WAUWATOSA, Wis.—Justin Johnson is on a mission to change the way the foodservice department at Harwood Place, an independent living retirement company operates. The community has about 200 independent living apartments and 32 assisted living apartments. Johnson came to Harwood Place in January 2008 as the community’s executive chef. During the past three years, Johnson, who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago, has tried to take a staid dining program and make it fresh for the residents.
“When I came here, the food program was what you would expect from a retirement community,” Johnson said. “It was very institutional. Everything was brought
in premade, frozen or powdered. I was hired to bring a restaurant kind of vibe to the dining program.”
Changing directions: The first step was to do an audit of the kitchen and dining facilities. “A lot of things were old and sort of run down, so we made all of those upgrades so we could start anew,” he said. “We got everything cleaned up and we made sure that the environment was workable and up to code and to date in terms of equipment.”
After creating the right work environment, Johnson moved on to training the staff. “When you are cooking institutional types of foods you don’t really necessarily need somebody who knows how to cook,” he said. “We didn’t end up having to relieve anybody; we just had to evaluate where everybody was so we could figure out what our starting point was.”
Johnson shut down the dining operations for three days to conduct an intensive three-day culinary training for his staff. During the training, the staff learned basics such as cooking potatoes, making soup and preparing fish and meat. “We took it really slow and we implemented, at first, simple dishes and sandwiches and soups, things that we
felt that they could handle,” Johnson said. “Over the course of a six-month period, because this doesn’t happen overnight, we got rid of all the frozen meats, frozen vegetables and powdered applications and we implemented a full scratch kitchen.”
After the initial menu revamp, Johnson said he slowly added newer, more complicated dishes to the menu cycle. “Over the last couple of years, every month or so, we just turn up the heat a little bit.”
Not the same old, same old: Johnson described the dining program’s cuisine as new American with a French backbone because of his culinary training from Le Cordon Bleu. There is a four-week menu rotation, with two daily specials that change every day. There is always a soup and salad of the day, two entrées and an in-house made dessert. All pastries are made in house.
“Everything that we do is original,” Johnson said. “We don’t do meatloaf and mashed potatoes. We brought our resident along slowly with us as we’ve advanced the program. When we first started doing all of our foods from scratch, our meals were a little bit more along the lines of traditional things like chicken and dumplings or chicken Parmesan.”
The menu now consists of items like a grilled jumbo prawn with a bean ragout and sautéed watercress, and za’atar lamb loin chop with yellow heirloom tomato confit, basil oil and black sesame seeds.
“As residents have patronized our dining program more and more they’ve wanted to see more and more new things,” Johnson said. “It’s sort of a contradiction in a way because you think of these older folks in their seventies and eighties that you think want old, traditional, simple kinds of food. We do have some of that kind of food, but the majority of the people who come to our dining room will say, ‘surprise us’ or ‘what’s new.’ We’ve come into a sweet spot with our residents. We’re not pushing the envelope to the point where we’re doing molecular gastronomy or foams; everything is wholesome and recognizable to our residents.”
The service style also changed. Residents used to get their meals from steam tables on a tray line. Nothing was made to order. Now residents receive meals that are made to order.
A recent addition is a prix fixe menu, which Johnson said has been very popular with the residents. “We were doing an à la carte menu,” he said. “We felt that because our residents are always looking to save money that they wouldn’t try our soup or dessert because it was an additional dollar or two.”
Now residents can get a $12 prix fixe menu that includes a soup or salad, an entrée, a beverage and a dessert. Johnson said since starting the prix fixe menu, the number of residents dining at the café have increased, even during the summer months, which are typically slower months for the dining program in terms of participation. For example, on one Tuesday night last month, there were 75 reservations for dinner. Johnson said on a normal Tuesday summer night, there would have been between 30 or 40 reservations.
“In a community of 200 people, to do 70 that’s pretty good,” he said. “We’re catching almost 50% of our population, which is big because they are not necessarily captive.” Residents are required to spend $1,000 a year in the dining room. After that they can eat whenever they want. “The onus is to keep things fresh and new and to reinvent our program so that people are interested in coming down and not inclined to go out to our neighborhood restaurants as much,” Johnson said.
One way Johnson keeps the menus fresh is by using as many local and “conscientious” products as possible. The majority of the produce, when in season, is local. Chicken is hormone and antibiotic free. Fish is fresh and local when possible and the pork is an all-natural product with no artificial qualities. Johnson purchases all beef products from Meyer in Loveland, Colo., which he said is the only certified humane mass producer of cattle in the United States.
Price increases: Because of the changes to the dining program, Johnson did have to
increase prices, but he said prices in the community had not been raised in almost 15 years. “What they were charging residents for food was totally out of whack with where the economy was,” he said. “Someone might have been able to come down and get a filet mignon for $5.95, which doesn’t even cover the cost of the steak.”
Prices were increased between 20% and 30% across the board. Johnson said the price increases were designed to cover costs and not to create a profit. “We are a nonprofit organization so we don’t have to worry about pricing beyond our cost,” he said. “All we have to worry about is coming in below budget, and we are budgeted to break even.”
Johnson said initially there were some complaints about the price increases, but he said after residents saw the changes to the program, the complaints died down. “We initially saw a drop in our patronage,” he said. “We had to show the residents why we were doing this and that and yes, you are going to be paying more money, but it is for a far better product. Over a period of several months we were able to justify our price increases by showing them bright, fresh, vibrant, flavorful food.”