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Serving Up Hospitality Through Community Initiatives

December 1, 2007
by Elizabeth Sassen
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Extraordinary experiences, exciting possibilities for older adults are offered with a retail appeal

Based in Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago, Mather LifeWays is a not-for-profit organization that enhances the lives of older adults by creating Ways to Age WellSM through senior living residences, the Institute on Aging's research and education, and Community Initiatives. There are six dimensions of wellness. They include: social, vocational, spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and physical. They are integrated into every aspect of Mather LifeWays.

Mather LifeWays’ Community Initiatives includes several Mather's—More Than a Café locations which recognizes that the majority of older adults are vital, active people who are lifelong learners and able to live happily, productively, and economically in their communities.

The Café's initial draw is the restaurant, but its benefits extend beyond food and nutrition. Although people of all ages are welcome and encouraged to eat, the setting offers engaging programs and classes geared toward those 55 years and older. The “ageless” environment has been recognized with numerous national awards including the 2003 Community Service Award from American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging, the 2003 Best Practices Award from Life Services Network, the 2003 Partnership Award from the Arthritis Foundation, the 2002 Architectural Excellence in Community Design, and the 2002 Best Practice Award from the National Council on Aging's Health Promotion Institute, just to name a few.

One of America's most successful restaurant operators, Danny Meyer, who wrote Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business, believes that it's not enough to have a superior product; his “enlightened hospitality” is about how you make your customers feel while using that product that will bond your customers to you. The pioneers of Mather's—More Than a Café figured out early on that customers were coming for more than the great food and programs—they were coming for the experience. In 2002, Mather's—More Than a Café staff embarked on a journey to document, step by step, how it was creating and managing customers’ experiences. They studied other companies that adopted great customer service philosophies and took on reading assignments, one of which was Nuts!: Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success by Kevin and Jackie Freiberg. Another helpful book was Fish!: A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results by Stephen C. Lundin, Harry Paul, and John Christensen, which discussed a Seattle-based world-famous fish market known for its fun, bustling, joyful atmosphere and great customer service. The infamous FISH! video was shown to all staff, and they learned the well-known FISH! Principles: Play, Be There, Choose Your Attitude, Make Their Day.

Customer Service Training

The Café staff training workshops on customer service had a “performance theme,” complete with popcorn, movie ticket prizes, and exercises such as The Service Triangle, The Cycle of Service, and Moments of Truth. The exercises involved the step-by-step documentation of a customer's entire experience—from parking the car to entering the café to ordering food or engaging in a program. The goal was to help staff recognize all of the direct “touch points” they have with customers and the indirect, non-service-oriented touch points that get noticed by customers, such as fingerprints on the front door and trash on the sidewalk. The exercises emphasized that the experience of accessing services should be seamless and easy for customers, and that myriad opportunities exist to create positive impressions in the mind of the customer along the continuum of service. The workshops’ objective was to create not only a greater awareness of the many potential touch points staff have with customers, but also to think about how they can add the differentiating piece: an element of hospitality.

The Dream

Next, Mather's—More Than a Café put into words the “extra special—the essence—of what it was providing. To that end, the Mather's—More Than a Café Dream, along with “experience standards” to achieve the Dream, was a product of these workshops. To fulfill Mather's—More Than a Café Dream, staff members learn to make Vital Connections to create Extraordinary Experiences and Exciting Possibilities.

Vital Connections. This component of the Dream focuses on taking action to make every customer and colleague feel special, valued, and important. The five behaviors (welcome, initiate, invite, personalize, appreciate) can be taught, emphasized, tracked, and rewarded to encourage employees to reach out to customers. Thus:

  • Welcome. Greet everyone and extend warm welcome and welcome back.

  • Initiate. Go the extra mile to exceed expectations.

  • Invite. Invite people back, invite customers to tell their friends, invite people to participate.

  • Personalize. Use customers’ names and remember personal preferences and milestones.

  • Appreciate. Express thanks and appreciation for participation and/or referrals.

Were employees successful in translating their training to real-life situations? The following comments illustrate examples of how employees implemented the five elements of Vital Connections:


  • From a cook: “As a new customer was walking up to the counter to order, she suddenly started coughing. I welcomed her with a glass of water and then said ‘Welcome to Mather's—More Than a Café! May I take your order?’”