Robert Darrah: Going for Gold
To accommodate the change, the layout of the dining rooms was changed by adding sideboards for beverage service. The menus also received a significant facelift. Residents now have 11 entrée options for dinner, as opposed to two under the old system, and the menus are more upscale than before.
Don Miller & Associates also helped in another big endeavor: training the staff for the switch to restaurant style dining. The waitstaff had three weeks of training to learn how to serve customers properly in a five-star dining atmosphere. Servers wait on no more than four tables; previously, the number was eight. Additional kitchen staff was added to help with the change from bulk cooking to cooking to order. Part of that training was also teaching the staff, many of whom are students, the importance of their jobs. “Anybody can go to McDonald’s, work there for six months and leave,” Darrah says. “When our staff come to work for us we teach them a career. Not only how to wait tables, but how to act as adults. We teach them self respect.” Darrah says mentoring the younger staff is the most rewarding part of his job.
Jay Bohlken, director of retirement living for Legacy, also recognizes Darrah’s mentoring. “Robert is very good with our young servers. For many, this is their first job and Robert can relate to them well.” Bohlken says relating to the staff is one reason the switch to restaurant style dining was so successful. “He sold the idea to the staff by saying this is going to increase resident satisfaction, and if the residents are happier our jobs will be easier.”
The change to restaurant style service was made in increments in March. The first community to go to the new service was Legacy Estates. By the end of the week, all three communities had changed to restaurant style dining. The fourth facility is an Alzheimer’s memory care unit, and its dining service remains banquet style because it is easier for those patients. The menus at all four facilities are the same, however.
The change didn’t affect only the foodservice staff but residents as well. “They have been ordering their food the same way for the last 10 years so it could be a little confusing,” Darrah says. To make the transition as smooth as possible, Darrah sent out letters and had resident meetings explaining the changes and what he hoped to accomplish.
It seems to have worked. “We just got our satisfaction scores back and we went from 90% to 98% in one year,” Darrah says. “That was a compliment to everyone involved because implementing this was no easy task. We had to order the menu jackets, rewrite our menus and plan out a nightly menu instead of doing a cycle menu.”
Darrah adds that the changes in foodservice and the resulting satisfaction increases in both staff and residents have spread into other departments as well. “It’s very contagious because other departments want to be like us,” he says. “It’s kind of like the old ‘I want to be like Mike’ commercials. Everybody sees that dining services is taking a new approach to customer service and they want to be like us.”
Bohlken also sees the department’s attitude spreading. “Robert’s enthusiasm and his ability to impart that enthusiasm to his staff is a great asset.” Bohlken says it was Darrah’s will and enthusiasm that helped sell the change to restaurant style dining. “We said, ‘If Robert thinks we can do this, we’re not going to stand in his way.’ It was this striving for improvement at each meal that has been crucial to the successes we’ve enjoyed so far and for our future successes.”
Chef Fest: After making the changes, Darrah felt it was time to let others know about the foodservice at Legacy. He started with the local community. In August, 11,000 people were invited to an open house at the Legacy Estates, the community’s newest facility. “There is this stigma it’s blended peas and chopped-up chicken breasts, and what we were trying to do was get that stigma off of our name,” Darrah says about the idea behind Chef Fest. “At our facilities, we serve beef tenderloin, prime rib, fried shrimp, lobster tail. When our residents go down to our dining rooms, we have the menu set up so that it’s like going to a different restaurant every night. Everything is five-star service.”
Fifteen hundred people attended the event and sampled selections from the new menus. “It was kind of like The Wizard of Oz,” Darrah says. “Nobody knows what goes on behind the magic curtain. We brought the chefs out from the kitchen in their full dress whites. You could just see the pride in their faces.” The event was a coming-out party for the department. Now, Darrah hopes to take the momentum from the event and turn it into national recognition. “We want to put ourselves in the national spotlight and show the world this is what we’re doing in little Lincoln, Neb.”
Cutting cost: Implementing the new service style was difficult enough, but Darrah wanted to shave costs as well. “We didn’t want to put this program into place and have it cost an arm and a leg,” he says. “We wanted to make sure we did it cost effectively.” By renegotiating contracts, Darrah cut $120,000 off his operating costs.
For example, for steaks to be cut, packaged and delivered, it cost $22.50 per pound. Darrah worked out a deal with the company so the meat would be delivered and Legacy’s staff would cut the meat to specification. This move meant beef would cost $11.50 per pound. Savings like this enabled Darrah to hire additional culinary staff to implement the restaurant style dining service. About renegotiating the contracts Darrah says, “My philosophy is, the worst thing they can say is no but at least you tried.”