have up to 30 types of produce at a time for residents to purchase in person or order for delivery. They opt for locally grown products as often as possible, such as peaches and blueberries from New Jersey, tomatoes from Lancaster and Pennsylvania apples. It’s been an effective way to give residents access to fresh foods while helping them limit errands outside the community.
Once the summer heat ebbed in September, they opened up a 30-seat patio sit-down, full-service distanced dining. They offer two seatings a day.
When they first introduced it, residents were a little reluctant to participate. But now it’s “wonderfully popular,” Cooley says.
Photo: Each week, the staff sets up a produce stand so residents can purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. They will also deliver fresh produce to residents’ doors.
Residents must make a reservation and name each person who will be at their four-person table (for tracking purposes). Staff members check temperatures on arrival. They limit seating duration to one hour to limit exposure.
They’ve also opened outdoor dining spaces for morning coffee and individually wrapped pastries, including a pocket patio with 16-seat capacity and a patio extension that seats up to 30 guests.
If the weather cooperates, Cooley says they’ll continue outdoor dining until November. And they hope to start limited indoor dining to help residents get through the winter.
“I’m just very appreciative of working in this community. We all want to know what we can do to make it the best as possible.”