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Senior dining culinary offerings are evolving with Vi Living [Podcast]

Welcome to a special customer spotlight episode of the Boelter Wire. This episode features Shelly Sievert, Boelter’s Director of Business Development, in a remote conversation with Steve Sandblom and Mark Southern of Vi Living, a life plan community that provides quality environment services and programs specifically designed to enrich the lives of older adults.

As Corporate Director of Food and Beverage, Steve Sandbloom has been with Vi Living for more than three years. He has 25 years of experience in the food service industry, including 15 years as the General Manager of Dining Services at Harvard and Director of Campus Dining Services with Johnson and Wales University.

Mark Southern joined Vi Living two years ago as the Assistant Vice President of Food and Beverage. Mark brings more than 30 years of experience in the food, beverage and hospitality industry. In addition to previously owning his own restaurant group in the Pacific Northwest and operating 10 locations, Mark spent eight years as the Director of Brand Management and Product Innovation with Hilton.


Have a topic you'd like us to discuss? Send us your ideas at marketing@boelter.com!


Shelly Sievert: Hi everyone. This is Shelly Sievert with Boelter Companies. With us today, Mark Southern and Steve Sandblom from Vi Living. We are going to be talking a little bit about how Vi Living has worked through the pandemic with COVID, what their plans are currently, how things are going and how they think things will progress in the future. With that being said, I am the Business Development Director for Boelter Companies. I specialize in senior living, my entire career having been in that space, and I'm really excited to have you guys on the podcast with us today. So, thank you, Mark and Steve.

Mark: Thank you for having both of us.

Does one of you want to go ahead and introduce yourself and just tell a little bit about what you do for Vi Living and maybe even a little bit about the organization itself?

Mark: I’ll jump in quick and then transfer to Steve. Mark Southern AVP food and beverage for Vi Senior Living. We are a luxury provider, we operate across the country based here in Chicago and the 10 communities located in California, Arizona, Florida, South Carolina, Chicago area. Just large, large communities. And again, all CCRCs. We're all continued care with national communities.

Steve: My name is Steve Sandblom. I am the corporate director of food and beverage for Vi, and my sole responsibility, both Mark and I, our sole responsibility is to support our communities. So, whether that's with menu development or programming or hiring process, that's our jobs are to support our 10 communities. And, it's a little bit different here now with what we're going through with the pandemic. So our jobs have changed slightly. But we'll get into that a little bit further into the podcast.

All right, great. Thank you. One thing real quick, by working with the two of you, I have learned a little bit more about how your communities operate from the standpoint of the dining services and the different levels of restaurant. Would you, Steve, maybe since you brought that up with the mini development and supporting programs, would you just tell a little bit about how your communities have an executive chef and a little detail into that? Because it is interesting how Vi Living has their food and beverage setup.

Steve: Sure. Yeah. It's a little different than your traditional, you know, hotel or resort. We have an executive chef who runs the culinary operations, and we have our dining director who runs the front of the house operations, and they both report up into the executive director of the community. The only exception is our largest community in Naples, Florida, at Bentley Village, where there is a food and beverage director and the dining director and the executive chef report up to him, who reports to the executive director.

So, one challenge with that is sometimes with two different departments working separately, they, before Mark and I joined, they tend to run a little bit in silos. So, we've tried really hard to bring both departments together. And, you know, so the front of the house is working alongside the back of the house for the best resident satisfaction that we can achieve.

Well, I can say that having worked with you guys for the last year and a half or so, I definitely have seen that team atmosphere that you guys are trying to create and having gone to a number of your beautiful buildings, seeing both the food and beverage director and executive director, excuse me, executive chef working so closely together. I know that just provides a really fantastic experience for your residents.

So, with that being said, let's transition a little bit and let's talk about the pandemic. COVID hits in March, and obviously we all know that dining rooms are shut down. Residents are forced into physical distancing, and we have no visitors in the buildings, et cetera, et cetera. So now here we are four months later. Can you catch us up a little bit on where are things at right now with your communities when it comes to things like the physical distancing, in-room dining versus dining room dining, and those types of things?

Mark: It's really been a lot of back and forth to open up some communities, and in some of our regions we're opening up pretty directly. We've got South Carolina, where things are moving along pretty well in terms of opening the community back up. We have communities in Florida, Arizona that, you know, really starting to move ahead a little bit. And then now we've really had to move them backwards in our process.

So, we developed a continuum, a phased approach, like many of the industries have done and the government has done. When we've taken this phased approach to look at certain measurements and key indicators that would allow us to move forward with opening a restaurant, allow us to, you know, begin outdoor dining, would allow us to, kind of back off all the shutdown of the community and other areas to include fitness, some pools and other things salons. So, you know, we just had to really take a very phased approach and we think very sort of conservative and methodical approach to ensuring that the communities are safe to reopen, but also not rushing it.

And I think one of the things that we've communicated very effectively to our residents and our customers is that, we're doing this for your own safety, and this is something that's really important for us to ensure that we continue to maintain a safe environment.

And so, we're still encouraging that they stay close to home. That they stay in the community. If they're going to get out and exercise, to walk, then let's do it in the community. Let's not run out to restaurants and out in the local area, especially in those Southern States, as we're experiencing right now in the latest sort of surges, but really trying to keep everybody, within the confines of the building. I think it's worked really well for us. We've, had very, very low incidences of COVID in the communities. We've really done a lot to protect our employees, protect our residents through proper training, proper use of PPE, et cetera.

Like everybody else, we want to get reopened. We want to have a lot of events we want to create that social environment that our seniors and that our residents really crave. But we also need to ensure the health and safety of everybody and not just our residents, but also our employees and their families, that we maintain a very safe environment.

Steve: We have to be very cautious with reopening, we thought ourselves, if we give the residents too much, they'll need to pull back then and that kind of makes them a little upset. One example, in one of our California communities is we had reopened our salons and that was very exciting for our residents. They could go down and get their hair done, and then reservations were full. And then the next day, the California governor, sorta said, salons can no longer be open. So we were one day away from that. The residents were clearly not happy with that. It wasn't our fault but, just to Mark's point, you have to be very, very cautious and be very careful with how quickly we open things.

I think that's absolutely understandable. And speaking from experience with the hair salons being closed, I totally feel your resident's pain. So, I'm sorry to hear that. I hope that you're able to at some point reopen that salon sooner rather than later for your resident’s sake.

Talking about being cautious, that leads right into the next question that I have for you guys about how you are dealing with your dining program. I know that Vi Living does really strive to provide a fantastic dining experience for your residents from the independent living restaurants that are extremely, I would say, like high end restaurants, to some of your smaller bistro type venues. I know Mark, you mentioned outdoor dining and you can't necessarily do outdoor dining everywhere depending on the weather.

So what are some of the things that you're looking at now with your dining program that you've started to put into place and things that, you know, as time goes on, you're looking at maybe some more permanent plans to change your dining?

Steve: I'll jump in here. Our chefs do an incredible job. We are blessed to have some of the best chefs that I've ever worked with. We've had to go to in-room dining and up until very recently at all of our communities. And we've been putting out, equal to, if not better, quality meals in their rooms than they would get in the dining rooms.

The challenge now is, it's been was it four or five months now. The residents are starting to get a little antsy, so we're constantly trying to evolve. We're trying to do other things in those to-go boxes to keep our resident satisfaction high. You know, one of our communities in California, they're having an amuse bouche put into their bags a couple of times a week. That is something one of the sous chefs comes up with. So, we're trying to do different things, to keep the program exciting, while the residents are cooped up in their rooms.

We are blessed to have some of the best chefs that Ive ever worked with. Weve had to go to in-room dining and... we've been putting out equal to, if not better, quality meals in their rooms than they would normally receive in the dining rooms.

I think it's interesting that you said that you're trying to keep it exciting, because when I think about going to one of your campuses in a, in pre-COVID world, I'm not even calling it normal times because we don't know what normal is going to look like anymore, but pre-COVID, I know that your residents had a number of different venues that they could go to, which had different menus and things like that. So, when you think about it, in terms of their ordering takeout from the same place every night for five months, I can totally understand why you say our chefs have had to be creative and they're doing these things to spice it up and keep it exciting and keep the residents happy. So it's great to hear that your communities are looking at doing some of those things.

In-room dining is interesting that you brought that up. Right now, I believe, you using disposables for when you're delivering or are you using like china with plate covers and that type of thing.

Steve: We are using a lot of disposables. We are using a whole lot of disposables. Yes.

So, thinking about long term, how has this impacted from your standpoint, not only making sure that you have access to the disposables, but then also dealing with things like additional waste or even–I know you said that your, chefs have been able to provide equal to, or better meals, that they have been getting in the dining room–so how have you addressed that? Because you and I both know eating a steak out of a Styrofoam box isn't exactly the same as eating it at a steakhouse.

Mark: Yeah, I mean, I think we've had to really look at what we're serving and clearly, it's difficult to serve a steak at temperature for one, when, when we're putting together hundreds of meals that are being delivered to the room. So it's really thinking about the food we're preparing and making sure that it's appropriate and relevant for the service method that we're having to utilize. So, now one of the things we're doing is, I mean, we are deconstructing some things and we are providing reaffirming and reheating instructions for people to use, if they want to, if they want to hold it for later.

And that's, I think something that we look at today and the future, I think a lot of what we're seeing now is going to portray what the future holds. I think people are going to be more cautious about food. I think they'd be very cautious about gatherings. So, I think we're going to see an uptick in in-room dining or in-residents dining in the future. I think we're going to see an increase in the desire to have, grab and go options and some other things. So, what we've had to do is look at the menu items that travel well, that hold well, or reheat well, and that keep their character.

And I think we've looked to a lot of fine dining companies that have had to go through this on the open market. Several notable restaurants here in our hometown, Chicago have really done a great job with takeout. We've really looked around the industry, food and beverage industry in the broad community to really look for the best ideas and best ways to execute this new sort of delivered meal package, delivered meal program, that again, executes at a high level and delivers a really great experience for our residents.

And then I think there's other things as Steve talked about, whether it is the amuse bouche or we have another community has been doing wine and food pairings in the residence. So, they're delivering up the wine, delivering up, prepared sample bites and paired flights of wine and food. And it's been a really great experience and it's something we were doing already. We did it in a normal, sort of the "normal" world, we were doing this in restaurants and in the bars and lounges, but now we've just moved it into the residents, accommodations in their homes. It's been very well received, but I think it's just really trying to think about those types of things and ensure that, we're delivering what we've come to expect, it's a great level of product and great level of service, and being able to ship it over into this new, this new reality that we're facing.

"I think a lot of what we're seeing now is going to portend what the future holds... People are going to be more cautious about food. I think they'd be very cautious about gatherings. So, we're going to see an uptick with in-room dining, or in-residence dining, in the future."

I think you hit on something there. That's really, it's both creative and it makes complete sense, especially considering that both of you have a background in hospitality, but the fact that you're not trying to reinvent the wheel. You're looking at other restaurants and other places where you can adapt, what are some of the things that are working in high end restaurants in Chicago, for instance, to provide that really great experience for your residents. You're not just going down to a stripped down menu, you really are thinking and being very thorough, you're really thinking through what you're providing for your residents. I just need to know if there's a possibility that I can get involved in that wine and food pairing, because that's one of my favorite things to do.

So, besides the fact that your residents would love to go back to the dining room, I’m sure for the social piece of it, overall, are they, it seems that they are reacting fairly good or fairly well to the in-room dining and the way that you guys have mixed it up?

Steve: They are, but as I said earlier, they're starting to get a little antsy and we're at the point where Mark and I are getting more involved in looking at those menus and how we can support our teams on changing them up a little bit.

I think it's human nature when things are just are rolling along and things are going really well, but we're starting to hear a little bit of, you know, a little bit of complaints here and there, and it's mostly because, we're all sick and tired of being at home, right. Whether it's a beautiful place like Vi or, my townhouse here in Chicago. We have to really start thinking a little bit more outside the box because the pandemic is not going away soon. So, I think for those who have to stay in the rooms, we have to keep on reinventing the wheel and making things exciting for them.

One example that I actually just had a call with one of our dining directors in Hilton Head, where they are able to get out of their rooms a little bit. We're doing some really neat stuff there, next week we're doing a socially distanced soda fountain event, where we're serving the old school soda fountain drinks, which is really neat. And the residents are really looking forward to that. So we're really trying to think of things to keep our residents engaged, during this whole ordeal.

That sounds fun. A soda fountain, you can really make that up and be, it also be like an activity and an event and all of that. So that sounds like, oh, that sounds really fun.

Um, so you brought up the staff and I'm wanting to ask you a question about that. You said that one of the things that the two of you are really trying to do now is support the teams to help them continue to offer solutions, offer creative ideas and that type of thing. So just speaking about your staff, how are they doing? Are they staying upbeat? Like, what are you seeing from your staff through this whole thing?

Steve: They are. Vi is an incredible company. I want to, I want to say that first and foremost, and you know, this, the staff, we as a company, we really appreciate everything that our staff is doing on a daily basis.

Uh, so we're, we're, we're constantly doing, uh, employee appreciation events, um, you know, those types of things because it, we couldn't do it without our, our day-to-day staff every day. And, you know, our residents appreciate them. They've had the appreciation, um, socially distance events for our teams. Um, so, you know, our job from here to Chicago is just kinda keep on a, given the, sort of the rah-rah and the nice job, because they really are the ones who are going into work every day and putting on those masks and gloves and gowns and, you know, whatever else it takes and, um, and, and serving our residents. And everybody's appreciated from our residents up to the president of our company.

ViLiving Chefimage from viliving.com

And Mark, did you want to add something? I thought it sounded like maybe you had something at the beginning.

Mark: No, I mean, I echo Steve's comments. I mean, one of the things I want to mention, we're very fortunate to work in a company that really does value our employees tremendously. Our turnover is very, very low for the industry especially. That allows us to really execute programs consistently at a very high level, because we've got trained employees and the people who've been with us for years and years, and really understand the needs of our customer and really understand how the communities can best operate.

So we're fortunate in that respect, but we've also really had to really kick it into high gear. We had several incentive programs, we've got bonus programs in place, lots of programs to reward the staff and make sure that they're, you know, focused with us and that at the same time, they're able to get out. And even for part time employees, vacation time and lots of benefits.

And so, we're really, making sure that we set ourselves up as a company and that has preceded Steve and my involvement in the company, over the last several years. We're just really focused on hiring the best and ensuring that they're well-trained, and then they're really in a position to take care of our customers, our residents, and that's a formula that I don't think really ever breaks. And it goes out of style because companies, don't see the long term. We're fortunate to have leadership and an ownership that allows us to really focus on, doing the right thing all the time and making sure that we're in this for the long haul and that our residents are just incredibly well taken care of and we’re providing great experiences to them at all times. We get that's magical. We get that, that’s not every company out there.

I think, that's extremely accurate. I know that a through COVID, there's been some changes with how staffing has happened, but even prior to the pandemic, I know that Vi had a very low turnover rate and it speaks to how well they treat their employees, which then in turn working with myself for a company where I know I'm appreciated, because I'm appreciated I then take better care of my customers. And I know that's what your staff is doing as well.

So, out of curiosity, I know you have a number of front of the house employees. How did you transition their tasks when they can't be serving in the restaurants?

Mark: They’ve really gone to a lot of different parts of the building. So, we've had a need for front of house team members who are delivering meals for ensuring that meals are expedited and put together properly. So, there's still a lot of functions that they're involved with, clearly not serving tableside.

There have been opportunities where those front of the house employees particularly have gone and helped other departments, whether that's a screening or, or helping out in housekeeping or other areas of building that needed more attention. We early on made sure our employees had hours, we weren't cutting hours. We were committed to their well-being, physically and health wise as well. So, I think we focused a lot on that.

One thing we really started to sort of look or implement through this timeframe is training. We see training as an incredibly valuable investment. Steve and I have been working with an external partner, Lobster Inc. and Lobster does video training; they're wonderful to deal with. We've had them on the culinary side for a good amount of time and doing some culinary training.

We're in the process of rolling out a new training program for the front of house. It really focuses on their job skills and make sure that they have the appropriate skills to move up to the next level, whether that's from a server system server or a lead server or bartending or whatever those roles are that we're giving them the proper support and proper training. So, we've used some what might be perceived as downtime amongst the front of house crews, the front of house team members to, to use their, excess time for really elevating their skillset and elevating their knowledge so that as we reopen, we have an even stronger workforce than when we went into COVID.

The other reality is that other parts of hospitality, restaurant and hotel sectors, have really clearly suffered through this time. And so, we've been able to hire and bring in people where we had openings that came with very high skill levels, relative to what might've been applying, you know, the people who might not have been applying in senior living in the past, which we really, really appreciate that. And then we take that as an opportunity to really elevate the service levels in our communities.

I think it shows the quality of your company and of the two of you, your leadership that piece of, instead of looking at this as downtime and not necessarily using that time to invest in your employees, how smart of the two of you and of your organization to say to your people, you are important to us, we're going to invest in you, and we're going to make sure that coming out of the pandemic as things change, you're going to be even better equipped to serve their customer, the end user, which is the resident, obviously. I think that that is so smart.

I think you also hit on something there too with talking about having people from hospitality come over and having somebody who is potentially extremely experienced come in. I know that in senior living the hours are better than, many times, in hospitality. So, I hope that they fall in love with the industry as I did when I started in the industry. I'm not going to date myself, but we'll just say a long time ago.

So, I think that you've pretty much covered my questions when we are talking about COVID and how you've really moved through that situation. So, at this point, my next question is really gonna be, when you look down the road, what's next for Vi? How do you think your culinary will change considering that you know that there's going to be probably more grab-and-go, more of the reheat, retherm-type meals, et cetera? Really, when you look down the road, what do you think is going to be the culinary services for Vi living?

Steve: Well, I wish I had a crystal ball, I would answer that question a little bit easier. I think we're, as we know, we're in uncharted waters. No one really knows what's going to happen. One thing that I, Mark and I both work with is our design team. So we're working on a couple of master plans right now, redesigning kitchens and redesigning dining rooms.

The question comes up all the time, you know, are we still gonna have buffets? I don't know the answer to that question right now, but, in the future, that's a big consideration, because our residents really enjoy their buffets. But we want to keep them safe. So, I don't know if that's something that's going to continue on or not. I've already had a couple of directors telling me that, no, we're never going to see a buffet again. I don't know, a year from now, will that opinion change? Are we always going to have to have our tables six feet apart? I don't know.

There's a lot of questions out there, but I think that with the support of our executive team, and the company, we work for, we will have, we will navigate through those questions and I'm sure at the end of the day, we will be still doing it better than anybody else.

Mark: I would underscore, and I think this has changed us. There's no doubt that we're going to come out differently than we went into it through time. As I said a moment ago, I think people are going to be more focused on just general safety and the clean restaurants are gonna win, the clean facilities and the facilities to take the time to do things properly, to execute properly, you know, in a safe environment are going to get rewarded. I think for us, that means, we've got to look at what the future holds.

As we continue to change, not just based on COVID, but also the industry is changing with the onset and the arrival of large numbers of baby boomers in the communities. We have to change anyway. We were already change-ready, kind of future focused, and ensuring that we were getting ready to move along.

But I think this hastened that in some ways that when we, as we really reopened, we need more space to dine in. So, it's really focused on we'll have full meal service in our bars that we're already pushing, but a lot of times that was, limited or light, we're going to be pushing to ensure that we have, more robust meal offerings, and a larger breadth of offerings in our bar spaces, because that will allow us to serve more residents over the same amount of time in that dinner time window.

I think we'll be looking at outdoor spaces more carefully and looking to really build them out more effectively, so we've got, whether it's heating or cooling or covers and things like that. As Steve said, that's all part of the master planning process.

But, I do think this has changed us. And I think we're gonna have to really focus on what that means for our industry and our company in general. I don't think we go back to whatever normal, there's no turning this back to say we're just at some point going to be back exactly where we were. We hope to have all the restaurants open. We hope to have all the bars serving. We hope to be in lots of special events and lots of parties and lots of catered special events for our residents and holiday theme parties and all that, but it's going to be different. We're going to be doing them in different ways and it has broadened our availability. And I think to-go, as I said a minute ago, I think to-go and in-room dining and in-suite dining, whatever it looks like, I think that's going to be really a bigger part of what we do in the future as well.

Vi LivingImage from viliving.com

The uncharted waters and the uncertainty, I think those are going to be themes that we're going to hear for the next while. And I think that being able to flex and move and be like have transitional spaces, like your outdoor dining spaces in your Glenview, Illinois, community are probably going to look different than your outdoor spaces in Florida or California, where they really can't be outside most of the time of the year.

And I think that that's a really big takeaway that I've seen from the pandemic is we have to have almost a very flexible plan, no matter what it looks like, because we don't know how things are going to change. We don't know the long-term impacts of how the pandemic is going to affect us. And it sounds like you guys are very much, like we know we're going to have a path. We know we're going to get through this. We just don't know exactly what it looks like. So we have to be flexible as well.

Mark: I agree. No, I think that's very important.

So, well, I think with that being said, this has been a really great conversation. Was there anything that either of you wanted to add before we wrap up?

Mark: Thank you for thinking of us. We appreciate it. We appreciate the relationship we’ve had with Boelter the last year and a half, two years. It's been amazing and we continue to learn a lot from you all. We continue to see the value. And I think for us we really, we talk about partnerships with our vendors. We don't really want one and done projects, and we also really don't want a transactional relationship with our vendors. We really, really relish that opportunity to have that, that deep partnership with Boelter not only through services, but also product, equipment, et cetera. And so, I think it's important that we explore these themes and talk to each other, but then also, look at how we best partner to go forward.

Steve: Yeah, I echo what Mark said, this has been a great partnership and I really enjoy working with you Shelly, and your team. It's been great. I appreciate you working with us on this podcast and, I look forward to continuing the relationship.

Thank you very much. It has been a very fun time for me to get to know Vi Living and to see your communities. And I seriously cannot wait to travel again, because I think I need to get out to your Phoenix communities and I need to see some more in Florida.

So with that being said, we'll say thank you so much to Mark Southern and Steve Sandblom from Vi Senior Living, and for your insight today, it's been a joy to talk with you. And I hope that Vi continues to find great success through the pandemic. I'm confident that you will, but I also will hope it for you as well. So with that being said, thank you very much.

Steve: Thank you very much.

Mark: Thank you for your time.

Listen to Shelly's other recent podcast about COVID-19 and how it impacts senior living communities across the country. Want to see more about Boelter's work with senior living communities? Check out some of our service offering and our portfolio.

The Boelter Wire

The Boelter Wire is an episodic podcast that focuses on thought-leadership conversations with industry experts and established partners, and is designed to help listeners evolve their business, stay competitive and pursue their passions.

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