Kirkwood by the River: Where seniors can eat what they want, whenever they want

Kirkwood by the River Staff

In any operation that serves full-time residents, it’s easy for foodservice to slip into regimented schedules: Meals are served at set times, menus cycle monthly and everything stays familiar, if a bit boring.

But one senior living facility is about to blow up the status quo this month, unveiling an extensive, restaurant-style menu fulfilled by a kitchen that will be open all day long. It’s thanks to a foodservice provider with a people-first attitude—and a former restaurant star who doesn’t see boundaries.

See how that change has taken shape. 

Photographs: Kirkwood by the River

An outside approach

fresh menu items all day menu

The all-day menu is the brainchild of Johnny Carino, the namesake of Austin, Texas-based Italian restaurant chain Johnny Carino’s, and now vice president of culinary for the senior living division of HHS. This Austin-based company provides all manner of support service operations to hospitality facilities, serving 500 in total across the aviation, healthcare, resorts and senior living sectors.

Kirkwood by the River in Birmingham, Ala., a senior living partner of HHS, is where Carino plans to test the new feeding strategy. Eventually, he plans to roll out all-day menus to all 25 of HHS’ senior living facilities.

“I don’t know what the ‘no’s’ are,” Carino explains. “There’s no ‘We can’t do that because this is healthcare’—because I’m still learning that stuff. So it’s innately a restaurant-focused approach. To me it’s all food, all about people, all the same.”

Changing it up

flame cooking johnny carcino

But for Kirkwood, it’s a major shift, says the facility’s assistant general manager, Christine Harris. “Over two decades here, I’ve seen all kinds of changes. This is the best change we’ve made for residents, hands down,” says Harris, who has worked at Kirkwood for her entire career, starting as a part-time waitress during high school.

The existing setup is “traditional,” she says. The menu is run on a four-week cycle, with choices between two entrees, four sides and a dessert of the day. Residents choose their meals a day ahead, and mealtimes are scheduled.

“The fact that independent living residents will be able to choose in the moment from a restaurant-style menu—not check off a sheet of paper the day before—and eat that meal exactly when they want it is a huge shift,” Harris says.

Since HHS came in to support Kirkwood in 2016, she says, “there’s been an unbelievable amount of growth.” The focus on foodservice had ramped up since the HHS partnership, and it was supercharged earlier this year when Carino signed on.

At your service

food service menu

Along with a renewed interest in food, Carino’s entrance also revamped the way Kirkwood and HHS think about service altogether.

“It just didn’t sit right with me that residents might feel like, ‘I had my heyday of traveling the world and eating in the best restaurants … and now in the latter part of my life, I have only two entree choices at a mealtime that’s decided for me.’” Carino says.

Now Kirkwood’s independent living residents are welcome to dine anytime and select their meals from the new restaurant-style menu, which includes entrees such as pan-seared Atlantic salmon, shrimp and grits, bone-in pork chop, grilled chicken medallions with roasted garlic butter, a “Roll Tide” burger, Trinidad-style barbecue and pastas including chicken-broccoli penne.

Smaller dishes include salads such as chicken Ranch, Caesar, Cobb and avocado arugula; sides such as buttermilk mashed potatoes, broccoli-rice casserole and a roasted squash and corn skillet; fresh soup of the day choices; and multiple daily desserts.

Seeing what works

group dinner

Carino views it like a restaurant opening. “A lot of it is trial and error. It may take a month or more to develop a cycle of what customers like. But you start with your chicken, your beef, your pasta, and once you get a sense of what’s a hit and what isn’t, you start shifting things. It’s taking that restaurant approach and lessons, and bringing it to a healthcare environment in largely the same way.”

That trial and error will involve not only shifting residents’ habits, but also retraining staff and restructuring schedules, Harris says. Kirkwood chefs will adhere closely to “production sheets” that assign each team member to specific tasks to keep all-day service organized.

“There will be challenges in the beginning, no doubt,” Harris says. “But we have a lot of great minds working together, and that’s what gives us confidence.”

IDing enthusiasm

team employees

For other operators looking to shake up a “this-is-how-it’s-always-been-done” attitude, Carino recommends tapping into staffers’ passion for food.

“No one has a passion for coming to work to shove a box of premade chicken in the oven for 35 minutes,” Carino says. “But when you go to a chef and say, ‘Cook this,’ their eyes light up. That energy is catching.”

And that, Harris says, is what it all comes down to: the people.

“There are 15,000 people working through HHS across a lot of facilities, but somehow it’s like a close-knit family,” she says. “When we’re short-staffed, people at other locations will jump in to help. It feels like a small world, and one that’s people-first.”

Meet the VP: Johnny Carino

Johnny Carino

Vice president of culinary for HHS’ senior living division

Q: What are your goals for the coming year?

A: I’m looking forward to finalizing and rolling out our culinary standards. It’s a promise to our residents and ourselves that everything we do from a culinary perspective will adhere to this code, whether it’s that we use fresh produce or that we do scratch cooking. We want to raise expectations and stick to it.

Q: What’s the key to your team’s success?

A: We focus on people first. Period.

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