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Food from the Heart

Sheila Luhman, Attic Angel’s Director of Food Service, tells how her own passion for and knowledge of food translates to exceptional care for our residents.

This Executive Q&A from the Feb. 7, 2016, edition of the Wisconsin State Journal is reprinted here with permission.

Attic Angel's Sheila Luhman has seen food service business change

As the oldest girl in a family of seven children, Sheila Luhman, director of food service at Attic Angel Community in Madison, says she was born to cook. Thankfully, it was something she enjoyed — starting at 14, she worked at a bakery, two restaurants and two nursing homes.

When she applied to be a cook at Attic Angel in 1974, it turned out the organization was also in need of a food service director. “I was promoted to the position after just one day,” she said. “I love my job today as much as — or maybe even more than — when I started.”

Attic Angel is a senior living community that features the entire continuum of care: independent living, assisted living, memory care, long-term skilled nursing and short-term rehabilitation.

Attic Angel residents live in Attic Angel Prairie Point (a neighborhood of 121 ranch-style homes for independent living) and Attic Angel Place (74 apartments with services, 56 assisted living, 44 skilled nursing and 20 memory care rooms).

QUESTION: That seems like quite an operation. What does your position involve?

ANSWER: First and foremost, my job is about relationships — relationship with food, with loved ones, with new friends and colleagues. Food is at the center. I love bringing people together and adding to their joy. But, over the years, food service has evolved to be more and more personal. Attic Angel has always recognized the importance of excellent food in the ability to enjoy life, especially among older adults. That’s why we were one of the first senior living communities to replace non-selective tray service with a selective menu — one that allows residents to select from a menu according to personal tastes and dietary needs.

Q: How has your job changed over time?

A: Many more dietary restrictions and preferences have come into play, including vegetarian, gluten-free, lactose-free, generalized diabetic and heart-healthy options, and people are more adventurous in trying ethnic cuisines. More recent changes to our food service program include buying local and building menus around the very freshest ingredients and hiring chefs who bring a higher level of education and knowledge about nutrition, cooking and presentation.

Q: How is the food service organized?

A: At Attic Angel, for our assisted living residents, we have chefs and food service staff on each floor to serve the residents on a personal level versus distributing their creations from a central kitchen. This goes a long way to build relationships with the residents. The chefs get to know the preferences of the residents and, as a bonus, they get to see the reaction to their work. This model is more home-like.

Q: What’s the most unusual thing an Attic Angel resident has asked you to cook?

A: Some of the challenging items we have been asked to prepare are baked Alaska, flaming cherries jubilee, oysters Rockefeller, leg of lamb, duck a l’orange, cheese soufflé, steamed brown bread, and hickory nut cake. One resident brought in a venison roast that he wanted us to prepare for a special dinner party. We prepare many items that were popular in the Madison area years ago, such as fudge bottom pie. We have had requests for peanut butter raisin spread, peanut butter and lettuce sandwiches, and bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich without the lettuce and tomato. Homemade poppyseed cake was a favorite family request.

Q: What’s the biggest problem with serving meals to that many people?

A: The big challenge we have relates to the variety of backgrounds and the diversity of our residents. Everyone has favorite food items, and they bring in recipes, which we appreciate. We pride ourselves on our food service so our residents have high expectations. Also, tastes change as we age, and medications can alter the taste. Some like al dente while others want very soft vegetables. Texture modifications are very important. We also participate in the Local Foods program, which meets two to three times a year to gather info on pricing and the like. We give preference to local producers, even through our major suppliers, like Sysco. We have a number of raised gardens for staff and resident use. We grow our own herbs on site for our use throughout most of the year, and occasionally residents give us vegetables that they have grown on site.

Q: With all the food shows on television, it seems cooking is “cool” among young people. But do you have trouble finding employees in Dane County?

A: We have some very long-term staff. I have been here 42 years, the dietary manager has been here 37 years and the nutritional care coordinator 32 years. Our turnover is low. I hire my waitstaff from high schools and colleges. Our cooks and chefs are usually from restaurant backgrounds. They like the definite hours and our full benefit package.

Q. People are living longer. How do you think the sheer number of elderly people will affect Attic Angel and similar communities?

A: We strive to keep people living in their homes at Prairie Point, our independent living community, as long as possible. We offer meals to be delivered at Prairie Point. Also, we are remodeling our café at Attic Angel Place to be open 24/7 and include more grab-and-go items. We are looking at building relationships with area colleges and local diversity communities to organize food service training programs in our facility so we continue to have excellent staff to meet the needs of the elderly. We attract new residents by providing a variety of food service programs that meet their needs and menu interests. The days of everyone dining at the same time are over.



Title: Director of Food Service at Attic Angel Community

Age: 62

Personal: Employed at Attic Angel for 42 years as director of Food Service; Husband, Bob, and two children, a son in New York and a daughter in Los Angeles. She lives in Cross Plains.

Education: Associate degree in culinary arts from Madison College; multiple certifications through the Dietary Managers Association (now the Association of Nutrition and Foodservice Professionals)

Experience: Past board member of Association of Nutrition and Foodservice Professionals, both national organization and Wisconsin chapter; current legislative liaison for the Wisconsin Association of Nutrition and Foodservice Professionals; 2011 ATHENA Award recipient for leadership as a food professional.

Company: Attic Angel Community

Address: 8301 Old Sauk Road, Middleton

Founded: 1889

Number of employees: 286 at Attic Angel Community, including 50 in the Food Service Department, where she is the director

Description of company and its components: Attic Angel Community is a senior living community featuring the entire continuum of care: independent living, assisted living, memory care, long-term skilled nursing and short-term rehabilitation. Attic Angel residents live in Attic Angel Prairie Point (a beautiful neighborhood of 121 ranch-style homes for carefree independent living) and Attic Angel Place (74 apartments with services, 36 assisted living, 44 skilled nursing and 20 memory care rooms). In addition, Attic Angel Association dates back to 1889 with historic, impactful service to children and seniors in the Madison community.

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