With respect to resident satisfaction and food service there are two really crazy contradictory truths

Strategic Dining ServicesLast week I spent some time talking to David Koelling and RonnDa Peters with Strategic Dining Services, a Senior Housing Forum Partner, about the challenges of providing a dining experience that works for everyone. With respect to resident satisfaction and food service there are two really crazy contradictory truths:

  1. In every single senior living community there are more complaints about food than any other single area of service.  This is not surprising given that three times each day, seven days per week every resident has a service touchpoint with the community. That means in a month there are thousands of opportunities to not perfectly meet each person’s desires.
  2. While dining complaints are the most common form of complaint in senior living, the dining service program has very little to do with the most important measure of satisfaction, which is whether or not the resident would recommend the community they live in to their friends.

The big food service challenges include:

  • Hiring, training, and retaining the right people.
  • Creating the right menus and food offerings that keep residents and family members mostly happy most of the time.
  • Managing the social dynamics of the dining room (who sits at what table with whom, dining times, who serves who . . . ), providing great service at every meal.
  • Managing food costs – purchasing the right products at the right time of year.
  • Providing food and beverages for big events for residents and for marketing.

Three Solutions

In talking to RonnDa and David there are three models communities typically use:

    1. Do It Yourself: This is perhaps the most common and it can work okay for some companies and communities. It has some significant challenges that include finding the right dining services director, one that can please residents and family members; managing and training team members; and controlling costs.  

      Perhaps the scariest part of doing it yourself is what to do if that great food services person quits or is not so great and needs to be fired. Most community leaders are not confident in how to find the best hire to run a successful program.

      What RonnDa and David find is that all around the country there are senior living communities with marginal food service directors that the executive directors are reluctant to fire because of a very realistic fear that they will not be able to find a replacement or that the replacement they do find will be even worse than the one they have today.

      Finally with a do-it-yourself approach, it can be really tough to know how good a job your dining team is doing, or most importantly, if they could actually be doing a much better job for a lower cost. There aren’t many resources available to the culinary teams to help them elevate their skills.

    2. Traditional Contract Dining Services: This is the second most typical way of providing dining services because it is extremely easy for the community.  They sign a contract and, once or twice a month, write a sizeable check to the vendor for food, supplies, and staffing.

      Frequently this arrangement starts out pretty good for senior living communities, but too often the program slips over time. Quality goes down and the vendor becomes less responsive to the needs of the residents and the community, leaving the community to put up with mediocrity. Too often communities see significant cost creep, including charges for obscure or unexplained services.

      If things get bad enough that a community wants to change, they feel caught between the existing not so great vendor or moving to another traditional vendor since there needs to be a complete replacement of all, or at least key dining staff and might even include needing to replace things like POS systems, computers, manual, etc.

    3. Do It Yourself with a Helping Hand:    The model that Strategic Dining Services uses and recommends provides the best of both worlds:
      1. All of the dining staff works for the community which means great control and consistency, creating a singular community focus of excellence and financial performance.
      2. The food and supplies are purchased and paid for by the senior living community, which means the dining service company is not taking a margin out of the middle.
      3. Strategic Dining serves as a very hands-on partner that helps senior living communities select and retain the right staff; they provide massive amounts of training, resources and accountability; and, as mentioned, they don’t take a margin out of the middle.
      4. Strategic commits to meeting the budget established by the community leadership as well as elevating the quality of the food served.

This serves the community very well because it provides all off the resources a traditional dining service offers without the handcuffs that can hurt rather than help. Each client’s dining support plan is customized to meet their goals and objectives. Most important is that, if a food service director quits or needs to be replaced, Strategic Dining Services is there to fill in the gap.

Making a Change

The logistics of moving from one model of dining services to a different one is not a trivial thing. It is so tough that senior communities are often reluctant to make the change even when needed. 

Too often it is like a little kid who has a splinter and would rather endure the known pain rather than facing the unknown possible additional pain of having the splinter pulled, even though the end result would be joy.

In a future article David and RonnDa offer 5 strategies for how to transition from one dining service model to another.


Steve Moran