It was September 2021, and the pandemic was raging on while supply-chain issues were ramping up. And that’s when the Salmon Health and Retirement opened a brand-new senior-living community in Medway, Mass.
What’s more, even in ordinary times, Salmon at Medway would be no ordinary foodservice operation.
The 57-acre campus includes a fourth-floor eatery overlooking the Charles River and a full-service bar. It’s also an eco-friendly community that enjoys partnerships with Boston’s Best Bees—which also supplies bees for nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s research labs—and with Medway Community Farm for fresh produce that couldn’t get any more local.
With initiatives like these, Medway serves as an incubator of sorts for the five other Salmon facilities located across the state.
“I like to call Medway our food lab,” says Jason Wallin, Medway’s director of culinary operations. “With the bees, the liquor license, stuff like that, we’re seeing first if it works here and then tweaking [these programs] so we can spread them out to the rest of the company. It's really going to make our Salmon culinary department as a whole that much stronger.”
The residents love the focus on innovation, and it’s rewarding when Wallin and his staff see, for example, a resident who usually has a Coke in hand instead walking around with a kombucha bottle.
These experiments have attracted not only residents but staffers to Medway.
Though it’s not immune to staffing challenges, “a new community is probably one of the easier things to staff, even during the pandemic,” Wallin says. “People are leaving their jobs left and right, and at Medway, this thing's a Lamborghini of assisted living and independent living. We have a huge kitchen with all of the state-of-the-art equipment you could ever want. And we get to tell them, hey, if you’re bored where you are, we’re always changing our menus, introducing new programs and trying new things.”
Wallin credits Tina Litwinetz, manager of dining operations at Medway, with driving this level of creativity. Before the campus opened, the team searched extensively for a candidate who could take on the “food lab” challenge and make Medway something special, but they were underwhelmed.
Litwinetz, then a regional staffer, stepped up to volunteer. As a certified dietary manager, she goes beyond menu planning to connect food and cognitive health for her residents. To that end, she and the wellness director are currently planning a four-part “Thrive” series on nutrition for residents, focusing on not just what food can do for the body but for the mind as well.
“We’re educating them with presentations, recipes and [taste tests] once a month so they get familiar with these foods and explain how and when they should be eating these foods in combination with fitness activities to help the brain,” Litwinetz says.
Furthering the health focus
They’re also leveraging the brain-healthy MIND diet—short for the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay—which was created by researchers aiming to prevent dementia and improve cognitive function. MIND foods are already on the Medway menus, but Litwinetz plans to add even more.
“We have a big long-term goal for the Thrive program,” she says. “Once we do all of the education and incorporate it into our menus even more, we want to work it a program where we can get involved with a medical team and set up a study that actually measures brain health.”
The MIND diet is particularly in focus at the Le Jardin restaurant at Medway’s bistro, which features a Mediterranean, plant-based menu designed around ingredients from Medway Community Farm and other local vendors. The top seller is the Mediterranean salad topped with housemade lemon vinaigrette, but the team also branches out with experimental items like a BLT—a beet, lettuce and tomato sandwich with fig-bacon jam—and a Popeye spinach salad with plant-based chicken, carrots and strawberries.
“The residents absolutely love it,” Wallin says. “You can’t get more local than a potato that was in the ground six hours ago in a field a mile down the road [at Medway Community Farm].”
Boston’s Best Bees also make their mark around the Medway campus, with their honey used in simple syrups at the bar, to sweeten baked goods, as a smoothie add-on, as a drizzle over flatbread pizzas and more. These local relationships have helped Medway keep cooking through supply-chain challenges, and Wallin says they plan to continue sourcing more local goods even after the pressures at national suppliers abate.
For other operators, Wallin recognizes most don’t have the luxury of a brand-new kitchen or a community farm a stone’s throw away. And he knows that after two years of COVID and the related challenges, it may feel difficult to inject excitement into foodservice. But innovation doesn’t have to mean raw honey from on-site bees or a full-service bar. Sometimes it’s as simple as starting with one new experiment or tradition.
“I would say always think outside of the box—yet I know a lot of people would say ‘OK, but we’re treading water,’” Wallin says. “So maybe you try a new theme menu every Wednesday, or bring on a new vendor, and you just see what happens. It adds variety not only for your [diners] but your staff, too. You can’t be afraid to fail.”
Q&A with Jason Wallin
Insights from Salmon at Medway’s director of culinary operations
Q: What makes your operation excel?
The people we have working for us, especially now, as our staff has gone through a lot in the past two years. This isn't an easy job by any means under normal circumstances, and to be able to go through what we've gone through in the past two years… well, it’s incredible. A lot of our staff has been with us through all of this, and they're not in it just because they love it. They’re in it for the residents, too. So that passion easily translates into their food, and it makes the experience for the residents that much better.
Q: What are your goals for the operation in the coming year?
To really keep pushing the envelope, coming up with programs that are not only going to differentiate us from [other operations] but also provide something different for the residents. They’re eating in the same restaurant every day, so we feel responsible for constantly figuring out ways to change thing up and to make it more exciting for them. So we're just going to keep continuing on that path and push ourselves to do even more.Nominate an FSO of the Month