A Grand Rapids-based CCRC uses great food to bring residents, staff and the neighborhood together.
Senior residents find a home and a hearth at Beacon Hill at Eastgate, a newly built independent living community in Grand Rapids, MI. The hearth is a fiery oven in a bistro near the foyer. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, chefs are pulling out fresh-baked loaves of sourdough bread, which some lucky residents sample minutes later, with a touch of butter.
The relationship between food and community is the concept on which Beacon Hill was planned, built and is now a central part of the day-to-day life for the 130 independent living residents (the adjacent clinical community building houses 125), whose average age is 79, says Jeffrey T. Huegli, president and CEO.
“This facility was built around food entirely,” he says. “Community is food; it just is.”
From the half-acre community garden to the friendly bistro/library area with the open hearth to the smaller tables that make conversation easier, all 250,000 square feet of the place is geared towards bringing people together in a way that’s beneficial to their well being.
“Every aspect of our facility was developed around the idea of building the community of our residents, staff and visitors,” says Huegli, who studied independent living models all across the country before breaking ground on Beacon Hill. “Many are segmented, like rooms of a house. One thing they often lack is community.”
Beyond the hearth and bistro for quick meals, the main kitchen and full bake shop create all the food for a formal restaurant and two more casual club-style dining rooms. Fresh ingredients (many from local farmers, butchers and Beacon Hill’s garden) are cooked to order and plated on carefully selected china.
“I’ve never looked at it as anything other than a fine dining environment,” says Timothy England, CEC, AAC, executive chef.
Appetizers, soups, salads, entrees, side dishes and desserts are placed before residents gathered in regular groups, like the "5 O'Clock Ladies." Some diners come in as “singles,” but they’re never seated alone for dinner, unless they specifically ask.
“It promotes community among them,” says April Schaab, CDM, dining director.
The signature dish at Beacon Hill? Prime Rib. It’s rubbed with rosemary, thyme and shallots, and gets its unique flavor from local maple syrup, England says.
“We won’t be offering it quite as much into the summer months, since it’s a little heavier, but the residents still have to have it at least twice a month,” he says.
Summer will bring some chilled soups—more than 200 different soup recipes are in the works, using produce from the garden, naturally—along with fruit salsas, compotes and vegetables seared on the outdoor grill to be enjoyed on patio seating.
Coming to the Chef’s Table
The 1919 Room, a stately room with a long table and a glitzy chandelier, is where monthly Chef’s Table events create a buzz among residents, who are selected to participate on a rotating basis over the course of the year.
“Chef’s Tables are a five-course meal where we pull out all the stops…it’s about people interacting with others they may not have otherwise met,” England says. “We invite employees from every part of the company. People from the finance department and their spouses eat alongside residents.”
“It’s like the ‘golden ticket’ from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” Huegli says. “They look forward to it very much.”
At a recent event, the menu included Carpaccio of Beef Tenderloin, Fresh Summer Style Gazpacho paired with Honey Whole Wheat Croutons and Sour Cream, Seared Sea Scallops presented on Pea and Coriander Pancakes and Lemongrass Aioli, Sauteed Carrot Ribbons and Shiitake Mushrooms, Blackberry and Cabernet Sorbet, Classic Crème Caramel and Blood Orange Supremes.
The Chef’s Table events are also an opportunity each time for eight chefs to work with the executive chef and the sous chef and blossom with their own ideas for the menu. England describes menu planning as an intensely collaborative “think tank” where he strives to give every chef a voice.
“It’s not just about the community here, we are also thinking about the community in the kitchen,” he says.
Sharing Recipes and Fun
Residents have a lot of chances of their own to impact the menu with their own recipes from home. “They bring a wealth of experience with them when they move in here,” England says. “I’d be crazy not to tap into that.”
Recently, bakers re-created residents’ own well-loved recipes for coffee cake, cheesecake, cupcakes and an almond bar, and made a fun event of it. “They were sitting there and as each one came out, we let them know whose recipe it was. They just loved it,” Schaab says.
Close ties with the culinary arts program at nearby Grand Rapids Community College (England sits on the board) provide a steady stream of competent young employees who are eager to learn in the kitchen at Beacon Hill.
The relationship with the culinary students also provided a new “starter” (the yeasty mixture) for rye bread, says Sous Chef Maggie Wilson-Ross, who oversees much of the baking and whose mother is a local pastry chef.
Events like a ‘50s Sock Hop also bring residents and staff together. Staffers wore poodle skirts, and a certain member of the kitchen staff has dressed up like Fonzie twice (willingly!), Schaab says. A ‘full English breakfast’ was served for the day of the royal wedding last year, and everyone wore fancy hats.
Back to the Garden
The garden, a half acre just beginning to come to life this spring, is made up of 24 plots, half of which are gardened by residents and the other half by neighbors from the surrounding houses.
Two large end spots for fruits, vegetables and herbs belong to the kitchen, and last year, the harvest was bountiful.
“We got so much basil and made so much pesto that we froze some of it, and it lasted us until just recently,” England says.
Meeting neighbors in the garden is another good old fashioned way of building community.
“The integration with the residents and the neighborhood has been great,” Huegli says. “People who live around here walk back there with strollers and wagons, and the residents get to know them.”
While it may seem that moving to a place like Beacon Hill would be a welcome respite from the years of yardwork faced by a homeowner, many residents can’t wait to get their hands dirty again, England says.
“Last summer, Mr. Larson would knock on the kitchen door with a whole bunch of tomatoes for us to use,” he says. From that interaction flowed the practice of listing “Mr. Larson’s Tomatoes,” or “Woody Peterson’s Cucumbers,” for example, on the day’s menu.
Ideas grown from the garden also include digital signage, planned to highlight the super-local produce even more, and a walk-up farmers market that the neighborhood and employees could participate in. Of course, Beacon Hill’s famous fresh-baked bread from the hearth would be available for sale there, too.