Lesha Colin: Community Activist

When Lesha Colin was in high school in Philadelphia, she dreamed of running a hotel, perhaps something on the order of The Sands in nearby Atlantic City, N.J. Today, as fate would have it, she brings upscale dining and a touch of show biz flair to Winchester Gardens, a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in Maplewood, N.J. This Sodexo Senior Services account, just about 10 miles from New York City, is home to 240 independent and 90 assisted living residents.

Shortly before she graduated from Widener University in Chester, Pa., where she earned her BS degree in hotel and restaurant management, Colin’s mother died. Being an only child and grandchild, when she graduated she took a job with Philadelphia-based Aramark Corp., so she could remain close to her family. After working at Aramark for a year and a half in the B&I sector, she left to join Marriott Management Services, once again in the B&I sector. But 11 years ago, Colin got married and moved to New Jersey, which meant finding another job. Her new position, with The Wood Co., finally brought her into the realm of senior dining.

The subsequent acquisition of The Wood Co. by Sodexo in 2001 fortuitously provided a larger stage—and broader recognition—for Colin’s management skills. Pat Connolly, president of Sodexho Senior Services Division asserts: “Few employees so thoroughly embody our mission of improving the lives of residents as Lesha Colin at Winchester Gardens.”

Urgent issues: Five and a half years ago, when Colin arrived at Winchester Gardens, the list of challenges she faced was fairly extensive, she recalls. For example, production and inventory systems were not in place in the back of the house, and turnover among the wait staff and management was high. (Overall, there are about 100 foodservice staff members, including hourly employees and managers.)

“Sodexo’s Quality Management Systems [QMS] weren’t being adhered to since the company hadn’t been able to find the correct manager to turn it over and make it a successful unit,” she recalls. “At the outset, everything was urgent, but little by little, within three to six months, I started to see good changes in the dining rooms. I hired an executive chef and sous chef, implemented new production and inventory systems, and I was able to delegate responsibilities to my five-member management team: assistant director, healthcare manager, dining room manager, executive chef and a sous chef.”

Wait for the beep: In the front of the house, there were several food quality and service issues. One of them was the complaint from many residents that they often had to wait to get into the main dining room for dinner. Borrowing a restaurant solution, Colin implemented a beeper system. Since the main dining room opens at 5 p.m., with seating until 7 p.m., residents can come down any time they like, receive a beeper at the host stand, then wait in the adjoining cocktail area to be paged. As a monotony breaker, free wine, beer and snacks are provided in this space Friday evenings, with non-alcoholic beverages and snacks offered on Tuesdays. However, residents can bring their own liquor any evening, and many of them store their private stock in a cabinet provided in that area.

Since many independent living residents are out and about during the day, lunch doesn’t typically draw a crowd. “We do have the Grill Room open for lunch seven days a week from noon to 1:30 p.m. We also implemented an ‘early evening’ grill program from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. with 10 selections menued,” Colin points out. “Everything is made to order, from liver and onions to grilled fish and eggplant parmigiana. Only about 10 people come each week between 1:30 and 3:30. For lunch, we serve anywhere from 20 to 40 each day and more on the weekends, since residents [often] come with their families.”

For special occasions, residents are welcome to make reservations to dine in the more formal setting of the 35-seat Wintergarden Room, which adjoins the main dining room.

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