The Blueing of Mootown

The Blue Zones Project is driving innovation – and a healthier, more productive workforce – at worksites, restaurants, grocery stores, schools, churches, and the built environment.

Chris Piekarski was skeptical. “We’re a meat-and-potatoes restaurant; there’s no way around it,” says Piekarski, managing partner of Fort Worth’s Buffalo West restaurant, which bills itself as having the city’s “best steak.”

But Piekarski and co-owner Paul McKinney listened when the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce connected the restaurant to the Blue Zones Project, the well-being initiative that implements best practices based on lessons learned from communities worldwide where people live longest. Buffalo West added new healthy menu items using foods it already had in-house for other dishes, introduced small-bite desserts, redesigned its menus and servers’ approach to push vegetables before starches, brought in Blue Zones to train staff on how to suggest healthy items, and installed a bike rack. Sales of the healthy items surged. The restaurant itself posted a record year in 2016, Piekarski says.

“It’s given [consumers] more choices,” important given that friends and groups of diners often choose restaurants based on consensus over the menu, says Piekarski, whose restaurant won Blue Zones approval for its changes. “We didn’t have to create a whole new grocery list; there’s not a lot we had to go out and buy.”

Citywide, Blue Zones has been driving incremental change at worksites, schools, grocery stores, restaurants, churches, other organizations like retirement centers, and among individuals as Fort Worth pursues approval as a Blue Zones city. The project has spurred conversations on the city’s “built environment,” in walkability, alternative means of transportation, and policy addressing so-called “food deserts” − poorer parts of town that don’t have ready access to fresh food.

Fort Worth, which entered a feasibility study on Blue Zones in 2014 and then launched the project the following year with a four-year timeframe to reach Blue Zones certification, is the largest city to reach for approval as a Blue Zones city, and it may be years before definitive metrics develop that show whether the city is achieving a significant part of its goal to become a healthier, happier, and more productive community. Incrementally, a baseline index conducted early last year in conjunction with the Blue Zones rollout in Fort Worth showed the city had become a healthier city during the previous 18 months by several measures. And the early numbers on entities and people signing on are picking up steam.

Nearly 40,000 people have signed personal pledges to complete healthy activities. Matt Dufrene, vice president of Blue Zones Fort Worth, points to numbers that show the 75 worksites that are Blue Zones-approved in Fort Worth represent 40,000 employees, compared to the 2018 goal of 70,000, and each new approved worksite can augment the numbers considerably. “We’re at the point in the project where there’s a lot of momentum,” Dufrene says. “What’s really important is the number of people these worksites represent.”

The numbers of schools that are Blue Zones-approved, now 14, could surge this spring as the initiative pushes into more conversations with schools and the several districts that touch Fort Worth, Dufrene says. The goal this spring is to add 10 more schools; the 2018 goal is 44. “This coming year is a year when you’re going to see a lot of movement in schools,” says Barclay Berdan, chief executive of Texas Health Resources and chairman of the Fort Worth project steering committee.

THR, which footed the $500,000 cost for the local feasibility study, has implemented best practices from Blue Zones, including standing and walking meetings; a “downshift” space under construction at the Arlington headquarters that will have ping pong, card games, and reading materials; and opportunities for meditation and yoga. It’s also added a fitness center to the Arlington offices and a walking circuit around the campus and is testing new food choices in its hospital cafeterias. Berdan estimates 7,500 employees have signed personal Blue Zones pledges.

“It’s making the healthy choices easier,” Berdan says. “We want to demonstrate that we can be successful in engaging a large organization and making healthy choices. We don’t force it.”

Berdan has also personally embraced pieces of the Blue Zones “Power 9,” the nine practices for longer, healthier living that the international initiative has gleaned from communities it’s researched: move naturally; have purpose; “downshift”; stop eating when 80 percent full; have a “plant slant” in your diet; drink moderately, with friends; belong to a faith-based community; put family first; and have a “tribe” of loyal friends.

Berdan’s Power 9: the 80 percent rule and more movement. He works behind a standing desk, schedules time in the fitness center, uses the stairs and walks more. He estimates he registers 10,000 steps a day. He’s lost 28 pounds toward a weight-loss goal. “Eight pounds more,” he says.

Going Blue: Major Employers

Lockheed Martin Aeronautics is another of the major employers to win Blue Zones worksite approval. The company built off of existing programs and amenities at its big West Fort Worth plant, including a workout facility and rewards for completion of risk assessment and health coaching.

It teamed up with Virgin Pulse, a unit of part of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group that designs technology that cultivates good lifestyle habits among employees, to award points for completion of health challenges. Employees redeem their points for reduced health care costs.

An estimated 3,300 of the plant’s employees signed personal pledges, meeting the 25 percent Blue Zones goal. The company also this year will finish marking off an indoor-outdoor walking circuit.

The plant’s café, Aero Café, redesigned its menus, offerings and signage to promote healthy choices, and the executive chef puts on cooking demos. Bottled water, not soft drinks, are now in display cases. On one recent day, placards promoting “The Healthy Choice” highlighted a mesquite chicken breast at 133 calories. The “Craveworthy White Chocolate Macadamia Nut Cookie,” on the other hand, was offered at 339 calories.

“It’s not just Lockheed telling you to be healthy,” says Dr. Thomas Bettes, Lockheed Martin’s regional medical director, who took the job in February 2015 and inherited the company’s Blue Zones initiative. Bettes also runs the plant’s clinic, where employees can get wellness checks. “It’s this entire area of expertise. A message that could be complicated becomes easier.”

To Lockheed Martin, the healthy profile helps manage an older workforce that has diabetes and high blood pressure. It also becomes a recruitment tool for new employees. “It’s going to be impossible to see any quick changes in health care metrics,” Bettes says. “You see it in feedback from the employees and the fact that we’re trying to change the culture here.”

Bank of America’s 1,900-employee CentrePort call center near Dallas/Fort Worth Airport is another major worksite that’s won Blue Zones approval. The company, like others, built its Blue Zones resume off of programs already in place, including an employee assistance program, ergonomics evaluation and training, wellness checks, and discounts off of health care costs for completing a wellness check. High blood pressure and pre-hypertension are the most common ailments for employees, so Bank of America years ago implemented smoking cessation and get-active programs with rewards to attack those problems. The company provides all employees with a Fitbit so they can keep track of their activity.

“We had 57 points” toward recognition as a Blue Zones-approved worksite, says Jorge Hughes, vice president and human resources manager for the CentrePort site. “We needed to get to 72.” The company added a three-mile walking trail around the campus, new cafeteria that also won approval as a Blue Zones restaurant, downshift room, communications plan, and walking meetings for managers. Forty-four percent of employees made personal pledges, against the 25 percent target.

The cafeteria headed off employees who were going to restaurants around the airport or a nearby food truck, Mike Pavell, Bank of America’s Fort Worth/Tarrant market president, says. Bank of America plans to seek Blue Zones approval for its other worksites in the market, he said. “This was a good place to start.”

Bell Helicopter, another major regional employer, put itself on the Blue Zones track last fall, working toward worksite approval for its Hurst headquarters. The company is building off its 10-year-old Live Well at Bell program, which includes annual biometric assessments for employees, mammograms, employee assistance and smoking cessation programs, healthy challenges, emphasis on physical activity, and cash prizes for participation.

Bell CEO Mitch Snyder wanted more. Employee engagement was one of several “critical mindsets” he installed when he took his post in 2015, and he’s taken a holistic approach to their well-being, says Allison Hanson Mullis, executive vice president of human resources. “Blue Zones provided the framework,” she says. “We want to empower our employees not just here at work, but also at home and in their communities.”

The average age of Bell’s workforce is 48, ranging from young to preparing for retirement, Mullis said. “I would say we have a good number of employees who will retire within the next 10 years,” she said. Employees’ use of health benefits is higher at Bell than at other companies owned by Textron, Bell’s parent, she said.

Bell launched a big pledge drive last fall, gathering almost 900 pledges, more than the Blue Zones goal. “We’re over our goal, but we want more,” Mullis said. The operator of the company’s cafeteria, which won its own Blue Zones approval, reworked its menus to emphasize healthy choices, and the chef runs plant-based cooking classes.

Bell has been working on promoting amenities it already offers, such as reduced-price passes on the Trinity Railway Express, whose Hurst/Bell station is a block from the headquarters. The company also is increasing the number of “quiet rooms” – small individual downshift rooms – on its campus. Every other Friday is now an off-day for employees. Bell has also printed walking maps of the campus and implemented “Blue Zones parking spots,” the farthest from the building’s entrance.

Mullis says she’s hoping to see change in the company’s health care metrics within the next few years. “I would like to see some positive impact by the end of 2018, 2019,” she said. “I think it’s doable.”

Eating Blue Foods Restaurants are one segment where Blue Zones Fort Worth has rewritten some of the rules to make it easier for restaurants to qualify, allowing points for innovations not already addressed in the restaurant checklist. Righteous Foods, one Blue Zones-approved restaurant in Fort Worth, offered incentives to employees who rode their bike or walked to work. “It can be any number of things,” Dufrene says.

Last year, Blue Zones ran a month-long server incentive program with participating restaurants. Fixture Kitchen and Social Lounge reported sales of Blue Zones menu items grew by 10 percent, while the price-per-person average rose nearly 13 percent, countering some restaurants’ fears that pushing lower-priced Blue Zones items could lower their average ticket. “It became a guest perception they could order another appetizer and glass of wine,” says Ben Merritt, chef of the Near Southside restaurant.

Outside the incentive program, Merritt also created Blue Zones lunch and dinner menus, in some cases changing the “verbiage” between his regular and Blue Zones menus but not the ingredients. For the Blue Zones menus, a kale salad became the $9 Kale Leaf, a mix of pepitas, feta, diced apple, mandarin oranges, spicy Craisins, and citrus vinaigrette. “It’s one of our most popular items,” Merritt said. “I didn’t change any components.”

Blue Zones Fort Worth has also looked for ways to draw in food trucks and other restaurants that may not want to pursue Blue Zones approval but have dishes that can be highlighted as “Blue Zones-inspired.”

Two Fort Worth food trucks – Zatar and Down to Earth Vegetarian Food Truck – approached Blue Zones about participating and are serving “Blue Zones-inspired” menu items that Blue Zones helps promote. Food trucks also add variety to Blue Zones events and are easier to attract to events than restaurants, says Clay Sexauer, Blue Zones Fort Worth’s restaurant coordinator.

Blue Zones recently teamed up with three East Fort Worth restaurants – Lady and the Pit, Italy Pasta & Pizza, and The Library Café – to offer Blue Zones-inspired dishes from their menus and offer server incentives. None are Blue Zones-approved, but Sexauer says he believes Lady and the Pit, a barbecue restaurant, could successfully pursue Blue Zones approval by promoting its vegetable offerings differently.

Lady and the Pit has added four new sides: sautéed spinach, baked sweet potato, fruit salad, and sautéed zucchini and squash, served individually or as plates. The restaurant offers several plant-based items as sides, but customers can create a plate by picking three or four of the dishes. “It’s all about the initiative the restaurant wants to take and all about having the options,” Sexauer says.

Buffalo West, the West Fort Worth restaurant, is another business that took the initiative to think creatively about its menu, says Sexauer, who is working with the restaurant to offer a server incentive program. “They took the initiative to do it,” Sexauer says. “They didn’t take anything away that they already had.”