by Mike Achoki
Special to the Leaven
OLATHE — Executive chef Mike Czaplewski cherishes the hustle and bustle of the kitchen.
At Santa Marta, the Catholic-sponsored senior living community in Olathe where he works, his contributions help facilitate bonds among hundreds of seniors who get together daily in the dining room to break bread.
This dynamic was disrupted in early 2020, when COVID-19 struck stateside and upended food service nationwide.
“The most challenging thing at the beginning was figuring out how to maintain the integrity and quality of the meals we serve,” said Czaplewski, whose 14-person team had to shift to packaging and delivering to-go meals after communal dining was temporarily suspended as a safety measure.
Paring down the menu to allow for added flexibility was key, according to Czaplewski. Typically, Santa Marta serves ever-changing daily specials as well as a set menu. The community opted to downsize its set menu but chose to maintain its daily specials so residents could enjoy a variety of dishes.
“With everything being so unpredictable, the menu adjustment allows my team to be nimble in case we’re ever short-staffed,” said Czaplewski.
With dining room service halted, servers handle the food delivery component of the operation. Residents place calls to the kitchen to order, and a handful of culinary team members zip around the community on foot or in golf carts to drop off meals at apartments and villas.
“It’s truly a team effort,” said Czaplewski, who is proud Santa Marta is still able to efficiently serve 3,500 quality meals each week despite the pandemic. “My team has really stepped up to ensure residents enjoy the high level of service they’re accustomed to.”
Czaplewski explained that taste and presentation remain at the forefront of his work, and residents have appreciated his team’s unwavering commitment.
“While residents miss eating in groups, they are very understanding and have responded very positively to our efforts,” he said.
“We’re lacking for nothing in the way of comforts,” said Santa Marta resident Bill Poehling, who has been touting his positive pandemic dining experiences to family and friends. “The food arrangements are well beyond adequate, and the menu selections and quality are very good.”
Poehling extended his compliments to other community offerings as well.
“The staff is always responsive to special requests while remaining upbeat and friendly,” he said. “The system is working well, and we’re blessed to live in such a beautiful, well-cared-for environment.”
The commendation exemplifies the level of satisfaction Czaplewski and his team strive for with everyone they serve.
“While many things are different because of COVID-19, we make sure we give residents the best culinary experience possible,” said Czaplewski. “That is always our top priority.”