Are You Only Serving Good Food?

by Matt Schuler, Director of Culinary Development, SCOPOS Hospitality Group

Matt Schuler, director of culinary development for SCOPOS Hospitality Group for more than seven years, has completed 150 designs across the country in the senior living/healthcare food service sector.

In the very near future, senior living communities that just serve food—even good food—will not be competitive. In a robust dining program, efficiency, branding, flexibility, safety and technology all must be part of the mix. As boomers enter senior living, they bring expectations for dining experiences, food preferences and familiarity with digital devices that provide new opportunities for communities. To attract them, communities will need to adapt.

Brand the Dining Room

Senior living dining venues aren’t like a restaurant; they are restaurants. Building a brand story and creating a visual identity give your residents and their families an immediate way to connect to each venue as a distinct experience.

A brand is more than a name. SCOPOS has a three-phase process for brand development. We worked with one of our clients, an operator in Florida, to brand all 12 of its dining venues throughout independent living and each level of healthcare. In addition to enabling residents and employees to emotionally connect to the unique personalities of each of the venues, the brands aid recognition, set expectations and create excitement.

Adapting to Meet New Expectations

There are many ways that communities are adapting to meet the needs of consumers today and tomorrow.

  • Credit-based dining programs
    The era of one-meal-a-day dining programs is over. No longer willing to line up outside the dining room at 4:30 every day, new residents want the flexibility of dining plans that offer credits or dining dollars they can use however it suits them.
  • Takeout
    Though communal dining is a treasured feature of the senior living lifestyle, COVID exposed an opportunity for growth in the dining program when—literally overnight—takeout went from 5% to 100%. Communities had to adapt, often by setting up eight-foot tables in the dining room loaded with polystyrene containers in plastic grocery bags … which is not a hospitality experience that should carry over into post-COVID dining! Takeout is now leveling out at around 15% to 20%, and within that lies opportunities for greater resident satisfaction and new revenue streams. Whether they are added by repurposing underused spaces or via new construction, self-checkout and grab-and-go marketplaces will become increasingly popular and—eventually—expected.
  • Dietary preferences
    Whether by preference or requirement, dietary restrictions are also increasing, both in variety and in the number of residents who expect special offerings. Menus that used to highlight ‘heart healthy’ and low-calorie options now must also accommodate gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, lactose-free options and more.
  • Sous vide
    Not too long ago, sous vide was considered a new trend, still gaining acceptance in senior living. Since then, it’s become a game changer. Using vacuum-packing and immersion circulators, sous vide introduces science to food prep and enables communities to build smaller, more efficient back-of-house spaces and offer a greater variety and sophistication of meals without having to hire high-end, specially skilled chefs. And the availability of high-quality, ready-made sous vide products helps communities meet the challenge of keeping their menus fresh, sophisticated, on-trend and within budget.

Discovering New Ways to Create Efficiencies

Dining can do more than just create enhanced resident experiences. When was the last time you took a critical look at your employees’ experience?

Today’s tight labor market makes recruiting and retaining high-quality staff challenging. Employees have higher expectations for job satisfaction, and no one will deny that employee dissatisfaction affects the residents’ hospitality experience. Employee experiences can be enhanced through both workplace design and back-of-house planning.

For a new community, SCOPOS can be brought into the design process early to ensure that efficiencies are built in programmatically. For existing communities, efficiencies can be achieved through a detailed analysis of the design of the kitchen, food storage and serving areas, as well as the ergonomics of each job role in the dining program.

Step studies can reveal inefficiencies in workflow and space usage. Eliminating even a dozen steps in a task equates, over time, to fewer miles on your employees’ feet.

Robots are no longer a novelty. Communities have been successful in elevating the resident dining experience by implementing robotic programs. Servers, instead of beating a path from the table to the POS system to the kitchen and then back to the table, can spend more time in meaningful engagement with residents. Orders, taken tableside on tablets, can feed directly to the kitchen. Robots can then deliver the food to the server and take away dirty dishes. Rather than a replacement, the robot is an assistant to the server, enabling the server to take on more tables without sacrificing interaction with residents.

Opportunities also exist in the back-of-house spaces your employees use. Do they have a secure place for their personal belongings? Is there a break room with windows, outdoor access and comfortable seating?

WELL certification is increasingly sought for new buildings. WELL focuses on health and wellness, taking into account air quality, natural light, comfort and other aspects of the workspaces that affect the health and well-being of employees.

Design and Technology Enhance Food Safety

In senior living, our customers fall into two of the three populations most susceptible to foodborne illness: people older than the age of 65 and people who may be immunocompromised. (The third population is children younger than five.)

Incorporating technology and evaluating the design of your kitchen can improve food safety. For example, we once would prepare 30 gallons of soup, pour it into Lexan® containers and roll it, still steaming, into the walk-in refrigerator. That can be risky for the soup and the food already stored there.

The longer it takes for the temperature of the soup to get below 40°, the more susceptible it is to bacteria growth. Within 30 minutes, a blast chiller can reduce the temperature from 210° to under 40° F, a process that used to take four hours. Blast chilling also has the added benefit of extending shelf life.

Does your staff have the equipment and layout necessary for food-safe workflows? For example, does the prep chef with 500 chicken breasts to grill have refrigeration near enough to his or her grill station so that all 500 don’t need to be pulled at once to complete the task efficiently?

Designing for the Future

Dining is generally considered a cost center, not a revenue generator. However, it is a highly valued amenity for prospects and residents alike and—in today’s highly competitive market—a straight line can be drawn from a state-of-the-art dining program to a healthy census.

As a consultant, SCOPOS is involved nationwide in master planning and conceptual design charrettes. We’re at the table with finance, architecture, interior design, and sales and marketing teams to discuss the forces driving the market, the competitive climate, innovations and trends so that we can develop solutions for our clients to design or redesign their dining programs for success. Bringing a consultant onto the team as early as possible in the design process to prepare a comprehensive assessment and plan saves money and prevents costly errors.

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