Senior community operators like Erickson Living have a special mission during the coronavirus crisis in that they are responsible for perhaps the most vulnerable demographic when it comes to the virus. To that end, the company, which operates over 106 dining outlets across its system, including some of the largest senior living communities in the country, implemented a comprehensive meal program at all of them beginning the week of March 17th.
That week began with an initial two-day phase during which dining was limited to carry-out at community dining outlets to give time to the dining teams to change procedures and procurement strategies. Then, beginning the 20th, all dining outlets were totally shuttered and 100% delivery to individual units began.
“All the meals are delivered to everyone regardless of meal plan,” explains Kevin Bunn Erickson’s vice president for dining services. “It includes a meal a day plus breakfast and snacks to every resident on campus.”
In addition, there is a new concierge program instituted for the crisis that delivers groceries and non-food disposables like toilet paper and napkins to residents, sourced through Erickson’s dining procurement arm. The program also delivers mail, newspapers and even prescriptions as many Erickson properties incorporate a CVS pharmacy on their grounds.
The delivered meals, meanwhile, include two starters (generally soup and salad) with an entrée, two sides (vegetable and starch) plus dessert and beverages.
“That’s traditionally what we provide in our meal program,” Bunn says, “but now we’re also providing a breakfast and snack as well so we can give more substance for our residents so that they won’t have to venture out as much as they might need to in other circumstances.”
The delivered meals encompass a choice of offerings, which is based on the menu approach Erickson had already developed recently.
“Over the last few years, we’ve transitioned our entire dining program away from traditional retirement living or healthcare dining based on batch cooking to all cook-to-order,” Bunn explains. “There are usually about 25 items on our menu to increase variety for residents similar to what they would experience in a traditional restaurant. Now, we did need to reduce that variety somewhat in order to be able to prepare the mass quantities we need to make, but what we’ve tried to do is [still provide plenty of variety].”
Among the challenges in converting to more of a quantity-production type of operation was that most of the equipment at the properties was designed for cook-to-order operations, Bunn notes. “We don’t have many kettles or tilt skillets or large ovens. Instead, we have a lot of grills and flattops and ranges, things traditional restaurants have, so we had to be very strategic in building our [delivery] menus.”
Fortunately, every Erickson property has a professional executive chef, which made the transition smoother by having it overseen and guided by an experienced hand.
The menus are for three days at a time with five main options on each, with each conforming to Erickson’s dining program pillars of quality, variety, service and temperature. That not only provides choice but helps meet dietary and food preference needs as well, says Bunn.
“We wanted to make sure that we could meet those pillars even in this delivery program because we felt we owed it to our residents, our customers, to provide them with that service if we could,” he offers, noting that one of the options on every menu is a clean-eating item that is free of gluten as well other allergens.
The company also strives to include a vegetarian dish, though that is more challenging because many such dishes don’t hold up very well under the delivery program constraints.
Photo credit: Erickson Living
Photo: Erickson Charlestown retirement community Concierge Manager Gregory Johnson prepares to deliver shopping items to residents’ apartments.
“What we have been able to do,” Bunn says, “is work with our executive chefs at each of our communities as well as with our corporate executive chef to select some vegetarian dishes that do hold up a little better so that we could still provide residents with a quality meal and not just something that isn’t going to hold well.”
Notably, every menu includes a salmon dish.
“It was something we were striving towards when we were building this, and it turned out we were able to do it thanks to our vendor partnership with Sysco. It’s been wonderful for the residents because salmon has traditionally been our No. 1 seller over time, and to be able to provide it in the delivery package is pretty nice.”
Residents order the meals off a form they leave outside their units for pickup on the mail shelf, which is also where the food is left.
“Both when we pick up the form and when we drop the food off, we don’t interact with the resident,” Bunn emphasizes. “If an order form is not left out, the resident is called to double check if everything is OK.”
When a food delivery is made, the dining staffer knocks on the door before leaving the bag and then circles back a little later to make sure all deliveries have been retrieved. Anything still out is taken back to the production kitchen and the resident called to schedule an individual delivery time when they will be available.
Erickson properties are usually structured around “neighborhoods” with each having several dining outlets, but the delivered meals are now all being produced in the main dining outlet’s kitchen, which is generally the largest.
“One advantage of this is that we’re able to take staff members from the smaller outlets that are now closed and incorporate them into the main kitchen production [operation],” Bunn says. “By adding these employees to the main kitchen, we were able to break them up into A and B teams to shrink the risk because the teams don’t interact.”
Through all of this, Erickson has not furloughed or laid any staff off, Bunn proudly notes.
Because the properties had to switch to a 100% delivery model literally in a matter of days, they had to improvise on modes of transporting the food. One thing that came into use was the mobile racks usually used in the kitchens for storage, but which now were drafted to transport meals down hallways. The meals, meanwhile, are served exclusively in disposable packaging—compostable as much as possible under the circumstances—so nothing has to be backhauled.