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Quality service can help to create a sense of community

Feeding young adults at a camp in the Alaskan wilderness, Cindy Heilman had an epiphany about foodservice. She had quit an earlier job as a restaurant manager to follow her husband, an employee with the forest service, to the Last Frontier, where she found work as a camp cook. The 20-something campers came from all over the United States to learn about the environment, and despite the beautiful surroundings and unique experience, they were sometimes homesick. Heilman came to realize how important food and the mealtimes were in comforting the campers and creating a sense of community. She later went back to school to become a dietitian and earned a master’s degree in nutrition and food management. Heilman worked in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities for senior citizens in Portland, Ore., and later joined Sysco Foodservice as a health care specialist. After 17 years with the distributor, Heilman started her own company, Higher Standards, to train foodservice staffs in health care facilities on the importance of hospitality and service. In the past two years she has developed a training program called Kind Dining.

Is service much of an issue in nursing homes or assisted-living facilities?

There is a huge disparity. From a resident’s perspective, their service priority is politeness and courtesy, and then that meals are hot and on time. The staff is thinking, hot and on time and nothing about their [own] attitude. This is a fixable issue.

In what way?

Anyone delivering a meal needs to understand the key component of tableside service—it’s about relationships. Serving a meal in front of someone sends a huge message. What I’ve found is servers are not taught the fundamentals of presenting a meal and what it means.

It sounds like much of this applies to serving seniors in full-service restaurants as well.

Any meal service or tableside service. By 2035, there will be anywhere from 35 million to 72 million people over the age of 65.

What advice would you give servers about waiting on seniors?

Don’t be afraid of developing relationships with elderly people. Be more empathetic. It’s a generation that appreciates a little extra courtesy. Appreciate the interaction. It does take a little more patience. They take more time to read their order and decide what they want. And that’s OK.

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