The hippest bistro on the block

about thyme entrance

About Thyme is a new bistro focused on takeout offerings, where diners can grab a hot panini to go, taste the locally sourced pizza of the week or linger with a specialty coffee drink over a new magazine. But this cafe isn’t in a trendy office building or a college residence hall—it’s the hot new location at a senior living community.

The 40-seat takeaway concept is the talk of Menno Haven Retirement Community’s Brookview location in Chambersburg, Pa. About Thyme Bistro opened in April to great success, with residents and staffers alike eating up deli sandwiches, custom smoothies, locally sourced salads and other items in line with contemporary dining trends.

About Thyme took over a previous concept, Brookview Coffee Shop, after staffers realized many of the community’s 600 independent living residents enjoyed the option to take a meal back to their cottages.

“It was, frankly, just a place in a hallway before,” says Jeremy Fry, general manager of dining services for Cura Hospitality, which manages Menno Haven Brookview’s foodservice. “The space was small, with people spilling out in the hallway, and we couldn’t do much more than a turkey sandwich or grilled cheese type of menu. We knew if we could get just a little more room, we could make the space far more comfortable and offer more options, which we expected would increase our sales.”

But the Cura Hospitality team (part of the Elior North America family of foodservice brands) never expected such an immediate success. They projected about a 10-12% increase in net sales for About Thyme compared to Brookview Coffee Shop a year earlier. Instead, monthly sales have been as much as 31% higher year over year.

“About Thyme just took off, far beyond what we could have hoped for,” Fry says. “We had success with grab-and-go coolers at other locations in the past, with people taking out premade salads and parfaits. When we saw even that tiny change increased sales, we knew we had to start brainstorming.”

More choice—and more space

about thyme residents

Brookview Coffee Shop was ripe for renovating. Only 28 square feet, the space didn’t allow for a varied menu; and with people sometimes awkwardly waiting in line in the hallway, it was hardly a place that residents’ families would select for an extended visit. Cura and Menno Haven began with a resident focus group to find out what they would like instead.

“We’re very conscious that this is [the residents’] home, and they need to be on
board with whatever we create, so we began the design phase with them,” Fry says. “They didn’t want us to reinvent the wheel too much or gut the menu. Overwhelmingly, they wanted more choice, and more space.”

However, given space restrictions, About Thyme was able to carve out just 10 more square feet for a total of 38 square feet—and that addition would have to be annexed from the community’s library. So staffers had to get creative: They decided to add bookshelves to the bistro to make up for the lost library space, and Fry’s team focused on powerhouse multipurpose equipment to achieve more cooking methods from a single device. In the previous concept, foods were sometimes prepared in the main kitchen and brought over to the cafe; but the relatively small space also ensures that “food is served as close to the preparation as possible, which is always a marked increase in quality,” he says.

Most of the design work focused on the flow, Fry says. “Our No. 1 goal was for people not to be standing out in the hallway, clogging traffic there. We gained more operational space but not that much seating, which is OK by us because about 65% of our sales are to go.”

Serving a wide range of ages and tastes

about thyme coffee

Perhaps most surprisingly, About Thyme’s sales aren’t cannibalizing that of other locations. In August, for example, the bistro notched 500 more transactions compared to Brookview Coffee Shop in the same month last year—with no decrease at other Menno Haven eateries.

Cura District Manager Greg Poletti, who worked on the About Thyme concept and launch, credits “the focus on the menu to appeal to different populations: residents, staffers and guests. You’re talking about a wide range in ages and tastes, and we want all of them to feel drawn to dine here.” Polling the residents was a core part of ensuring that appeal, Poletti says. Menno Haven even ran a contest to name the bistro, which helped residents feel more invested in its creation.

The operational changes did require some retraining of culinary staffers, Fry says; but the tougher part has been “training” residents.

“We’ve had some people say, ‘I just want to get a Coke and now I have to wait behind three people waiting for sandwiches?’ And the answer is no, you don’t, of course. Buying your drink while someone else is waiting for their hot sandwich isn’t cutting in line, but everybody wants to be polite, so that’s taken some breaking of habit,” Fry says.

Residents have also pushed the dining team to continue sourcing ingredients locally—hyperlocally, that is. “Typically, the term ‘local’ means about 50-70 miles, but a good portion of our residents have grown up in Chambersburg, so if it’s not here in the county they don’t consider it local,” Fry says. “Residents want to know exactly which farm it’s from, so we’re proud to work with people who are right down the street. It’s truly a community effort.”

Meet the FSD: Jeremy Fry

fsd of the month

General Manager of Dining Services, Cura Hospitality

Q: What are your goals for About Thyme Bistro over the next year?

A: In these first several months, our revenue increases have been way above our expectations, and we’d like to stay on the same path: at least 15% year-over-year increase each month. This might sound contrary to [the first goal], but my secondary goal is not to have a line out the door. We designed About Thyme so people wouldn’t have to be stuck in the hallway; so if we can increase transactions and sales, yet keep things moving so people aren’t spilling out of the bistro, we know it was designed well.

At a Glance: About Thyme Bistro
Menno Haven Retirement Community, Chambersburg, Pa.

  • Number of residents: 600
  • Number of seats: 40
  • Percentage of overall takeout sales: 65%
  • Highest year-over-year increase in monthly sales since the revamped concept launched: 31% (The team is aiming for at least 15% a month.)
  • Replaced a coffee shop with a full-fledged bistro serving custom smoothies, locally sourced salads and more
  • Held a contest among residents to provide a name for the new concept
  • Added the ability to prepare hot food on-site instead of delivering from the main kitchen, improving quality and experience

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