Mary Cooley: Do the little things

By 
Paul King, Editor

Measuring foodservice success often depends on the type of facility being measured. In a university setting, success can be based on revenue, or the amount of money returned to the university. In a corporation, it may hinge on the strength of the bottom line. In a hospital, patient satisfaction scores might be the prime determinant.

In senior living, the X factor can be as simple as forging a bond between staff and residents. That certainly has been true at Pennswood Village, in Newtown, Pa., where Mary Cooley, R.D., has been the foodservice director for the past two years.

Pennswood Village, a Quaker community, is a 450-resident continuing care retirement community nestled in farm country north of Philadelphia. All but 90 of the residents are independent, with the remainder residing in assisted living or nursing units on site. Although apartments come equipped with kitchens, 80% of the residents partake of at least one community meal a day.

The foodservice facilities consist of a formal dining room, which is open for dinner only; two dining rooms connected to the assisted living and healthcare facilities that are open for lunch and dinner, and a café that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner to staff and residents who are looking for a casual setting or a quick meal on the go.

Tray service is also available for residents who are unable to come to a dining area. According to Cooley, about half of the meals served to residents are in the café, and 24% of the meal service is done in the main dining room.

Residents who choose a meal plan pay a monthly fee and a $5 charge for each meal they eat. Residents who opt out of a meal plan may also choose to eat in the communal setting at an additional charge. Cooley’s team—48 full-time employees and another 60 or so part timers—also will do catered events for residents.

For Cooley, after more than two decades in hospital foodservice, working at Pennswood Village has been a slice of heaven.

“Moving from a corporate setting to a Quaker-based organization and philosophy has been a neat transition,” says Cooley. “The most dramatic example I can think of: When you go to a planning meeting with corporate administrators, you present your plan and they want to know how much it is going to cost, what is the cost-benefit. The focus would always be on the bottom line, and secondary would be, well what’s the goal of the program?

“When I went to my first planning meeting here, they started the meeting with a moment of silence and contemplation,” she recalls. “Then we looked at the strategic plan and it was, ‘let’s talk about our mission. What are our goals here? What else do we need to do? What other aspects should we consider?’ This went on for about an hour and a half, and the last part of the conversation was, ‘OK, how much is this going to cost?’”

As refreshing as the new job may have been, it was not without its challenges, which Cooley has handled masterfully.

FoodService Director - FSD of the Month - Mary Cooley“When I interviewed for the position, I was told they were looking for a strong leader to take a talented team  out of the “silo syndrome,” Cooley says. “What they meant was, within foodservice there was the healthcare group, the production group, the front-of-the-house group and the back-of-the-house group. They were decentralized to the point where each group kept its own employee files.”

To rectify that situation, Cooley simply insisted on communication.

“We didn’t do anything earth-shattering,” she says. “Just a lot of talking. I told them we were going to sit down as a team and do all our goals for the year. We would hold weekly or twice weekly management team meetings as we got up and running, and at least monthly employee meetings so that we could get communication flowing again, get everyone on the same page.”

But Cooley knew that bringing everyone together in the same room wasn’t enough. So she declared the meeting space “a free zone.” Anything and everything could be put on the table to be discussed.

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