In-house Food Tasting Livens Up More than the Menu

St. Cabrini Nursing Home creates excitement with an in-house food show

Cabrini of Westchester’s chef, John Hammer and
resident, Helen Kontak, enjoying the food show

Nursing homes are not typically known for their cutting-edge culinary offerings, but that may change if St. Cabrini Nursing Home in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. is any indication.

Using the concept of a commercial food show as a stepping off point, St. Cabrini Food & Nutrition Services DirectorJoseph Bisaccia and Chef Supervisor John Hammer (shown with resident Helen Kontak, enjoying the food show) transformed the nursing home’s multipurpose room into an on-site tasting exhibition for residents.

St. Cabrini’s main foods provider, Ace Endico Food Service Specialists, collaborated on the 10-vendor exhibition of tasting dishes, from beverages and breakfast items to entrees and desserts.

As a result of the food show, St. Cabrini has already ordered several new items, including Fire Roasted Southwestern Pollack, Island Grill Tilapia, Hormel Always Tender Pork Loins, Oatmeal Pancakes, Sweet Potato Patties, Collard Greens and Zucchini Sticks.

Wanted: greater variety: The idea for an in-house food show unfolded as Bisaccia and Hammer explored ways to meet the resident Food Committee’s appeal for greater variety.

“It was around food show time, so I thought, ‘why not hold one right here,’” explains Hammer, who came up with the concept.

The food-tasting event fits in neatly with the administration’s mandate to offer a more home-like environment, and give residents, staff and family the chance to make choices based on personal preferences and collaboration.

Hammer, a 30-year veteran of the hospitality industry, has fully embraced this philosophy, even referring to residents as guests. “And the guest is No. one,” he asserts.

Food show format: The day of the event the room was set up in a typical food show format, with tables for all the brokers lining the room’s perimeter. Logistics of preparing food products, along with heating, refrigeration and display options, were discussed with all the brokers prior to the show.

Of the nursing home’s 304 residents, 100 were asked to participate, based on their dietary restrictions and willingness to share opinions, and whether or not they were ambulatory.

 “Our intention was for the event to resemble a real food show, with vendors (brokers) setting up different displays,” explains Bisaccia. “We envisioned two shifts: from 11a.m. -12p.m. and a second shift from 12p.m.– 1p.m. The problem was, though, that residents didn’t want to leave! Most of our residents are in wheelchairs, they wanted to come in and get cozy and sit for a while. We didn’t have enough tables for all the participants.”

There was an “overwhelming positive response,” to the event, says Bisaccia. “We had a questionnaire that residents filled out, asking whether or not they liked what they had sampled,” he says. “They liked everything.”

In addition to the new menu items, the event yielded several other benefits. For residents, it was a self-esteem booster, allowing them to be more involved and make decisions on food choices at the nursing home. 

The experience was an eye-opener for the brokers.

“Usually, it is just the chef and I that attend food shows; this event gave the brokers an opportunity to see what type of clientele we are providing for on a daily basis,” says Bisaccia. “It gave the residents the opportunity to talk to the broker and the broker the opportunity to talk to the residents. Brokers were able to see the smiles on the residents’ faces. ”

The day's festivities opened up avenues that traditionally aren't a part of St. Cabrini's food-buying process.

“Most of the time we don’t deal directly with a broker, we go through a distributor,” says Bisaccia. “When the brokers can come into your house and see your operation, it creates a very different feeling.”

The brokers also worked and mingled with St. Cabrini’s kitchen staff, which still had to serve 1,000 meals that day. “There was a lot of hustle and bustle, a lot of back and forth. It was fun watching them work with our staff,” says Bisaccia. “It was a great atmosphere all around.”

Given the event’s success, residents are clamoring for more of the same, and St. Cabrini is considering making the food show an annual affair.

“While it is a very complex program to set up, the benefits to our residents make it all worthwhile,” notes Bisaccia. “We are also considering a scaled-down version, whereas we would invite a few food brokers in to do a taste-testing on new products with our residents on different occasions throughout the year.”