Why Senior Living Operators Can Get Even More Creative With Food

Why Senior Living Operators Can Get Even More Creative With Food

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It’s no secret that senior living operators have a hill left to climb in the form of compressed margins and occupancy. Food is a growing part of that effort.

In the years following Covid-19, senior living sales teams have worked hard to show the value that communities have to prospective residents. While dining is usually part of that value proposition, providers have an even greater opportunity to showcase it in their operations, as multiple attendees and panelists shared at the recent Senior Housing News DISHED conference in Chicago.

To get there, senior living operators are embracing broader food and beverage trends that appeal to the incoming boomer generation. Multiple operators are also now staffing and operating their dining spaces like actual working restaurants, and others are infusing menus with more global cuisine and fresh new ingredients.

The bottom line is that “senior housing is changing and food is changing,” Experience Senior Living Vice President of Culinary Experience at Experience Senior Living Greg Sever said during a DISHED panel.

“We’ve got to lead the way as chefs in our positions right now and it’s what people expect to see,” Sever added.

In this week’s members-only, exclusive SHN+ Update, I analyze insights shared during our recent DISHED event in Chicago,, including:

– Food trends that show the industry can get even more creative with dining

– How operators are personalizing menus for residents

– Restaurant-style staffing models and other ways to evolve the workforce

Operators have more room to be creative with food

Senior living operators are searching high and low to bolster their margins in 2024. In the past, resident rate and occupancy increases have been the way forward in that regard. But operators often stress they must show residents the value of senior living before they will consider moving in.

One of the biggest values a community has to residents is in its dining program. While culinary services is a department often thought of as a cost center – meaning it spends more money than it makes – some senior living operators are finding ways to make food a differentiator in their marketing to attract new residents, and indirectly increase occupancy and margins in the process.

Recent trend reports show it’s clear there is even more opportunities for the industry to level up in the way it nourishes residents. The top trends in the Future Menus 2024 Trend Report by Unilever Food Solutions, a survey of over 1,600 chefs, found that culinary leaders are bringing new menus and food fusions to menus followed by plant-based and alternative protein options.

Nearly three-fourths of the baby boomers who responded to the report said they were willing to pay more for locally-sourced ingredients.

Senior living operators have embraced many kinds of dining in recent years, from giving residents more choices and casual dining to making wellness a bigger part of the overall value proposition. Based on what senior living operators said at DISHED, it’s clear the incoming generation of residents is hungry for more variety.

Colorado-based Experience Senior Living’s luxury communities, The Reserve Collection, serves menus with all-organic fare. And that is a big part of how those communities are marketed to new residents, according to Sever.

“Organic, 10 to 15 years ago, was a buzzword. And now, it’s what people are used to,” Sever said. “It’s an expectation of what the next 10 to 15 years looks like.”

The need to appeal to a new generation is partly why operators including Grace Management have adopted six-week menu cycles that shift seasonally.

“It provides fresh ideas and offerings, adds variety and minimizes repetitions, [these] are checkpoints that are important to residents and it encourages creativity,”  Grace Management National Director of Dining Services Max Rasquinha said during a DISHED panel.

Why Senior Living Operators Can Get Even More Creative With Food Merz Photography for WTWH Media

Vi Corporate Director of Food and Beverage Steve Sandblom added on another panel that, “variety is the name of the game” going forward in senior living dining.

At Vi, Sandblom said the company, alongside its Living Well lifestyle brand, craft menus for casual and typical restaurant dining alongside faster, lighter fare like a flatbread and a glass of wine. With the help of a general purchasing organization (GPO), Vi communities stay on-budget in four-to-six week cycles of menu development. The Living Well brand offers more healthy dining options to promote resident wellness through food.

“Variety is really the key here,” Sandblom said.

Bringing together sales and marketing staff with culinary teams can help improve a future resident’s initial tour experience by personalizing the first impression a prospect has in a community. That’s played out for the Health Dimensions Group, in making a tour “a lot less like a sales pitch” and more like a welcome- home moment, according to HDG Vice President of Culinary Mika Stevenson.

For HDG that’s empowered staff to become subject matter experts in explaining dining options and more with prospects.

“Y​​ou’re the expert, you’re the one that can really explain that and explain our program and what we’re able to provide for them,” Stevenson said on a panel.

Personalization a big trend

The need for bringing creativity into senior living dining rooms is important, given the changing nature of the residents entering communities demanding more choices and healthier options, according to Solstice Senior Living National Director of Culinary Services Amy Robinson.

The operator solicits resident feedback in the form of seeking resident input in menu development, with dietician-approved insights. By giving culinary teams their “creativity” back in crafting menus, Robinson said its efforts were paying off. The importance to solicit resident input and craft menus specific to each community is evidenced by the distinct differences between communities just miles apart with vastly different tastes, she said.

“One menu for the entire country just wasn’t going to work for us,” Robinson said. “We’ve seen some really, really great results as far as retaining labor.

Serving the same residents every day gives operators a “unique opportunity” to get feedback, according to Holbrook Life Vice President of Business Development Jack Miller.

“We need to take advantage of that and curate our menu to those people we serve every day,” he said.

Sever called for culinary teams at senior living communities to have “more intimate engagement” with prospective family members – such as during tours – as a way of increasing a community’s value proposition.

Personalization was the name of the game at Papa Johns, the former employer of current Atria Senior Living Chief Technology Officer Chris Nall. He said the biggest lesson operators can learn from the world of pizza-slinging is that residents will want food that is custom-tailored to their exact preferences.

“It’s not just knowing dietary restrictions, it’s knowing your favorite food growing up was lasagna,” Nall said during a panel at DISHED.

Why Senior Living Operators Can Get Even More Creative With FoodWhy Senior Living Operators Can Get Even More Creative With Food Merz Photography for WTWH Media

To determine a resident’s favorite meal, Atria leans on technology. The company is using Amazon’s Alexa to solicit weekly feedback from residents on meals, likes and dislikes. The company also is able to track preferences using its culinary point of sale system.

Staffing with restaurants in mind

Senior living providers have spent vast resources in overhauling communities to meet growing demand, and consumer preferences. But those efforts are naught without the right staffing levels.

To help attract workers and bring in restaurant talent, Corporate Director of Culinary at Priority Life Care Brian Gallo said more operators must “break down the preconceived mindset” of working in a culinary department at a community.

That option, as wellness, health and flexibility remain the drivers of senior living dining, may become more attractive to talented culinary and hospitality workers burnt out after long hours in a typical restaurant.

By “cooking from scratch and using farm-to-table vendors,” as Stevenson said, operators can not only improve the narrative around working in a community, but improve the value of a property through a strong dining program regardless of physical plant or space constraints.

Staffing is also why certain companies, including Volante Senior Living, have created dining spaces that function like real restaurants. The company is in two communities piloting restaurant-style staffing models, where the number of workers on duty ebbs and flows depending on what is being served in the dining room.

For example, there are the greatest number of workers during the usual dinner rush, but fewer workers during off hours. Doing so has taken some adjusting, but the process has been budget-neutral overall.

“In this pilot, it’s worked really well,” said Frances Showa, vice president culinary services at Volante. “This is something I want to roll out to the rest of our communities.”

Ultimately, I believe operators have a significant chance to revamp current strategies to appeal to the incoming baby boomer generation. Although senior living companies displayed ingenuity at DISHED, they possess even larger potential to elevate their dining programs and impress the new wave of residents.

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