Virginia Ohanian: Building Relationships

By Becky Schilling, Editor

Creating a family atmosphere has always been important to Virginia Ohanian, culinary services director at 400-resident St. Andrews Estates North, an ACTS retirement-life community in Boca Raton, Fla. “It’s not just about serving food,” Ohanian says about her job. “It’s about food, family and relationship building.”

Family first: For Ohanian, creating a family atmosphere starts with building relationships with her staff. “I’m proud of the team that I’ve developed,” Ohanian says. “I think I have an extremely strong group of individuals. I’ve maximized their skills and I’ve created an environment where it’s like a family.”

Jonathon Grant, executive director at St. Andrews, also sees a cohesive foodservice team under Ohanian’s leadership. “She allows her staff to make decisions and is not afraid to let them fail to help them grow from that experience,” Grant says. “She includes them in the decision-making process. She works through building consensus and that’s where you get that family atmosphere.”

Ohanian says that by creating this family environment among her staff, the atmosphere extends to the residents as well. “You have to be genuine and come from the heart and here it really does,” Ohanian says about her staff’s focus on serving the residents. “It’s not just a job for my staff. That may sound trite, but I really do believe that. We are in this industry because we get something out of it. We are really helping people out.”

FSD of the Month, Virginia Ohanian, St. Andrews Estates NorthOhanian has a long history in foodservice. As a teenager she worked in restaurants and an ice cream shop. While attending college at Cornell University she worked in the university’s foodservice department. Ohanian then moved on to cooking at a 72-bed nursing home in Ithaca, N.Y., working at a cheese shop in New York City and at two hospitals in the Northeast.

“When I came to Florida I saw the concept of continuing care life communities and I was fascinated with the level of care and the different options offered to seniors,” Ohanian says. “It sucked me in. This job [that I have now] is my first job in Florida, and I’ve been here 22 years.”

Increasing flexibility: For her dedication to the residents, Ohanian was awarded the Florida Association of Non-Profit Homes for the Aging’s (FAHSA) employee of the year award in 2008. “I felt like, ‘why should I win this award,’” Ohanian says. “I don’t think about [winning awards]. All I think about is how can I better serve my residents and make it more exciting for them in their twilight years, so they can be the best years of their life. To me, it’s an honor to be able to serve them.”

FSD of the Month, Virginia Ohanian, St. Andrews Estates NorthA big part of Ohanian’s quest to better serve her residents is increasing flexibility and choices in the dining program. “When I started here 22 years ago, the residents had to select their choices two weeks to a month in advance,” she says. “They used to circle menus and bring those down to the dining room. It was very institutional. If people wanted to change their minds, we would do it, but it was like we were bending over backwards. Now, we have a restaurant-style menu with nine entrées and nine vegetable choices each day.”

In addition to changing the service style in the main dining room, Ohanian has increased the flexibility in the way residents can order their meals. Residents can order sandwiches at the café. They also can place orders for takeout, which can be picked up between 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Residents can reserve the private dining room for parties or special functions, which Ohanian’s team will cater.

Ohanian also has started special functions, like an event called Moonlight Madness, which was held one night at the community’s pool. A movie was shown and s’mores were provided. Another event included serving hors d’oeuvres in the private dining room and allowing residents to bring wine. St. Andrews does not offer alcoholic beverages but will serve wine in the private dining room if residents have brought it with them. Ohanian also wants to start a program that would combine entertaining and food in a resident’s apartment. Hors d’oeuvres or a sit-down dinner would be provided for residents and their friends.

“We are trying to make things new for our residents and not make things the same old, same old,” she says. “We are trying to be on the cutting edge of what’s happening in this market when we are in a recession. We want to draw in prospects.”

FSD of the Month, Virginia Ohanian, St. Andrews Estates NorthOhanian says that because St. Andrews is an independent living community, she promotes healthy eating by providing nutrition education and not by limiting choices. Through the Healthy Choice Menus program, residents can quickly see which menu items fit into their specific diet plans. In the program, symbols are placed next to items to designate whether they are high in categories such as calories or fat. For example, a salt shaker icon means the item is high in sodium.

“In this industry we have had to stay flexible and we have had to offer choices to our residents,” Ohanian says. “I think that’s why my department has been so successful, that we really listen to our residents. If they make a request, if it’s within my power, I tell all my mangers to do it.”

Eat late: This can-do attitude has led to several new programs designed
to give residents more options and flexibility. One such program at St. Andrews is a late-night dining option on Fridays. The regular evening dining hours are between 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Every Friday residents can now also dine between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. “It’s kind of the trend of the future where people don’t dine at 4:30 in the afternoon anymore,” Ohanian says. “To test the waters with this we decided to try a Friday late-night dining program.”

For the late-night dining program, the chefs create a different menu than what is served during regular dining hours. Each week a different appetizer is featured. Crab cakes with rèmoulade sauce, stuffed shrimp and lobster ravioli in a cream sauce are some of the appetizers that have been featured.

Reservations are required for late-night dining, and residents are encouraged to attend in groups to make dinner into a social activity. The event is held in the private dining room. Residents also may bring wine to dinner, which the waiters will serve.

On a normal night between 150 and 200 residents eat dinner in the dining room. About 40 people are now electing to eat during the late-night hours. “I haven’t heard of any other lifecare community that is doing hours so late,” Ohanian says. “You have to have a pulse on the market, and these people who are coming in [to the community] now are younger and they are used to eating later. The program doesn’t incur extra labor; we are just shutting down stations earlier in the evening [during regular dining hours] and having some servers come in later. It’s budget-neutral, which is nice.”

Because of the success of the late-night dining program, Ohanian hopes to expand it to additional nights.

Fine dining: Another new program is a once-a-month candlelight dinner. The event takes place the last Wednesday of the month and is held in the private dining room. Reservations are required for the event, which costs residents $15. The private dining room can hold up to 24 people, but Ohanian says as the event’s popularity grows the venue could be changed to accommodate more people.

A five-course dinner is served for the event. Previous dishes served include a baby arugula and garlic-roasted Portobello salad, pan-seared fillet of beef with a merlot demi-glace, baby lobster tails and a chocolate fudge bundt cake.

“The chefs love the event because they get the opportunity to show off their talents and it’s something different for them,” Ohanian says. “The residents want to feel special and they want to feel like they are getting special treatment. They don’t want to feel like they have to go out to dinner, so why not entertain them here? We’ve changed the whole concept of culinary and what we’re offering seniors. I think we’re on the brink of changing the face of culinary services in senior living.”

Grant says he gives free rein to Ohanian to try these new dining programs because of her strong leadership. “She’s such a strong leader that enabling her to do it on her own and giving her the freedom to do that, you sit back and go, ‘wow, if I had managed that it would not have turned out as well.’ It’s really neat to see the creativity work.”