Sam Austin: Simple Success

Published in FSD Update

Austin, CDM, has transformed dining services at Claridge Court by creating a work environment that respects employees.

By Paul King, Editorial Director

At a Glance

• 220 residents
• 42 foodservice staff
• 2 dining facilities
• $2 million annual budget

Accomplishments

Sam Austin, CDM, has transformed dining services at Claridge Court by:

• Listening to his customers and finding ways to incorporate all of their varied suggestions into the menu or dining program

• Crafting a menu that changes daily to take advantage of seasonal items and supplementing that with a 20-item alternate menu

• Expanding dining services by adding The Grill, a 45-seat alternative to the main dining room

• Creating a work environment that respects employees, which has resulted in low turnover 

In 2000, Sam Austin had had his fill of commercial restaurants. The chef, who had no formal culinary education, yet had risen through the ranks to be the head chef at a number of fine-dining restaurants, country clubs and hotels, found himself in Kansas City, Mo., working what he considered to be “the worst job of my life.”

“I was 39 years old, I had a family and I wondered just what I was doing here,” Austin recalls. “I wasn’t happy.”

So he left the restaurant scene—sort of. He made the move to non-commercial foodservice by taking a job as executive chef at Claridge Court, a senior living LifeSpace Community, in Prairie Village, Kan. Although his title may be executive chef, he is undisputedly the leader of his team: 42 staff, including five managers and 9 full-time culinarians. He has helped guide Claridge Court, which has 220 residents, through a small expansion of the dining program by adding a bistro to the campus, and he succeeds daily by following the simplest of rules: listen to your customers.

Building relationships

“The residents are quite aware of what a good listener he is,” says Jamie McCarthy, director of dining services. (McCarthy explains that his role at Claridge Court is to manage the foodservice budget, while leaving all operational decisions in Austin’s hands.) “They can mention something even once and he will remember that and store it away.”

As an example, McCarthy says, one resident raved about Austin’s crab cakes, but when they next were featured on the menu, that woman was out of town visiting relatives in Chicago. “Sam already has plans to add them to the menu the day the woman returns,” he notes.

Austin brushes off his boss’s praise. “My job is to make sure the residents are happy,” he says, “and we have the freedom to make that happen here. This place asks for top-quality food and provides the staff and the budget to do that. Other places expect the Taj Mahal on a Motel 6 budget.”

In addition to apartments for independent living residents, Claridge Court has a 55-bed skilled nursing facility. As part of their annual maintenance fee, residents receive one meal per day. They can choose to cook in their apartments for other meals, dine off site or eat on site for a fee. Residents who check into the skilled nursing facility are provided all meals, snacks and supplements. Patients can eat in their rooms but are encouraged to dine communally when they are physically able; a dining room on site seats 45.

“Our budget is just under $2 million this year and will be just over $2 million next year,” Austin says. “We do roughly 300 covers per day, not including employee and director meals.”

The main dining room seats 92 and The Grill, the newer restaurant, seats 45. There is on-demand dining between 6:30 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. A continental breakfast is served in the main dining room each morning. The lunch and dinner menu, which is the same in the main dining room and the healthcare facility, changes daily and features courses, the same as residents would find in a fine-dining restaurant. A total of four entrée choices are offered—beef and some type of seafood are featured every night—and they can be as diverse as the residents.

“At dinner, on any given night, we can have filet mignon and pot roast,” Austin explains. “We can offer Copper River salmon and hoagies, rack of lamb and spaghetti and meatballs. Our customers enjoy all types of foods, and we want to make sure we cater to everyone.”

In addition to the ever-changing daily menu, Claridge Court also offers a 20-item alternate menu to satisfy pickier eaters. “And sometimes, all you want is a bowl of tomato soup,” he adds. 

Solving problems

Catherine Johnson, Claridge Court’s dietary manager at the healthcare center, calls Austin “a quick problem solver. He examines challenges and then brainstorms until he comes up with a solution. And he pays attention to everything.” 

McCarthy echoes that sentiment, adding that Austin’s management style sometimes takes a little getting used to.

“When employees start here they might think that he’s a little too detail oriented,” McCarthy says. “He may seem to be watching them too closely, but he just wants them to do well. As they learn, Sam gives them more freedom. The longevity of some of our staff speaks to his success as a leader.”

Austin attributes his style to his climb up the career ladder, learning from “some fantastic chefs” along the way. In fact, Austin’s only book learning came after he took the job at Claridge Court and realized the value in earning his Certified Dietary Manager credentials from the Dietary Managers Association—now the Association of Nutrition and Foodservice Professionals. He earned the title in 2002.

“I started as a dishwasher when I was 14,” he recalls. “It started as an after-school job but this business is infectious and it was exciting, the diversity of people you could work with.”

He became a cook at age 15, and by the time he was 18 he had learned enough to be offered a job at a country club in Hope, Ark. A year later, he moved to Springfield, Mo., to become a kitchen manager at another country club. From there he worked in everything from mom-and-pop restaurants to hotels, learning from every chef he met. Eventually he took the fateful job in Kansas City, which led to his re-evaluating his career and the decision to come to Claridge.

“I never expected to be working in a non-commercial environment,” he says. “Now, I can’t imagine going back to restaurants. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a learning curve. The demands of a retirement community are far above that of a commercial restaurant because we feed our customers every single day. I also learned how subjective food really is. You can’t please everyone all the time, but if you listen to them you can always make most of them happy.”

That’s why Austin estimates he spends 75% of his time in the dining room with residents. He also notes that he has this luxury because of the skill of his team. “Some days I will get 25 or 30 suggestions from residents, and when we go to write the menu we take those suggestions to heart,” he says.

Expanding options

But residents don’t always critique the food. One of their biggest gripes was about the fact that there was only one dining room, and at times the wait for a table could be longer than some of them expected. So, Claridge Court responded last year by constructing The Grill, a bistro-style restaurant.

“The menu is very basic, luncheon-style fare like burgers and club sandwiches,” he explains. “The Grill has been a real evolution. Because we listen to our customers, we have had nine different menus in this restaurant’s brief history. It started out as similar to the main dining room, with a full menu with courses. That was a mistake. People wanted an alternative.”

Now, The Grill offers a menu that is completely different from what residents find in the main dining room, and business is picking up and there are no more complaints about waiting for a table in the main dining room.

But Austin makes it clear that although his goal may be to turn a complaint into a compliment, criticism doesn’t bother him. Instead, it motivates him.

“You have to respect what your customer tells you, no matter what it is,” he offers. “I cherish the complaints far more than I do the praise, because we learn and improve from the complaints. There is no success without that.”