Robert Darrah: Going for Gold
Robert Darrah often uses sports analogies to describe the foodservice program at the Legacy Retirement Communities in Lincoln, Neb. “We’re going for the gold. We want the perfect 10,” Darrah says. That competitive quality has served Darrah well in his 10 years as foodservice director at the four facilities that make up the company. When he was hired, the department was struggling, but now, resident satisfaction is at 98% and Darrah managed to shave $120,000 off his operating costs, even with the current challenging economic climate.
Beginnings: Darrah began his career working in Lincoln area restaurants during high school and college until realizing the atmosphere was not for him long-term. “Everything was profit driven and it just didn’t seem like the career path I wanted to take,” he says. Darrah moved into the noncommercial market after a friend referred him for a position at an area hospital. It was here that Darrah learned the clinical nutritionside of foodservice. A few years later, the position at Legacy “found” him.
“The Legacy owners were looking for someone who had a restaurant background and a nutrition background, but they didn’t want a restaurant manager,” he says. “They wanted somebody who had the complete package with a little bit of a human resources background, but also with business knowledge behind the scenes.”
In 1998, Darrah joined the Legacy team, taking over three 200-resident retirement communities and one 50-resident Alzheimer’s care center. He inherited an operation that was faltering financially and had issues with high employee turnover and theft. “The first thing I said was, ‘I am going to run this kitchen as it were my own business and the decisions that I make will be as if I was spending my own money,’” he says. From that point on, Darrah has been building a foodservice program that he hopes will “outshine all the other retirement communities, not only in Lincoln but also in the Midwest.”
Last year, Darrah thought the program at Legacy was getting close to that goal, but his competitive nature wouldn’t let him stop there. “Resident satisfaction scores were an average of 90% and the owners were happy,” Darrah says. “But it seemed like there was something missing and we wanted to know, how we rank and compare to other retirement communities across the country.”
Good to best: To help improve Legacy further, Darrah partnered with Don Miller & Associates, a healthcare foodservice consulting firm, in December 2007. “They were taken back. They said, ‘You don’t have any financial problems, you don’t have any satisfaction problems, why are you calling us?’” Darrah recalls. His response: “We want to be the best.”
Don Miller & Associates confirmed Darrah’s suspicion that Legacy was doing good things with its foodservice program but that improvements could still be made. The main suggestion was switching from banquet style dining to restaurant style dining. Residents were selecting dinner entrées one week in advance and were served much like at a catered event. Now, residents are seated at white tablecloth-adorned tables and served by waiters who take their orders at the point of service.
Before the switch could be implemented, however, changes had to made in the facilities and with the staff. Darrah worked closely with Don Miller & Associates’ John Giambaressi, executive director for senior dining, to set up a game plan. “It was kind of like a football team. He gave us the playbook. We studied it, we practiced it and then we went out and we did it,” Darrah says about working with Giambaressi.