Hyperlocal fare keeps Wake Robin residents feeling right at home

wake robin

Wake Robin’s vibrant resident population has high expectations.

The Shelburne, Vt., campus of this continuing care community is surrounded by wooded trails occupied by hikers and dog-walkers. And the facility itself is full of residents who were medical professors, high school teachers, painters, and even former state senators.

Naturally, this group of 345 expects a lot from its foodservice. And the foodservice team works hard to meet those expectations and boost excitement through special events such as summer food trucks, on-campus maple sap tapping, literary- and opera-themed dinners and much more. Read on to see how they do it. 

Photographs courtesy of Wake Robin

An events-based approach

wake robin

In “food-forward” Vermont, Hays explains, hyperlocal fare is a given, and culinary sensibility suffuses most aspects of Wake Robin life. Even beyond daily dining, its 60-person foodservice staff works with other Wake Robin teams to create as many as 10 food-focused events a year.

Every fall, a maple syrup-themed banquet is held at the on-campus “sugarhouse.” Here, maple syrup is personally tapped by residents and used to braise meat, drizzle on baked corn pudding, top creme brulee and more. One winter, the foodservice team held an event that featured a dinner based on Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” an idea from a Wake Robin resident. And come summer, residents look forward to Lobsterfest, featuring Maine crustaceans boiled or packed with drawn butter.

“Sometimes it’s more upscale, and sometimes it’s a good old-fashioned July Fourth cookout,” says Bill Iliff, Wake Robin’s executive chef. “The point is to get people excited with something new and different, and give them a reason to come together.”

Wake Robin’s foodservice staff also collaborates with other teams for food-focused events outside the dining room. They’ll whip up an Italian feast to go along with the music group’s monthly opera night when their selection is from “La Traviata,” for example. The activities team frequently runs cooking classes, teaching residents to make pasta, cheese, popovers and more. And food trucks visit the facility throughout the summer.



wake robin

Wake Robin’s Inquire program—a lifelong-learning initiative—screened the documentary “The Local Motive,” about Vermont’s food systems (both Hays and her Wake Robin predecessor appear in the movie) and invites farmers for lectures.

“It’s almost a little strange to use the phrase ‘farm-to-table’ in Vermont, because it’s just a given here,” Hays says. “Within 5 miles I can source animals, produce and cheese. And if you give me less than 300 miles I can get absolutely every single thing I need.”

Iliff says his team breaks down an entire cow every six weeks, and two whole pigs every six to eight weeks. Select fruits, including apples, are sourced 100% from local farms. Milk and eggs are also local, as well as that famous maple syrup.

“With the lives our residents have lived, they expect nothing less,” Hays explains.

The Wake Robin team gets their inspiration from all over, whether it’s a special new cheese from a local farmer, or Iliff’s notebook from his years at nearby Shelburne Farms, where the menu changed daily.


Prioritizing quality of life

wake robin

But the inspiration—and the challenge—comes mostly from Wake Robin’s vibrant resident community. Hays understands not all operators may have the benefit of an engaged diner population eager to provide feedback every time a staffer walks down the hall. Still, Wake Robin also solicits thoughts via comment cards and  through frequent resident meetings (temporarily suspended as the facility wraps up a $40 million renovation). The staff works hard to show they value the input.

“You can’t please everyone, but maybe you can put that sauce Bob didn’t like on the side next time so people have the option,” Hays says. “Or maybe you make that cherry crisp from their childhood using your own recipe. The whole point is showing people that you hear them and you care.”

Special events, even if operators start small, can be a great way to spark that initial engagement and keep the excitement going, Iliff says.

“Have fun and enjoy it,” he explains. “The residents see that joy and that effort, and I promise you they will appreciate it.”

Meet the FSD: Kate Hays

wake robin

Director of Dining Services, Wake Robin Life Plan Community

Q: What are your goals for the coming year?

A: The renovation will be fantastic, but it’s been tough in a lot of ways as we work through the construction. So I’m really looking forward to getting the new dining room open, which should be in December. It’ll be a bit of challenge, as the setup is a different format for the residents and they’ll need to get used to that. But we’re especially excited to feature two new exhibition stations in the room, which will help our chefs engage with residents and really tell the story of the food.

Beyond the renovation plans—which also include opening two new restaurants for our independent-living residents—my goal is to continue to build a happy team. I want people to feel thrilled to come to work, and rewarded by what they do to serve our residents through food.

Q: What makes Wake Robin’s foodservice successful?

A: So much of it has to do with the residents of Wake Robin. Their expectations make us step up and do the best job we can every day. We really try to make them happy. And I do have a robust budget, which always helps!


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