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Serving a Greater Purpose: Forest Dining in the Era of COVID-19

When the COVID-19 pandemic reached North Carolina in March 2020, The Forest at Duke quickly initiated a set of precautionary measures, with a clear intention of keeping the continuing care retirement community and all its members safe.

The Forest’s Department of Dining Services was most certainly included in those new considerations. Due especially to the high vulnerability of the community’s resident population, Forest common areas like the cafeteria were closed indefinitely. When Governor Roy Cooper ordered all of North Carolina’s bars and restaurants to suspend dine-in services, this move was reinforced.

And so, save for guiding lights over the kitchen, dishwashing areas, and buffet lines, the dining rooms in Heartwood, Rosewood, and Greenwoods all went dark.

An anonymous resident posted this note of appreciation in the Community Center to thank Dining Services team members for their hard work during the pandemic.

Team members helping team members

In an unprecedented all hands on deck situation, team members began working across departments to help one another meet residents’ needs. With campus dine-in venues closed, Dining Services started strategically delivering meals to houses and apartments, with assistance from team members in Accounting, Administration, Health Services, Human Resources, Resident Life, and Sales & Marketing.

“That helped out a lot,” Jeffrey Torain, Assistant Dining Services Manager, says of the interdepartmental teamwork. “We learned quickly what needed to be done to ensure safe and delicious meals for every resident.”

Offering only regular and vegetable options at the beginning of restrictions, Dining Services first utilized a magnet system for deliveries. The magnets, which residents stuck on their apartment doors or cottage and Fountain View Lane mailboxes, indicated to team members whether or not a particular meal delivery was desired.

“Team members would go to each assigned hall, as well as outside, and check off each resident’s choice for the day,” Jeffrey explains. The system worked well enough in the beginning, but snags – like magnets being lost to the elements – began to take shape.

In answer to these complications, Art Ernteman, Director of Dining Services, developed a new system – the one currently in use – that involves distributing weekly menus to residents, allowing them to choose from multiple meal options.

Aalleyah McKay, Dining Coordinator, smiles at her desk. (Photo by Lauren Young)

“Menus are sent out every Tuesday and are collected every Wednesday at 11:00 a.m.,” Aalleyah McKay, Dining Coordinator, shares. “Art works closely with [Executive] Chef Alex [Brown] and the management team to put together entrées that residents enjoy the most, pairing them with fresh vegetables and hearty starches.”

In addition to the featured and vegetarian entrées, the team added salmon – a Forest favorite – and rotisserie chicken as alternative selections.

Organizing an otherwise chaotic process

Once residents have an opportunity to indicate their meal choices for the week, menus are collected and, until recently, hand delivered to the Sales & Marketing department, where Nancy Perrin took the process over for a while. The Sales Counselor accepted initial responsibility for this very important duty after being asked by Sharon Pitt, Chief Operating Officer, who heard from April Ravelli, Director of Sales & Marketing, that Nancy has strong organizational skills. The project was something Nancy was happy and enthusiastic to manage.

Nancy Perrin, Sales Counselor, sits before her masterfully organized spreadsheet, which details resident meal selections for the Department of Dining Services. (Photo by Lauren Young)

Working quickly to meet a tight deadline for her colleagues in Dining Services, Nancy meticulously reviewed each sheet, entering resident selections and applicable comments and requests onto a master spreadsheet she created for the team.

Most challenging in all of this was ensuring that she entered the information accurately. Sometimes special requests were made or days were skipped, and she had to be careful about inputting details exactly where they belonged. Still, Nancy was grateful to know she was helpful in Dining’s efforts to take care of Forest residents. In April, when she first took on the task, it required about 12 hours of her time to complete. “I got it down to about 5-6 hours as I got used to what I needed to do,” she explains.

“We couldn’t have handled this process without Nancy’s help,” Aalleyah says. “She took time out of her schedule to fulfill what most would call a tedious job. The team really appreciates her contribution.”

Once the spreadsheet was updated to reflect the week’s menu selections, Nancy sent it to Art, who shared it with managers and supervisors on his team. In late July, Nancy trained Aalleyah to take over the spreadsheet and data entry process on behalf of Dining Services, ultimately handing over the reins.

Belky Galo-Reyes, Café Captain, prepares nested stacks of color coded meal delivery bags to help accelerate the practice of bagging up resident food selections. (Photo by Lauren Young)

First things first

Because breakfast service in Independent Living temporarily suspended with the start of precautionary measures, Dining Services team members keep busy in a number of other ways during the morning hours. From the moment staff arrives each day, it’s all about seeing where they can jump in to help their teammates. The go, go, go of it all doesn’t really ease at any point, and for the front-of-house staff, much of their day-to-day protocol is coming in and prepping for lunch and dinner. Team members are assigned any number of duties, like separating meal boxes and stacks of color coded plastic bags, to ensure swift movement of meals once it’s time to get things rolling for lunch and dinner.

“In doing so, we have to count and lay out trays for the meals,” Shaneen Barnette, Dining Floor Supervisor, explains. “We also cup any condiments needed for the day. After that, we help the kitchen, if needed, by prepping salads and fruits.”

Processes are already well on their way when John Farrington, Cook, arrives for his first shift work. “The 5:00 a.m. team has already fixed breakfast for the Health & Wellness Center residents and is working on lunch when I come in,” he notes. “We usually jump in to finish lunch, which is ready between 11:00 and 11:30 a.m. Once lunch is ready, it’s taken out to the buffet line and packaged up.”

With resident meal selections organized and in hand from Aalleyah, Dining managers and supervisors coordinate a process of meal preparation for both Independent Living and Health & Wellness. Lunch and dinner each involve 8-10 team members and take approximately an hour to an hour and a half from start to finish.

Rain or shine, the Dining Services team members make their rounds every day to ensure that residents’ meals are delivered to their homes. Here, Bridgette Mason, Bartender, simultaneously collects completed menu selections from residents and drops off grocery lists for them. (Photo by Lauren Young)

A methodically organized tray line hosts the virtually seamless action of meal delivery preparation. Meal bags are color coded to match each resident’s dining preference: white for the featured entrée, green for the vegetarian selection, black for rotisserie chicken, and red for salmon. As team members work together to put meals in boxes, then in bags, and finally on carts for delivery, management calls out how many of each entrée is needed for each section of the Community Center apartment building.

“With our new delivery service in place, we all had to adjust to change,” Khadijah Johnson, Shaneen’s associate Dining Floor Supervisor, says of the adapted procedure. “With change comes challenge, but with a little time came more understanding.”

Khadijah acknowledges a few snafus along the way: certain menu items weren’t desired, meals were sometimes missed, and some feedback indicated that portion sizes were too large. Making appropriate changes wherever they were needed, the team held steadfast to their routine and adapted to their “new normal.”

And, in spite of the circumstances, Dining soon found ways to make mealtime special.

“We like the residents to know that we are thinking of them during this time, so we send out different snacks and treats with their meal,” Shaneen shares, alluding to bags of chips, fun-size candy bars, and other goodies included with each delivery.

Hadiyah Parker, Dining Services Manager, tells of another special treat – one that mimics life as it once was: “On Fridays, we include small bottles of wine [with meal deliveries], which aligns with our Social Hour theme from before COVID-19, where residents received complimentary wine.”

Enough to go around

Even while busily cooking, prepping, boxing, and bagging resident meals, Dining Services team members never forget their cohorts in other departments. Once resident lunches are packed, team member meals are individually boxed and made available in the hallway by the break room adjacent to the cafeteria so that all Forest employees can enjoy a fresh meal.

As with resident meals, team member lunches are also wrapped in color coded bags. Staff may choose from a green bag (vegetarian option) or a white one (non-vegetarian), and sometimes a salad is offered as an alternative selection.

As lunch preparation dies down, meal delivery to resident homes is imminent.

When meal service is about to begin, two hotboxes are loaded with the day’s menu choices, rolled to the service elevator, and distributed to each floor of the Health & Wellness Center, where team members await their arrival and begin circulating the meals accordingly. Apartment residents’ lunches are stacked on rolling carts and taken to each home as requested, while cottage residents’ meals are loaded onto the air-conditioned Forest at Duke bus and delivered around campus.

The bus was a necessary change from earlier delivery arrangements. At the onset of the pandemic, cottage meals were placed in the back of General Services’ white pickup truck and driven around the Forest at Duke loop and into the various cul-de-sacs. However, concerns involving the elements – particularly rain and heat and the way those things affected team members and the meals they delivered – became enough to change protocol.

Jordan Smith, Waitstaff, carefully lines meal trays with foil sheets ahead of dinner food preparation and delivery. (Photo courtesy of Shaneen Barnette)

The dinner train

Once apartment and cottage lunch deliveries are complete, Dining Services starts the cycle all over again for dinner. Because the menu is more extensive for the final meal of the day, the process by which food is prepared and packaged for residents is much more interactive. The dinner tray line assembles at 4:30 p.m.

Each dinner entrée comes with two sides, and all such meals are prepared on the buffet line in the same manner as lunch. Dinner is generally delivered between 5:00 and 5:30 p.m., and once it’s been distributed, Dining Services team members scrupulously clean the kitchen to prepare for the next day’s activities.

An added convenience

Meal delivery isn’t all that Dining Services has been up to since the start of the pandemic. The team has also been hard at work to supply an assortment of provisions to Forest residents.

Grocery request forms are delivered to campus households on Wednesdays. Essential items – toilet paper, shampoo, soaps, and the like – are available, as are food options, like canned soups, cereal, milk, eggs, and fruit. Completed forms are picked up on Thursdays to ensure that requested items are obtained and delivered to resident homes in an expedient manner. Turnaround time is indeed quick: requested items are distributed on Fridays.

Completed grocery request forms line a counter top in Heartwood, where Dining team members take inventory and prepare to obtain requested items on behalf of Forest residents. (Photo by Lauren Young)

“We quickly figured out ways to meet the needs of all of our 300+ residents,” Khadijah states.

Dining further takes care of those living in the Health & Wellness Center. “Being that team members from Health & Wellness aren’t allowed in Independent Living during the quarantine, they send stock lists two times a day for everything that’s needed for both floors,” Jeffrey remarks. “We take care of that as well.”

COVID changes everything…for now

As one might imagine, almost nothing at The Forest operates the same way it did before the pandemic found its way to North Carolina. Take it from Dining Services team members: life is different all around.

“A typical day at The Forest is no longer typical,” John shares. “We start our day getting our temperatures checked and filling out screening paperwork. We wear masks from the time we get to campus until the time we leave.”

Anyone from Dining can tell you the biggest missing piece from their day is the part they miss the most from pre-COVID life: “Getting to interact with residents,” Khadijah says. “It always seemed as if they made my day more than I made theirs.”

“I have bonded with so many residents, and to not see them is definitely on the top of the list of what I miss the most,” Aalleyah agrees. “To not be able to see them or work with them personally is something that a lot of us took for granted, but all of this makes me appreciate them a little more.”

On the buffet line, Dining team members dish out resident selections in meal trays, which were carefully lined with foil and stacked ahead of food preparation. (Photo courtesy of Shaneen Barnette)

For Shaneen, there hasn’t been much in the way of “normal” since she started working at The Forest on March 5th. “What’s most challenging for me is not getting the full experience of how service is usually run,” she says. “Luckily I was able to witness and be a part of regular service for a few days. I’m very much a people person and can’t wait to put the faces with the names that I now know so well.”

The takeaway

By all appearances, meal delivery in the era of COVID-19 may seem like a quick and simple drop-off at cottage and apartment doors, but there is so much more to the story. Across campus, many are taking notice of the incredible work done by Dining Services on behalf of residents and team members.

Dining team members Masooma Fayazi (Café Server/Kitchen Aid), Bre’anna McCaskill Herndon (Waitstaff), and Elizabeth Hernandez (Café Server/Kitchen Aid) work together to fill condiment cups ahead of a meal delivery. (Photo courtesy of Shaneen Barnette)

Residents routinely write sentiments of appreciation for the effort put into twice-daily meal delivery. “Since we are not able to physically interact with our residents, the notes and thank yous they leave on their menus bring us satisfaction,” Hadiyah says.

Khadijah feels the same way. “Seeing all of the ‘thank you’ notes and big smiles from residents’ doors is all the accolades we need,” she states. “It makes our job so much more satisfying knowing we are appreciated.”

“We have worked tremendously hard as a collective to make sure that no resident goes hungry and all are fed in a timely manner,” Aalleyah beams. “We go above and beyond. We are a team and a diverse family put together for one common goal: to better the lives of our residents every day.”

Shaneen echoes her teammates’ sentiments. “It’s always our pleasure to take care of them!”

One thing is certain, particularly in this new and unfamiliar season of pandemic living: The Forest at Duke would be nothing without its phenomenal Dining Services team.

Lauren Young, Marketing Specialist

Header image: Dining Services team member Cassydy Bustamante, Waitstaff, scoops mixed 
fruit into to-go cups ahead of a dinner delivery.
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