Dine Out while Staying In

Florida retirement community spices up dining experience with The Bistro, a new sit-down restaurant, and food show.

FSD, Trendsetter, Mease Manor, August 2009At A Glance: Mease Manor

•400-resident continuing care retirement community in Dunedin, Fla.

•The Bistro is a new reservation-only, sit-down restaurant that is offered on a monthly basis. The menus, decor and
environment differ from the everyday dining room to create a new experience.

• A food show allowed residents a chance to taste and rate new menu items.

As the director of culinary and nutrition services at 400-resident Mease Manor, a continuing care retirement community in Dunedin, Fla., Steve Lunin tries to give his residents all the comforts they had before entering the community. One of the biggest ways Lunin is doing this is by offering a new dining option called The Bistro.

The Bistro is a reservation-only, sit-down restaurant that is offered on a monthly basis, which Lunin created to offer residents an opportunity to enjoy a restaurant dining experience without having to travel off-site. “Quite often we’ll have residents who sign up to take a trip out of the facility to go to local restaurants in the area,” Lunin says. “We will get a list of those residents who will be going. What happens is the list starts out with 50 or 60, and by the time the day comes you will have 10 because people drop out because of physical problems—they aren’t feeling well that day or they realize that they may not be able to maneuver as well.”

Lunin says he realized how frustrating and disappointing it must be for the residents to be unable to go to a restaurant for dinner. “We all look forward to eating out, no matter how often we do it,” he says. “It’s an event and it’s something that is exciting for all of us. I just decided that if our residents were not able to go out to a nice restaurant, that we could bring the restaurant here.”

So at the beginning of the year, Lunin started The Bistro to provide an upscale dining experience for Mease Manor’s residents. “We handle it like a restaurant,” Lunin says. “The residents call down and make reservations. We limit those reservations to 20 people by design because we want to keep it small and intimate and we want to give them five-star service.” The Bistro is open for residents and their families. Lunin says at one dinner, three generations of a resident’s family dined together.

Because the reservations are limited to 20 people, Lunin says there tends to be a waiting list for The Bistro; it normally takes less than six hours for the reservations to be filled. Reservations are first come, first served, but Lunin takes the names down for every resident who calls requesting a reservation. After the 20 spots are taken, a waiting list is started. If someone cancels, the first name on the waiting list is moved into the empty spot. Those people still on the waiting list are automatically put on the list for the next Bistro.

FSD, Trendsetter, Mease Manor, August 2009The Bistro is held in a private dining room located near the facility’s main dining room. Lunin says he wants residents to have a rewarding experience that is different from what is offered on a daily basis. Atmosphere plays a major part in achieving that goal. “We bring in all kinds of plants, foliage and flowers,” Lunin says. “We have different artwork. We use different china than we use in the main dining room because we want it to be special and we don’t want anything to mimic what we do on a daily basis. We use different color overlays on the tables. We have a pianist. When the residents come down they are seated by a host or hostess. The ladies are given fresh flowers.”

The menu differs from that in the main dining room as well. The evening begins with hors d’oeuvres, such as lobster pâté, scallops wrapped in bacon and stuffed mushrooms with crabmeat, while music is played. The next course is a soup, followed by a salad. Main entrée selections have included a broiled Maine lobster tail, rack of lamb, veal Oscar, Floridian red snapper and grilled halibut with a lobster sauce. A vegetable and starch is also served with the entrée. A selection of desserts is presented on a cart, with options such as a Jack Daniels chocolate cake, key lime pie and bananas foster. “We do things that you would not typically find in a retirement community, but items that you would find in an upscale restaurant, which is exactly the environment we are looking to create,” Lunin says about the menu.

Lunin says as the popularity and demand for The Bistro increases, the service could be offered more frequently. “We’ve gotten phone calls from people outside the facility saying that they had heard about it and wondering if they could make reservations,” Lunin says. “We’ve told them that it’s just for our residents right now. We might open it up to the public later. It’s quite a compliment to everyone involved, because you can imagine that it takes a lot to do this. I’ve had residents tell me that they thought they would never be able to go out to a restaurant again for different reasons but mostly because of physical limitations. They say we’ve given that back to them. They say they really do forget that they are in their own homes and that they aren’t in a real restaurant.” 

With the new dining service, Lunin says he is always looking for new items to introduce to the menu. One way Lunin has found new items to add was by holding a food show last February. For the show, 15 vendors brought new items for the residents to sample. More than 100 residents attended the event and tasted items ranging from buffalo venison to the Jack Daniels chocolate cake that has since been added to The Bistro’s menu.

After the show, residents filled out surveys rating the food items. From the results, Lunin was able to see which items the residents would like to see added to their menus. “My feeling is that these are their menus so they should have a voice,” he says. “The food show gave us the opportunity to put on a real nice event for our residents, but it also gave me the opportunity to try some new items that I was anticipating putting on the menu. I was able to do so without just putting them on the menu and hoping for the best.”

Lunin says he was surprised that the residents responded so well to some of the more exotic meats like the buffalo venison. “We’re going to do some buffalo burgers. It is a little too pricey to put on the everyday menu, but my philosophy is when we find something that the residents really enjoy, I’m not going to let price stand in the way. This is their home, and we are guests in their home. So if it’s something that they enjoy, we are going to provide it for them.”

The food show also provided an opportunity for students from local middle schools who are interested in a culinary career to learn more about the industry. The students spent the afternoon tasting and learning about the foods, and Lunin says the event also showed the students that being a chef doesn’t mean you have to work in a commercial restaurant.

Lunin says the community’s first food show was a success. “The residents asked if we could do this on a monthly basis, to which I almost collapsed. It’s a lot of work. But I said it would definitely be an annual event.”

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