When Katherine Thomas began her role as Vice President of Dining and Culinary Services at Country Meadows, she had a big task on her hands. The senior independent living community had decided to move all dining services in-house, parting ways with their outsourced dining contractor. Of course, creating a nutritious, well-balanced menu that worked for residents on all campuses was a large factor of Katherine’s new role. But it was the behind the scenes work at our active and social lifestyle retirement community that changed the most. For the new in-house senior living dining program to work, Katherine knew she needed to give her team a voice and let them have a little freedom to be creative within their roles as well.
Recently, we talked with Katherine about the Dining and Culinary Services department and how she has been able to manage all of the needs of a senior living dining program.
Tell us about what you do for Country Meadows:
There are so many moving parts within my role that every day is a little bit different. Mainly, I support all Dining Directors at each of our campuses. I help with creating a five-week menu cycle that changes twice a year. Because we moved from having an outside contractor managing our dining program, I also work closely with appropriate staff members to create and maintain all of the new policies and procedures. There’s been a lot of team building since we’ve moved to having an in-house dining operation. To me, good management is a reflection of how well your team works together. I’ve worked to introduce more communication within the department, which helps bring everyone together and feel like a team. I’ve really made my role to be all about support above everything else.
Tell us a little bit about your background in the dining and culinary services industry and how you came to work for Country Meadows.
My entire career has revolved around food and food services. I’ve been working in nutrition and food service since 1985, so, almost 40 years at this point. Before entering into the culinary services and nutrition industries, I was a dietician. It was during this line of work that I discovered my passion for the management side of dining. I started managing kitchens, handling their budgets and staffing and dining programs as well. Everything sort of grew from there.
Previously, I worked for twenty-three years at a company managing another active and social lifestyle retirement community as regional senior dietician. This facility had twenty-eight nursing homes and included skilled nursing as part of their services. I helped to oversee all of the nursing homes and my position required a lot of travel. While I loved this job and thought I would retire there, the traveling was starting to be overwhelming. A mutual friend of mine had reached out to me and let me know that Country Meadows was hiring. Having grown up in Lebanon County, I knew that Country Meadows was practically in my backyard, and that they had such a great reputation. The decision was very easy for me to make the change.
Why did you decide to pursue a role within this industry?
I didn’t always know that working with Pennsylvania retirement communities was going to be my ultimate career choice. But I have a Pennsylvania Dutch background. I grew up being taught how to cook from scratch and had such a passion for it that I decided to go to school locally at Mansfield University for nutrition to learn more about all things food.
One of the requirements in becoming a dietician at the time was to complete an internship. I was matched with Shady Side Hospital in Pittsburgh and learned all about the chemistry of food and the science behind nutrition. After my yearlong internship, I took my federal exam and earned my license.
Over the years I found myself working for all kinds of large-scale dining operations; school food services, nursing homes, and hospitals. I enjoyed having a hand in the big aspects like management and the smaller details like menu choices. Through various opportunities over the years, the active and social lifestyle retirement community just seemed to be the perfect fit for my love of food and people.
How much goes on “behind the scenes” of a senior living dining program and how do you manage it all?
Between creating the menus, hiring front of house staff, dining aids, and kitchen staff, supporting the Dining Directors at each campus and keeping an eye on any requests from residents, there’s a lot that goes on before we can even serve a resident their food. That’s true of any restaurant or dining operation, however, so it’s expected in a role like mine. Right now I’m focusing on allowing our Dining Directors to have a say and communicate with me about what they need. We have onsite meetings when possible, typically every quarter, to discuss their menus and develop new policies. While each menu is basically the same on every campus, I do want our Directors to have a vision for their food programs. If there is something unique and fun they want to serve for their residents, I want to help them have that freedom. For instance, there are some recipes that are favored in some locations more than others. While York might want to have chicken pot pie often, the residents at our Maryland campus aren’t as used to something so hearty. So, we want our campuses to have a central menu focus but some individuality to it also. Small changes like this can only happen when we have smooth communication behind the scenes.
How have you seen the dining program evolve at Country Meadows?
As far as department operations go, I’ve definitely seen more of a sense of ease between directors. They are more willing to provide their input on new policies and recipes. The executive team here is so supportive, so having that come from the top down really makes everyone trust each other. Everyone can see their efforts are being recognized this way and it’s a wonderful feeling.
One of the biggest changes I made food-wise when I came on board was to introduce some new recipe options. Some of the residents were concerned because they saw so many items on the menu that were “too fancy.” So, one of the first things that I did was train the staff on how to describe each menu item to the residents so that the menu seemed less intimidating. This training allowed us to open up some elevated dining options that everyone has really enjoyed.
What about your role are you the most passionate about?
It changes almost every day! But I really love the customer service part of it all. Of course, I love food and I love to cook, but it’s the creativity and support that I can provide to my staff that really keeps me going. There is also something about independent senior living communities that you don’t get within other industries – and that’s the compassion. When a resident sends a note to their Dining Director, thanking them for that meal… that’s probably the biggest reason that I do my job. That feeling of knowing you’ve made someone’s day a little brighter is amazing.
One thing I do want to say about working for Country Meadows that I’m particularly passionate about is that there are so many resources and so much support here. Every single department is committed to the same common goal. It’s hard to explain, but I’m almost not used to having such a great communications team or procurement team – I used to have to do everything myself. But I get an incredible amount of support from everyone. Even the environmental services teams on staff and our top executives. This staff really makes Country Meadows one of the best retirement communities in Pennsylvania.
Where do you see dining and nutrition within the retirement community industry moving in the future? Are there any projects in the works? And have there been any changes to dining with COVID-19 that you may keep in the future?
I know we’re very eager to get to the other side of our current challenges with COVID-19. Dining has been one of the services at Country Meadows that has changed a lot, and I think some of the quick service aspects and meal delivery options might stick around after this is all behind us. Some of the residents are really enjoying it and now the whole team is coming into this groove where everything is working well. But, of course, they’re just so appreciative for what we’re doing and getting them a hot meal. As well as it has been working, I know our residents miss the socialization aspect of our regular dining services.