By Pam McDonald

With 20 years in senior living food service, Harris Ader founded the Senior Dining Association (SDA) a little over 2 years ago to bring professional development opportunities to food service staff in the industry. Today Harris is SDA’s CEO and the organization has grown to 420 members, who are honing their culinary skills through webinars, peer roundtables, work groups, conferences, one-day trainings, and resource materials. The following are some takeaways from our recent podcast interview with Harris. You can listen to the entire interview here

We have over 420 members right now, which includes 60 industry partners. So, we are excited and looking to sign up more members for our annual conference, and to continue the growth. We had one annual conference back in March 2019, where we had over 230 people attend. 

Just recently some of our work groups met. We had our SDA Work Group, where we discovered solutions together for IDDSI, which is the new international dysphasia diet standard initiative. And we also had two SDA one-day experiences; that is, a day of training, and a day of networking. We had one in Boca Raton, Florida, back in October, and then another recently in Matthews, North Carolina.

Public Perception

We haven’t fully done a lot of the advocacy yet, but our intention is to create an awareness program for the senior dining industry. We want to help operators recruit and retain staff members, and the way we’re going to do that is through Senior Dining Careers, the only career site for dining professionals in the senior living industry.

The main thing that we want to do is change the perception of what senior dining is. It’s a lot sexier than what people think and it’s not healthcare. Our advocacy is all about changing perception of the public.

It’s about creating a different experience within that same dining room or multiple dining rooms. With a little creativity and a little branding, you can make it different. Remove the tablecloth, use placemats, have different settings for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There are ways to do it. You just have to think a little bit out of the box.


If you pay minimum wage, you’re going to get minimum wage support. That’s what’s going to happen. But you have to be within the market of the current restaurants in the area. You also have to look at who you’re trying to recruit, and what is your absolute goal for your program and your community. That’s going to dictate what you get. 

We also are still looking at ways to do benchmarking. See, the dining program is so different at each community, it’s hard to set a realistic benchmark. We are looking to set benchmarks that are going to be fair and equal to all organizations. But, in order to get all that information, to get good data, it’s going to take a little bit of time.

SDA’s Successes

All of the events have been well attended and people enjoyed them. Our webinars, our SDA chats, and being around for two years, that’s been a great success. Now we’re about to hire some people to help support us. I started this by myself and now we are expanding, so we can help more people and support the association.

Member Benefits

We have two different types of memberships, a professional membership for a single organization at one community that we offer three, five, or seven individual memberships in that one location. All of our webinars and our online chat programs are free for members. First and foremost, we think that’s our greatest selling point because where else are you going to get free monthly webinars or have a chat program?

Another benefit is our award and recognition program, which is coming out soon. People can nominate their communities or their peers for “Director of the Year”, “Executive Chef of the Year”, “Corporate VP of the Year”. It’s the first award program recognizing dining professionals in the senior living industry. 

We also have monthly contests for members, we send out food safety alerts, we’re bringing people together. We have online forums where people can talk to each other and ask questions. 

We have a new membership category; a new model called the premium membership. For $6,500 an organization that has 15 or more communities can get five memberships at each location, unlimited locations. But here’s the best part: it includes one free annual conference registration; not hotel and travel, just registration. And you can get 50% off of unlimited job postings at

Finding Solutions Together

There’s a new international initiative to standardize modified texture diets. And we had a Work Group in Chicago where around 15 to 20 people went through different types of pureed, minced-and-moist, different types of diets, coming up with solutions to help operators understand the new standards better.

We had our partners, Hormel Health Labs and Boelter, come with us to a two-day workshop where we played with food to find solutions where we can serve a more desired, attractive-looking plate to people who are on modified texture diets. 

Managing Better

We’re also creating education to better manage the communities. That’s first and foremost; teaching people how to save money on their food cost so they can use more food, better types or food or better quality, and create more choice. The biggest thing is about creating choice. So, we’re helping dining directors, the chefs, the staff members be better operators. We’re also raising the bar on hospitality. We’re hospitality driven.

I believe that educating the executive director helps enhance your dining program. Unless you have an executive director that came from the hospitality world, it’s totally different. The more you can educate an executive director on dining and food cost and have the understanding of the ins and outs, the better an operation will be. I’ve always been successful when I would educate executive directors that I used to work with on a corporate level.

Round Table Discussions

The one thing that people love the most about our conference and what we do at our SDA one-day events or experiences are the round table discussions. Those are, hands down, the most favorite. We were lucky enough to receive a lot of feedback, people were willing to give us feedback so, we understood what people like, dislike, and we can build a better conference. 

And, we have a great new partnership with Real Rewards Cafe, where you can use your points, your program points. You’re just buying regular items from your distribution center and you can use your points to go to our conference or for membership. We are developing new and creative partnerships within the food industry that will help bring more value to the operators. 

Contract Food Service or Self Op

If you can do it on your own great. If you need a resource, there are plenty of companies out there that can support your dining program the way you need it to be because everyone does not know how. Now you’re educating the VP of operations, the CEO, the COO, who do not understand food cost or food or operations.

That’s what contract service companies do. They’re laser focused on your dining program and it’s just going to be as good as the person that’s in there. There’s plenty of work out there for everybody. That’s why everyone’s invited to the SDA. It doesn’t matter where you are, it’s all about the food. You cook an egg the same way. 

Culinary Showdown

Our next scheduled event is the SDA conference at the Renaissance at Sea World in Orlando, Florida, April 26th to the 29th, 2020. We have a culinary showdown during our conference. Actually, we’re going to have a two-night, three-contest competition this year. The first night, Sunday, we’ll have two competitions, and then the second night, we’ll have one competition.

This is a great event. It’s what our people love to do, they have passion. One of the competitions is going to be a mixology contest. Why? Because we are senior dining and we have bars. We have liquor, we have spirits, and we’re going to see how people stand up, and see what cocktails they can make.

The competition is about presentation, taste, and one more thing that we did last year. We paired up strangers together as teams. They had to find out about each other and talk to each other. So, we created relationships right there as well. That’s what we do. 


We also have a couple of webinars that are not scheduled yet. We will be doing one-day events throughout the year in 2020, probably seven or eight. But mostly we are onboarding our new people and concentrating on operations for the winter so then we can expand. 

We are nationwide, even international since we have members in Canada as well. SDA is something that’s needed in the industry. It’s something that has been missing and should have been around here a long time ago. But, you know, it takes a village. I’ve had great support starting the SDA through my industry partners and through the operators who are on my board. I can’t thank them enough. But it still takes a village of people to come together. 

I say to people who are not members yet, we don’t have everything. We’re in the beginning stages, but we are growing and we’re going to be offering more value. And to me, it’s about making sure we can give value.