Seniors are Hungry for Great Dining Options

April 18, 2019

The days for soggy cafeteria-style comfort food delivered by steam tables have passed.  “The old goals were just to keep hot food hot and cold food cold,” said Adam Grafton, Senior Corporate Executive Chef at Unidine. Today’s residents are baby boomers. They’re using social media and watching the Food Network. “Food TV has changed residents’ expectations,” he said. “They are more aware of how diet and nutrition impact wellness and they are seeking global flavors and trends. It’s really hard to get a wow presentation out of a steam table.”

Grafton and J.D. Landis, Senior Associate at SFCS, led the 90 minute Radical Dining session at the sold out 34thannual By DesignConference at the Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center. The senior living dining design experts explained that strong food service programs are a top priority for current and prospective residents.

“People are already educated about your campus through the internet. Your community has an opportunity to sell [prospective residents] with food,” said Landis. “How many of you took a picture of your food last night?” he quipped, garnering laughs from the audience.  Landis said senior living communities “are now being influenced by social media with communities being ranked on YELP, Facebook, and Google regarding their food”.

Relating to the previous session about solving staffing challenges, Landis suggested including all generations when designing dining spaces and planning menus. “Considering dining for staff can be part of your retention solutions,” he said. Holding focus groups with current and prospective residents can aid in excellent design. “People want to be listened to and heard,” said Landis.

Communication is also key to keeping residents happy. Grafton reminded the audience to ask their residents regularly about their food service. He talked about training and motivating staff to deliver great service. “Customers remember service – both good and bad,” he said.  Grafton also explained that good servers know all of the menu ingredients and preparation methods and are able to personally recommend dishes.  “The front and back of the house should be glued together,” he said.

Technology can help.

Digital signage and menus with nutrition information, online reservations, and table tracking (those buzzers used in restaurants like Panera that let servers know where people are seated) are all being integrated into design and planning. Grafton imagined another possibility: digital customized menus only showing foods that meet individual residents’ needs.

When debating whether food or service is more important, Grafton recognized that “great food compensates for deficiencies in service and vice versa”. Ultimately, he said, residents’ most frequent dining concerns are food being served at the wrong temperature, slow service, and lack of variety in the menu. Those complaints, he said, are “all due to poor design”.

Before beginning the design process, Landis suggests asking yourself “What do you want to be?”  The number and types of venues, establishing their themes, and branding considerations are all part of developing identity.  Some communities are still calling venues by their purpose with names such as The Coffee Shop, The Bistro, and The Formal Dining Room, Landis said. “The trend now is to theme and brand dining venues. When you walk in the door, you develop an expectation based on the theme of the venue,” he said.

Developing a theme means connecting menu offerings, server uniforms, furniture and china, and decorative features such as fish tanks, water falls, and fireplaces.  Landis recognized those decorative features, “are expensive and come with maintenance issues, but they have a big impact.” Lighting, sound, and functional displays can all contribute to a cohesive brand. Landis said the biggest trend now is toward more casual dining with flexible scaled multipurpose environments.

Grafton walked the audience through the latest industrial kitchen trends:  Induction-style buffets to replace steam tables, flexible salad bars with frost tops and hot tops, grills and rotisseries – including vertical ones so chefs can prepare four to five different proteins at the same time.  “For both ambiance and functionality the number one trend is the hearth pizza oven,” he said.

Throughout the session, both Grafton and Landis were focused on creating a shared experience. “When you go out to eat with friends, you share food. Why not make that possible in our communities?” asked Grafton. They showed pictures of the possibilities: family-style dining on long farmhouse tables, chef’s tables where the residents engage with the chef and participate in the preparation of their meals, hands-on teaching kitchens to connect residents and team members (and prospective residents), even a Google portal where technology connects residents with their grandchildren.

Community has a direct connection to eating together. “Food has always been a part of social gatherings, celebrations, parties, and events,” said Landis. “Incorporating outside dining options, or dining connected to the outdoors along with creating flexible spaces with lots of natural light is key to creating a great community experience.”

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