Variety, Flexibility on the Menu

Successful operations may now require a much more robust dining program than in the past.

By Alex Patton

Historically, seniors housing dining services were known for serving simple proteins and side items purchased from an outside distributor, which would be prepared in bulk and served all at once in a communal dining room. But variety and novelty are quickly becoming key selling points for today’s incoming senior population, and communities are scrambling to keep up with the demand.

“We have a tsunami of developers and contractors building new facilities across the United States, and full-service dining is one of the most important features that prospective residents look for,” says Victoria Albert, vice president of marketing at Boston-based dining vendor Unidine. “The baby boomer generation is different than their parents. They are more worldly and experimental, and they want opportunities to try different cuisines.”

Newer dining programs allow service teams to think more like an industrial kitchen, planning their menus around seasonal flavors and cross-utilizing the same ingredients for a variety of dishes. The result is a higher quality of food service, with thoughtful application of resources and marketing. 

“The environment of the business is shifting to operate more like restaurants, and market more to friends and families of guests,” says Harris Ader, founder of Senior Dining Association, an education and networking resource for seniors dining professionals. “Having multiple dining options allows communities to sell experiences, and that generates more money. Many residents enjoy sharing a meal or a cocktail with friends when they visit, and they are drinking the top-shelf stuff.” 

A wealth of choices

Grab-and-go bistros are gaining popularity with seniors who want the flexibility to grab a quick meal at their own convenience, sometimes for additional cost. Bistros can serve simple meals from staff-attended stations, similar to a food court or cafeteria. Deli sandwiches, hamburgers and pizza are quick and easy to prepare, with more universal appeal and less risk of waste. With minimal seating and staff to maintain, bistros can fulfill resident needs while cutting back on overhead.

“Traditional dining programs tend to produce large amounts of food at once, and that can lead to a lot of waste,” says Rina Younan, vice president of culinary services at California-based Oakmont Senior Living. “Building menus that are locally sourced and standardized allows opportunities for smart cross-
utilization of ingredients, and that allows for less inventory and precise budgeting up front.” 

Formal dining rooms can function like traditional restaurants, with table service and meals cooked to order. These settings usually feature white tablecloths and more formal attire, worn by both the customers and the staff. 

Residents might not want to eat in this setting every day, but as an occasion to meet with friends and even invite guests from outside of the community. Meals in the formal dining room are usually included in the residents’ meal plan, but there is plenty of opportunity for profit from visitors who pay out of pocket, especially in alcohol sales.

“Our dining program functions as a restaurant, and our residents appreciate the ability to make their own choices,” says Younan. “We are able to plan meal specials and appetizer tastings for special events, and we have seen a substantial increase of incoming revenue from guest meals.” 

Some communities even feature more niche dining options like coffee shops and small bars. Serving single beverages and snack-sized food is relatively easy for one or two staff members to cover even for large groups of customers, and it gives residents one more option for dining experiences at an additional cost outside of their meal plans. 

These are ideal places to meet guests from outside the community, which leads to more à la carte purchases and alcohol sales. 

The holistic approach 

More and more, seniors housing communities are adopting healthy trends from the greater restaurant world. In-house culinary classes and activities can serve as entertainment for the residents and help boost food service quality. 

On-site chefs often host cooking classes where residents bake bread and pastries. Some residents even work in onsite gardens, growing herbs and vegetables. It’s an entertaining group activity, which Younan said can help the kitchen save money on labor when the food that residents bake and grow themselves is served at mealtimes.

Executive Chef David Bland at White Sands of La Jolla in California changes his menu every four weeks based on the season and what is available from local farms. 

Using local and seasonal produce eliminates the extra cost associated with shipping and preserving out-of-season produce from other states. Plus, he says, in-season food is more nutritious and tastes better, which encourages residents to explore new dietary options. 

“As a chef, you typically build your menu around your own creativity, but you have to figure out how to use the local sourcing that you have,” says Bland. “People who were growing up during World War II basically just got used to eating whatever they could get, and a lot of that came out of cans. They got comfortable eating a certain way, but a lot of them are coming around to trying new foods. In some places, they are starting to expect it.” 

Bland says that experimenting with new menu items and service programs can be a little expensive in the beginning, because underutilized and unappreciated ingredients are sometimes wasted. But after residents get into a routine of eating flavorful seasonal ingredients, Bland said they often start to prefer a diet with more plants and less meat, which is cheaper on the kitchen’s overhead. 

“In a perfect scenario, they are eating a much smaller amount of meat than plant-based food — three to four ounces of meat at most,” says Bland. “If you can get your residents to eat that way, which is much healthier for them, it’s also going to save you money because protein is much more expensive than vegetables.”

That doesn’t mean Bland is trying to turn residents into vegetarians. He believes a diet change of that magnitude could actually be bad for them at this time of their lives. But eating healthier can help residents live longer and more pleasant lives, and that is something that resonates with them.

“The boomers are beginning to want to eat better, and I guarantee Generation X will definitely want this kind of diet,” says Bland. “It’s expensive at first, but it ultimately becomes worth it because it’s delicious and healthy. People are constantly talking about living longer, and that starts with what they put into their bodies.”