Dining as a Marketing Tool with Northbridge Communities’ Matt Tremblay

By Jim Nelson | May 6, 2024

Northbridge Communities’ Director of Procurement and Culinary Operations Matt Tremblay has been a chef his whole life. “My mother owned a catering business out of our home,” he told us, “so from a very early age food service is what I was doing.” And food service is what he’s done ever since. For about two decades Tremblay worked in the restaurant business, ultimately managing 19 brew pubs and fine dining restaurants in New England and Florida.

He started at Northbridge Communities roughly six years ago as a culinary director in a single community in Maine, and Tremblay now manages the company’s spend and culinary department.

Northbridge Communities’ dining division is very much public facing, with a strong emphasis on marketing the food and its slogan, “Eat Fresh, Eat Local.”

SENIOR LIVING NEWS: How many dining rooms do you have amongst Northbridge Communities’ 18 communities?

MATT TREMBLAY: We build, we acquire, so we don’t have a consistent footprint throughout the whole portfolio so it’s a little different everywhere that you go. We have 18 main dining rooms and then within some of the communities we have other parts of the community where dining takes place; we have pubs in most of our big traditional assisted-/independent-living communities where we do happy hours, events, all kinds of things. We also have event rooms in some of our communities that have little kitchens in them, so that we can do family events. It’s very common — especially in our memory-care communities — that a family would celebrate our resident’s birthday together here at our community. So, each one of our communities has a big dining room, but there’s also little pockets of other places within them.

SLN: How big of a role does dining play in how you market Northbridge Communities?

MT: When someone is looking for independent or assisted living, we want to provide them with a lifestyle; especially on the independent-living side, they want to know that where they’re going to live can provide what they want and when they want it, at a quality that they deserve and need. Many times, food is the deciding factor when it comes to moving into a community. Location obviously counts, cost is there as well, but really it comes down to the food and when we bring people into the communities, prospective residents, what do we do with them? Give them a tour, and we invite them to sit down for lunch or dinner because food plays such a big role in their expectation, in their comfort — we’re their personal chef. We want to make sure they know that, and we want to present it in the very beginning stages of developing that relationship. Food is a gatherer, food brings family together, food brings people together. It’s the number one reason why people stay in our communities.

SLN: Having the family members and the potential residents come in and have some lunch or dinner is going to be a really nice thing for them to experience.

MT: They’re becoming part of our family, and what do you do when someone’s becoming part of your family? You cook them food. At least that’s what happens in my family: someone gets married, we eat; there’s a funeral, we eat; someone has a baby, we eat. It’s no different. Someone’s moving into our communities, we’re family, we’re your family, let’s eat.

SLN: What do you hear from residents about how important dining services are to them?

MT: Here’s a great example. Yesterday we had all our culinary directors come into our home office — we do it twice a year. This year I decided that a lot of what we talked about is culture, culture in our kitchens. Culture is staff retention, culture is the feeling, culture is the food — it’s anything you do that creates an environment where everyone can thrive, be happy, be positive, and enjoy what they do. To highlight that I emailed our executive directors and asked them to provide me with a very short video telling me how much they appreciate their culinary director. I thought maybe I would get a handful of videos, just an executive director talking into a phone, ‘You’re amazing, great job. Thank you.’ But instead, what I got were videos of residents in those communities praising the culinary directors for the work that they do feeding them every day. I had one resident at a community say, ‘The food is so amazing. I love it here. Are you married?’ Everyone started laughing. So, we heard firsthand from our residents just yesterday, our culinary directors did, how much purpose and life they give to our residents. You can’t ask for anything better.

SLN: Nice, I love that. What does “Eat Fresh, Eat Local” mean to you?

MT: That’s our brand. ‘Eat Fresh, Eat Local’ is the heart of what we do. And it’s really two sides to that coin. It’s the ‘eat fresh’ part, which is critically important. We’re not healthcare kitchens. We operate more like restaurants, and to give a chef creativity within a restaurant or within our dining rooms, to be able to completely cook from scratch, use the best ingredients, and use a recipe or don’t — we don’t require recipes — it’s really all about the creativity of the chef to put out a fantastic product to our residents. That’s the ‘eat fresh’ part. It’s clean, fresh, delicious food, not from a can, not from a freezer, just great stuff.

The other side of that is the ‘eat local’ part, and local has been such a buzzword for the past 5-10 years. What does local mean? Do I grow it here? Is that local? Do I buy it from a local farmer? Does something from two states over really count as local? We had to figure out what local meant to us because we operate in New England; we can’t grow everything year-round like a California or a Florida could; we have to pick and choose, seasonally, what we serve and what we don’t. So, we don’t write corporate menus; it’s really up to that community’s culinary director to write that menu based on that community’s expectations, the location they’re at, and the season that we’re in. Local, to us, is all about local partnerships. The ability to have a relationship with a farmer is fantastic and we have relationships with local farms all over the place. The ability to use local vendors for things like seafood — I mean, where I sit right now the ocean is half a mile away from me and I’m in one of our communities in Wells, Maine. We’re buying seafood from right there. That’s local. Local vendor partners using vendors that are regional to New England so that we can work the New England economy. We can help our partners around this area. We’re not asking for food to travel all the way across the country in a box truck, we want the food to be a little closer. So, local to us is really all about the relationships we have with our food and with the people that we buy food from.

SLN: What did you decide: two states away, could that be local?

MT: Absolutely.

SLN: So, what does Northbridge do specifically to market your dining services?

MT: We have a fantastic marketing team and we put on a lot of events, whether they’re events in the communities, events out into the communities we operate in, or just gatherings of any sort, and every time we do something like that, our ‘Eat Fresh, Eat Local’ program is featured. Because, again, that connection with food is so important in all of our lives. So, if we’re doing a marketing event, we’re definitely bringing food and branding our ‘Eat Fresh, Eat Local,’ and that logo is everywhere in everything we do. If we’re having an event with families within the community, again, food is involved and ‘Eat Fresh, Eat Local’ is there. On all of our PR stuff, like our fliers, our pamphlets, our website; we have a whole section on our website about signature programs, and ‘Eat Fresh, Eat Local’ is highlighted there with lots of great pictures and data and descriptions on what that is. When we go out and talk about Northbridge, about what makes us different, we’re always talking about ‘Eat Fresh, Eat Local.’ And we’re always creating that differentiation between what you think senior living food is versus what it actually is, and what we do and why it’s so much better than you think.


Jim Nelson

Jim Nelson is the Editor at Senior Living News, an online trade publication featuring curated news and exclusive feature stories on changes, trends, and thought leaders in the senior living industry. He has been a writer and editor for 30+ years, including several years as an editor and managing editor. Jim covers the senior living sector for SeniorLivingNews.com, distributes its e-newsletter, and moderates panel discussions for the company’s HEALTHTAC events.

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