Talking with Thomas Rivers, Director of Dining services
1. Tell us about Cypress Village
Cypress Village is a continuing care retirement community here in Jacksonville. We’re located off San Pablo, near the Mayo Clinic. We have close to 800 residents. The majority live independently, in either a fully detached house or within our apartment complex. While the residents live independently we provide services like housekeeping and dining.
2. Where do your residents generally come from?
They’re mostly local, although we do have some national advertising that attracts residents from outside of Jacksonville.
3. Why do people choose Cypress Village?
Well, the community is beautiful and it can almost be like living at a resort. That’s one reason. But the main reason, in my view, is the people and the sense of community that exists here.
4. How important is the culinary aspect to people's decision to come to Cypress Village?
It’s huge! Most of our residents are eating with us every day, often more than once. I have restaurants I enjoy but I don’t eat at any of them every day. When you’re eating 100% of your meals with us it’s important that the food is great and that it stays varied and interesting. It’s also important to have people you enjoy being around and a sense that you can interact with the culinary staff to let them know what you like, or what you don’t like.
5. How do you deal with the issue that people can love a restaurant but may not want to eat there every day?
We have to do different things, and make it fun. We have menu chats every Wednesday where residents come to see the menu we’ve planned out for the following week. We go through all the menu items to get feedback on what the residents want and to incorporate changes they may request. We also have a resident suggestion log to capture ideas.
6. How do you make it fun?
Lots of ways. We’re always putting on special events. We may open a Cherries Jubilee station in the dining room, for no other reason than for fun.
7. What sorts of things do residents want from their dining?
Most people enjoy good food, no matter what it is. Comfort foods like chicken pot pies, meat loaf, and catfish and grits are really popular. We’ll also serve items like filet mignon Oscar and short ribs. We make our food from scratch and offer a wide variety of items. As long as we prepare things well the feedback will be great.
8. How do you accommodate individual preference and tastes?
With over 700 people eating with us daily that can be a challenge, but our focus is to accommodate requests as best we can. Sometimes it can be as simple as changing the protein that comes with a dish, or providing a baked option instead of deep fried. Things like our menu chats give people a chance to provide input on what they like to eat, but we’re a close community and people know they can ask me or one of the staff if they have a special request and we’ll do our best to be as accommodating as we can.
9. Do your residents follow the popular food trends, such as gluten free eating, or the latest diets?
Food fads seep into every market now, so we do get some of that. We’re very flexible. For example, if we’re serving fried chicken we can also have a roasted option to make it gluten free. There are a few things that are more requested, such as lower sodium. We have two soups of the day, for example, and one is always a low sodium option. We also have a line of items we call Optimum Life that are lower in fat, sodium and cholesterol. We’ll have a selection from the Optimum Life category on the menu every day.
10. How often do you change the menu?
We have two parts to the menu. What we call the “right side” of the menu has a soup and salad, three entrees, three vegetables, three starches and three desserts. Those change every single day. On the other side of the menu we feature five different favorites such as filet mignon, salmon, burgers, and fried shrimp. These favorites change once a week.
11. Can you tell us about the restaurants at Cypress Village?
The main dining room is where most people eat their meals. The food is highly influenced by resident requests and combines regularly changing items with weekly favorites. Residents can bring their own wine to enjoy with their meal.
The Loon’s Nest is our bar and bistro. It’s one of my favorite areas. When I arrived 5 years ago it was mainly a common area, with a TV on the wall and a BYOB event every week. I saw a lot of potential in that space, so we went through the process of getting a liquor license and setting up a bar. At first it was not well attended, but we hired a few bartenders and servers and things began to pick up. It has gotten so busy now that we even have a bar manager to oversee things. Despite being busier we still focus on the personal touch. If you let us know you’ve got a favorite drink, we’ll make sure to stock a bottle and keep it behind the bar for you. Our prices are also phenomenal, which helps. We have an event going on every night of the week; things like trivia, happy hour, cocktail specials and bar bingo. The food for the Loon’s Nest comes from the Sandpiper Cafe. It tends to be on the more casual side - sandwiches and that sort of thing.
The Sandpiper Cafe itself is very casual. A lot of people will pick something up to go.
In addition to the formal restaurants we also offer private dining events, gourmet dinners prepared by the executive chef and catering. And for those who want to eat in, we’ll also deliver food to the houses and apartments.
12. What sort of catering do you do?
Guy Carpenter is our Catering Manager. He’s probably got the highest resident satisfaction of anyone at Cypress Village; everyone loves Guy. He plans every detail of an event, sometimes months in advance. Because Guy is so popular we’ll often have residents bring their church or social groups to Cypress Village for a catered event. Guy can handle anything. We have a number of rooms we use for entertaining. Guy has also set up in the houses when a resident wants to host a house warming party at their place.
13. What are the gourmet dinners advertised in the community?
Our entire culinary team including the Executive Chef, Sous Chef and Kitchen Supervisor all collaborate with what different dishes they want to try out. We have two of these dinners monthly, along with some smaller meals such as whole Maine lobster and four course meals prepared by the Executive Chef and Dining Director in the main dining room. These are the times where our culinary team gets to express themselves and the love and passion we all share for food.
14. What are your monthly theme dinners?
The themes change every year. This year our theme is Broadway shows. We just had our Oklahoma event, where we served up barbecue, with the servers in jeans and flannel shirts and bales of hay lying about. Last year we focused on different countries. When we did Brazil we had a Carnival theme. They’re fun events and they let us try some different things.
We also have special events like our barbecue cookouts. I’m currently working on a cookout for the Fall. We’ll bring in a giant smoker and set it up outside by the water. We’ll do ribs, sausages, chicken and brisket. Barbecue is one of the most popular menu items and most people will attend our cookout events.
A few months ago we had a low country boil, complete with a bluegrass band and Cypress lemonade in our mason jars. Good times!
15. People would probably be quite surprised at how upscale the dining can be at Cypress Village. Has it always been that way?
It’s something we’re always working on and I think we’re continually getting better and better. We want dining to feel special, even if it’s for a simple meal. And then we want to have those times when we can offer a meal that can compete with what you’d find at some of the best restaurants in Jacksonville. My background is with hotels, restaurants and country clubs and that’s what I’m bringing to Cypress Village.
16. Can you tell us more about your background?
I’ve been cooking since I was around 15 years old. I used my dad as a guinea pig for a lot of my tastings. I was born in St. Augustine and grew up there. When I was going to St. Augustine High School they had the Southeast Culinary Institute, which I attended as a junior and a senior. By the time I graduated from high school I was able to get out in the world. I started at Cortesses Bistro in St. Augustine, where I worked for about 3 years. I then moved around to a number of other restaurants and eventually worked my way up to Executive Chef at the Selva Marina Country Club. After that I moved to One Ocean to work under Chef Ted Peters - that’s where I learned pretty much everything I know now. I knew how to cook and move around in a kitchen, but One Ocean taught me how to put my passions to work. That was a cool experience. From One Ocean I went to work with a friend of mine who was an Executive Chef at Brett’s Waterway Cafe in Fernandina. I stayed there for a while until I got a call to come take a look at Cypress Village.
17. What appealed to you about Cypress Village?
Well, I have to say I was extremely skeptical when I was approached. I interviewed with the Regional Director who told me I would be perfect for the job. I was surprised at that and asked him why. He said my background in higher end restaurants was exactly what they wanted for Cypress Village and they wanted me to come in and help make a difference. I worked as a sous chef for about a year before becoming Executive Chef. I’m now the Dining Director and am responsible for the department as a whole. It was one of the hardest decisions of my life to step away from the kitchen.
Many chefs can get bored doing the same menu in a restaurant day after day. Cypress Village was a great challenge for me, and that’s what really attracted me, and still appeals to me now. We get to produce between 400 and 800 meals a day and things are never the same. We’re always being challenged to come up with new ideas to keep things fresh, and in my role I get to play a large part in making that happen.
18. How do you want people to think of the dining experience at Cypress Village?
I want to change how people think of senior living and food. People often associate senior living with cafeteria-style food that’s not all that appealing. I want to be more upscale, in the food and in the experience. That’s why we put so much effort into not only the food but also the atmosphere and environment. We even train our servers the way we would if they were working in a fine dining restaurant. We want our diners to have a fine dining experience - just in an hour.
19. What’s the difference, to you, between your experience working in restaurants versus here at Cypress Village?
One of the main differences is the people - the residents. When I walked through One Ocean I’d see different people every day. Here I’m able to build a lot of relationships with the residents. That allows me to get feedback from them that I can use to improve their next experience.
20. What do you mean when you talk about “the art of food?"
For me, when I look at a carrot or a beet, I’m always thinking: “what can I do to show you off? How can I make people want to eat you?” It’s about having fun with the food and doing as many different things as you can from one ingredient - and trying to do things people may not have seen before. In the end it’s also about making food that just tastes really, really good.
21. What do you look for when you’re hiring your chefs?
I look for people who have a strong passion for food. They also need to be able to produce high quality food, quickly. We serve the majority of our meals in a tight window of time and you need to get the food out quickly while still ensuring it meets a high standard. It’s important that our chefs are also hungry to learn more. We don’t just cook the same thing over and over, so creativity and passion are essential.
22. Are the restaurants at Cypress Village open to the public?
They’re just for residents and their guests. A lot of our residents do have their families and friends join them in the restaurants. We even get some family members who may be visiting for a week, and they’ll usually dine with us while they’re here. We have a lot of special events too; we can easily have a catered meal for 100 people where only 20 or so are actually residents.
23. If someone is considering Cypress Village as a residence and wants to experience dining here for themselves, what are their options?
The best thing is to contact our marketing department and they’ll invite you in to try the food for yourself. We’ll make sure that when you visit you’ll get a chance to meet with myself or Ty Morgan, our Executive Director. We also host special events every once in a while that we open up to people who’ve enquired about Cypress Village in the past. We’re hosting “A Taste of Cypress” in September, for example.
24. What’s the reaction you get when people come to Cypress Village to eat for the first time?
I think people are surprised by the experience. We’ll often hear people say things like “I don’t know if I can afford this?” which is actually a reaction we like. We don’t want a person to think they have to settle for something that’s unappetizing. They’re often comparing what they try to what they’d expect to pay in a restaurant and it isn’t like that.
25. Anything else?
I want people to know that Cypress Village isn’t just a retirement home where you eat the same meat loaf and spaghetti every day. The food you eat here will have variety and tons of love in it.