Every single senior living community claims to have restaurant but is it really?

This past week I interviewed David Koelling, the founder and president of Strategic Dining Services, a Senior Housing Forum partner, to talk about the what creating restaurant style dining in senior living really means.

Restaurant Style Dining, Senior Living

It is a remarkable thing.

I took a look at a dozen senior living company webpages and every single one says they offer “Restaurant Style Dining”.  What it seems to mean is that residents sit at a table and are offered some level of choice, then someone brings them the food they ordered. The question David asked is this: Are you really creating a restaurant experience or more of a cafeteria experience where someone else does the walking?

What Really Happens . . .

Back in the kitchen the cook/chef looks at the day’s menu and the crew goes to work preparing big batches of food.  Because it is the same crowd every day, they have a fair idea as to which things will be most popular and which less so.  By meal time the food is pretty much ready to be served in trays on a steam table, on large trays in the refrigerator and on the counter. As residents come in they are provided a menu that  is a list of choices. 

Off that list they pick a main course and two or three sides. Is this how it really works when you go out to eat at a nice restaurant? In reality, what many senior living communities have created is a dining experience that is much more like a cafeteria than a restaurant. How healthy is it for your residents to choose some meat, fish or poultry and a bunch of starchy, high carb sides? It also means that they mostly end up with just a plate of food rather than a true dining experience, no matter what the website photos look like.

Real Restaurant Style Meals

Even though there are special meal considerations for seniors, it is possible to create,  each day, each meal, a restaurant experience for your residents. While not the norm,  I am seeing senior communities where the senior living dining service becomes a neighborhood favorite restaurant. It fundamentally about moving from a pre-planned menu to a made-to order mentality.

It Starts with the Menu

It starts with the menu that the resident sees, because the menu frames the mentality of the kitchen staff.  David provided two before and after sample menus, that you can download.

The big difference is that, in the “before menus” residents are offered a series of choices but in the “after menu” they are offered a series of experiences.  This does not mean that the guest cannot ask for a substitute as would be true in any fine restaurant, but rather that the chef created a dining experience for the joy of the patrons.

What It Costs

David and I spent a lot of time talking about costs which includes two areas: food costs and staff costs. Most operators using a traditional approach might assume that this customized, made-to-order process would be much more expenses, in both raw food and staffing costs. In fact, studies show that the made-to-order approach saves in both categories. While your staff will have to work differently to pull this off, which will include periods  where the workload is more intense, they will have a lot more fun. Next month we will finish up this story by talking in more detail about costs, and culture behind the swinging kitchen door.

If you are interested in having your menu reviewed by Strategic Dining fill out this form and upload your menu.
Steve Moran

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