Foodservice Operation of the Month

Otterbein SeniorLife aims to make senior dining shiny and new

For Director of Culinary Services Drew Allen, foodservice must have a “wow” factor. He’s added hibachi grills, an on-site shark tank and more.
Drew Allen (center) and some of the Otterbein team. / Photo by Kevin George

When researching options for senior living facilities, the typical prospective resident might not think to check YouTube. But then, Otterbein SeniorLife is no typical offering.

That’s clear when cruising through the YouTube channel of Drew Allen, director of culinary services for Otterbein’s 18 facilities across Ohio and Indiana.

He’s uploaded clips of romantic private dinners with rose petals and champagne flutes, a Titanic-themed meal complete with a string quartet and a captain’s table, and residents giggling around an on-premise hibachi grill, along with a slickly produced video of an “Iron Chef”-style Taste of Otterbein competition between chefs.

“There’s a lot of competition throughout the country, and we want to compete on that level; we don’t just look in our same cities,” says Allen. “So we fly around the nation to see what people are doing. We challenge ourselves to do more. Our residents expect a lot from us—and it’s our job to live up to that.”

Life looks a little different at each of Otterbein’s 18 communities, which focus on a range of services: independent and assisted living, skilled nursing, hospice, memory support, inpatient post-acute care, and more. Allen’s team serves more than 4,000 meals daily across the Otterbein system, and a big focus of his tenure as culinary services director has been on revamping the eateries within.

Otterbein teams quickly learned that for Allen and the foodservice crew, “good enough” is not enough. Several years ago, the Lebanon, Ohio, facility was undergoing a remodel that included a luxury apartment building with a 100-seat bistro. Allen wasn’t involved in the initial process, and in the middle of construction, he was shown the design.

“I said, ‘It’s OK.’ They asked what was wrong, and I said, ‘That’s the thing: It’s just OK. It will be shiny and new, but it’s not going to make anybody say wow,’” Allen recalls.

Soon afterward, Allen and his boss embarked on a previously scheduled trip to see a Pennsylvania community’s produce garden. But they also toured the community’s dining facilities, and Allen felt the “wow” that he was looking for. On the flight home, the pair talked about all they’d seen and concluded Otterbein Lebanon needed to make a change—or rather, many changes.

“In the middle of construction, we go up to them and tell them we need to totally change the design,” Allen says.

Koi cafe
The view from an Otterbein cafe. / Photo courtesy of Otterbein SeniorLife

The result was a highly modern cafe with a stone pizza oven, multiple action stations including hibachi grills, and even a private-dining section surrounding a 460-gallon shark tank that Allen nicknamed the “blue lagoon” because of its azure uplighting.

“Our residents come from all over the country with all of these life experiences, and they expect that wow factor,” Allen says. “Demonstrations on a hibachi grill, Las Vegas-style buffets, this gorgeous aquarium—the settings go a long way to whet their appetites and add to the experience.”

That approach informs everything the Otterbein foodservice team does, says Stephanie Patterson, culinary services director at the location in Granville, Ohio.

“When we think about what people want to eat, some think we’re talking about homestyle cooking, but that’s really not all it is,” Patterson says. “We want to give them a restaurant experience: cooked-to-order items, scallops with linguine, things you wouldn’t necessarily think about being able to do at this type of community.”

With such elevated everyday dining, the special events at Otterbein must be truly special to stand out. Patterson’s favorite is an annual harvest party in partnership with the activities team: Residents’ families attend the bash, children dress up in their Halloween costumes to collect candy and everyone enjoys autumnal dishes from a buffet line.

Iron Chef
An Iron Chef competition at Otterbein. / Photo courtesy of Otterbein SeniorLife

One of Allen’s favorites was a Titanic-themed meal in which residents received their $25 tickets in the form of ship boarding passes that included information about a real passenger—handed out by Allen, who was dressed as the captain. An additional $10 earned guests a spot at the captain’s table, and all enjoyed a seven-course meal served on replicas of the dishes on the Titanic alongside gold flatware.

“We also cater memorial services, whether it be a 30-person internment or for the whole community—or even just putting together a courtesy cart for the families who don’t want to leave the room as their loved one is at the end of life,” Patterson says.

She adds: “We talk about making things special for our residents, but to be able to be there for them in ways like that is very special for us, too. It’s an honor.”

Get to know Otterbein SeniorLife’s Drew Allen

See what’s in store for Allen’s operation, which was named FSD’s May Foodservice Operation of the Month.

Q:  What is it that makes your operation excel?

Two things come to mind. First: I've worked for several senior living organizations, and I can say Otterbein’s residents really push us in a good way. They want and expect a better quality of life. We’re built [a relationship] with them, so they feel comfortable saying to us, “Hey, we want to see this and we want to see that. Hey, I went to visit my sister and they had this thing that we’d like to see here.” Our residents are always pushing us to be better and do more.

Second is our home office support team. We talked about putting in a hibachi grill and a shark tank and all of these of other ideas—and most organizations will say no to that, right?  “We don't have the money” or “we can use this money in a better way.”

Whereas our home office support team says, “You know what? Yes, let's do that. Let's be innovative.” I learned that my first year here with Otterbein, 13 years ago. I was sitting down with a [vendor talking about] different POS systems. They asked if I wanted a quote that included iPads. I wondered why, and they explained it would let us take orders at the table.

Honestly, at that point I was in the mode of, “Oh, we're not going to pay an additional cost for that.” But I mentioned it to the vice president, and he said, “Drew, let's get that! That’s something different.” That really sums it up.

Q: What are your goals for the operation in the coming year?

Well, I have two very large remodels happening this year at our Otterbein Lebanon and Otterbein Franklin communities, [the latter of which] we’ll be starting here in the next 30 days. And I mention this because it speaks to our goal of leading the pack and looking toward the future.

It’s like when people look at new cars or homes: They check out a bunch of different options and consider what’s going to best fit them. Seniors do that too with retirement communities. And a lot of people want that shiny new toy, that thing that you can’t get down the street. That’s how we’re thinking about our dining venues.

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