When Sharon Habanec, Vice President of Culinary Services at Willow Valley Communities, talks about her team, she beams with pride. Sharon started at Willow Valley Communities in 1986 as a part-time hostess at the Lakes. “My family had just moved to Lancaster shortly after my daughter was born and I was looking for an opportunity to interact with adults,” Sharon explains. That part-time position turned into a full-time passion for Sharon. “The opportunities were there for me year after year, and Willow Valley Communities appreciated and cultivated my talents. I love the atmosphere here and I love our residents,” she added.
Surprisingly, Sharon says she is not a foodie. “Of course I love food, but I leave the recipe building and cooking up to the experts on our culinary team. My true passion is team development. Identifying and nurturing the skills and abilities on the team has allowed us to develop a robust culinary program and a top-notch service team,” Sharon said.
With a department of 500 team members, Sharon has the ability to allow them to go as far as they want. Eight chefs and three sous chefs oversee the kitchens and manage the culinary offerings at each community. An additional five managers and 20 supervisors manage day-to-day operations and team member scheduling and training. “We strive for a high level of excellence at Willow Valley Communities, and that certainly includes our culinary offering,” Sharon stated.
With more than 2,500 residents at Willow Valley Communities, Sharon and her team are busy. Eleven culinary venues at Willow Valley Communities, including those in the residential and supportive living buildings, serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner 365 days a year. The team operates two cafés and coffee shops, including Marketplace and Vitality Café on the Lakes campus, The Overlook Artisanal Coffeehouse and Wine Bar, and The Clubhouse Café and Ice Cream Parlor on the Manor campus. In addition, the team manages two fine dining venues: Four Seasons at Spring Run, and Willow Valley Communities’ full-service gourmet restaurant, Local Table, located in The Clubhouse.
Additionally, the team is in charge of the food and beverage offerings at The VUE, the exciting rooftop lounge at The Vistas community. It also oversees Corner Sweets, Willow Valley Communities’ demonstration bakery located in the North community.
Less widely known is the production kitchen that has been in operation for nearly 26 years. Located on the ground level of the North community, a team of five produce 105 varieties of soup from scratch for all of Willow Valley Communities, as well as stocks, gravies, and most desserts, including gluten-free and no-sugar-added options.
Catering special dinners and events provides residents with the ability to entertain family and friends without having to do the work. Sharon’s catering team includes a chef and a catering manager, who plan every detail and execute delicious meals, creating memorable experiences for all.
The catering team also coordinates special culinary events at Willow Valley Communities. One of the most popular is the annual Lobsterfest. Each August, members of the team travel to Maine to personally pick up fresh lobsters for the nearly 200 residents who attend this annual event held at Chautauqua Hall.
The scope of service the Willow Valley Communities Culinary Services team provides is somewhat mind-boggling. Willow Valley Communities has 2,500 residents from 37 states, age 55 and better, covering several generations. Ninety percent of the food served to residents is prepared from scratch in Willow Valley Communities’ kitchens. There are a lot of dietary preferences and palates and Sharon’s team is able to satisfy most all of them. “Whether someone is vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, calorie conscious, has specific dietary requirements, or anything in between, we cater to them.” Three different entrée items that change daily are offered in the main dining venues, but the options don’t end there. There are a variety of alternatives available upon request. The offerings cycle around the four seasons, allowing for creative menu planning.
With most items cooked to order, residents can meet both dietary requirements and satisfy their personal tastes. One Willow Valley Communities resident tells her story of how in November 2017, she transitioned to a whole food, plant based diet to lose weight and lower her blood pressure and cholesterol. And she’s forthright about the challenge she presented, saying, “I admit, I drove the culinary team a little crazy with all my questions and needs. However, their willingness to make changes in the menus and preparation of the food has been most welcome. I’ve lost the weight and dropped 40 points in blood pressure and 71 in my cholesterol. My husband has also become healthier. Our success in reaching our goals has been helped tremendously by the Willow Valley Communities Culinary Services Team.” The Willow Valley Communities Culinary Services Team is a self-managed operation with the freedom to design and manage all of its own programs. However, there is a high level of resident involvement. “We take residents’ feedback very seriously. It’s so important to us,” says Sharon. “We make every attempt to please them and exceed their expectations.”
One of the keys to success for her team is that it is constantly analyzing food offerings. Her chefs have the creative freedom to come up with new recipes, and they work very hard at maintaining open communication with residents. “We are very transparent,” explains Sharon.
At the most basic level, Sharon says, “Table touches are very important. My front-of-the-house supervising staff continually interacts with our diners at each meal period to get residents’ feedback.” They email a detailed report to Sharon every evening with residents’ thoughts on the meal and service. Residents also have the opportunity to complete comment cards, which are reviewed by the Culinary Services Leadership Team. In the first six months of this year, 30,000 comment cards were collected.
Three Dining Committees, which include resident representatives from all locations and the culinary management team, meet monthly. It’s a great opportunity to share what is happening in the department and review culinary selections and possible improvements that can be made to recipes, production, or products.
At special taste-testing sessions held quarterly, the Culinary Services Team presents new recipes to residents. Recipes are created by the chefs, or may come directly from residents’ suggestions. Residents taste the dishes and provide their feedback. Willow Valley Communities’ chefs plan the next season’s culinary offerings based on the outcomes of these tastings.
Willow Valley Communities Manager of Nutrition and Culinary Services, Stephanie Sodak, also works with the chefs through the menu planning process, assessing the menus for overall nutritional balance, and, of course, taste. “Food can have a significant impact on our quality of life and can help us to maintain good health. As a registered dietitian, I think it is very important to make informed decisions about what we eat,” she explains.
Stephanie nutritionally analyzes the recipes and makes them available on Net Nutrition, a nutrition analysis webpage that allows residents to make smart food choices. Stephanie also plans nutrition education programs and provides one-on-one education to residents upon request.
Sharon is also very proud of Willow Valley Communities’ extensive Farm-to- Table program. “We are so lucky to be in Lancaster,” she says, “The produce here is second to none. We’ve enjoyed getting to know local farmers and working directly with them to plan and grow seasonal produce for Willow Valley Communities’ menu cycles.”
“The produce is picked at peak freshness and is full of natural flavors and vitamins. We can drive to the farm and see the fields, look at how the crop is doing, watch the daily activity on the farm, and see what we are going to get as an end product. We can stand behind the product because we truly know where it grew and how it was tended. If a resident asks where the heirloom tomatoes are from, we can say, ‘Just down the road in Quarryville, a nearby town.’ ”
The Farm-to-Table program is also part of Willow Valley Communities’ commitment to our planet’s sustainability. Craig Thompson, Executive Vice President of Residential Operations and Chief Sustainability Officer for Willow Valley Living, the management company for Willow Valley Communities, explains, “From a sustainability standpoint, the produce doesn’t have to be frozen or preserved and shipped long distances. This means less time on a truck and fewer greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere.”
Scott Megill, Corporate Chef, shares his perspective on how the culinary department approaches the wide variety of dietary needs and desires of the residents. “A good metaphor is a tightrope walker with a long pole for balance. On one side are the residents who adhere to a vegan, or gluten-free diet, or have a desire for more ethnic foods—and on the other end of the pole are the residents who just want simple home-style meals like chicken pot pie and meatloaf. With the majority of the residents in the middle, we use their feedback to find a balance and walk that line. That pole manifests itself with the variety in our menus, the number of ‘always available’ items, and the sta.’s willingness to make modifications to recipes based on resident needs. The culinary department is working on developing a mindset of, ‘If we can do it, we will do it.’ ”
Sharon says Willow Valley Communities’ Culinary Services Team strives to exceed expectations and provide a level of food and service that is synonymous with the level of quality experienced throughout Willow Valley Communities. She is incredibly proud of her team—especially of how well they work together.
Quoting the team’s motto, Sharon says, “We really are one team with one mission. And that mission is to wow Willow Valley Communities’ residents every day, at every meal.”
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