October 10, 2015

How come there’s never anything good to eat in this house?

Why is food service so difficult, and how can it be made easier?

How come there’s never anything good to eat in this house?” The constant refrain my brothers and I used to subject our mother to (for the record, Mom is an excellent cook) sums up a key challenge faced by most operators in seniors’ housing.

Sometimes it seems that in survey after survey, town hall meeting after town hall meeting, the variety, quality and service of food demonstrates the greatest need for improvement in the eyes of our customers.

While every department in a retirement or long-term care community is an integral contributor to its overall success, it is the food service team that seems to bear the highest degree of scrutiny and critique.

And why shouldn’t it?

After all, food is an essential component of wellness and pleasure throughout life, and our residents deserve the high quality of dining experience they were most assuredly promised prior to signing an occupancy agreement.

Since most operators would concur with that statement, two questions come to mind: “Why is food and service so difficult?” and “How can it be made easier?”

Why is food service so difficult?

Perhaps the greatest challenge is of the industry’s own making. We usually ask residents to dine in the same restaurant every day of the week, every week of the year, sometimes three times a day. To put this into perspective, consider the following dream sequence. Think for a moment of your favourite restaurant and the menu you so often crave.

Now, imagine yourself being asked to eat in this restaurant every day for a month, and during that month, you are permitted to choose from only two menu selections each day.


Next, imagine that during this entire month your three tablemates, whom you may never have met, have been assigned to you by someone who may know little about you. And even if you end up liking any or all of your meal partners, at least one will take pleasure in telling you how underwhelming your meal is even before you’ve ordered.

Now try to picture the ordering and service portion of your experience. Having enjoyed dining in restaurants through much of your adult life, you immediately conclude your server has not spent much time either dining or working in restaurant settings given missteps during your meal. At the same time, throughout the meal, your tablemates are pleased to offer play-by-play commentary on what the dining room staff is or isn’t doing.

As for the meal itself, while you may not have had a clear impression of what it should look and taste like, you know it hasn’t measured up to what you heard during the discovery phase while you chose your new home.

Operators can list all the reasons why this scenario so often plays out in residences:

  • Many general managers often lack experience and confidence with respect to food service. When this is the case, they can be prone to shying away from the kitchen and hoping for the best.
  • Most retirement communities have only one dining room.
  • Food-cost budgets, which are related to occupancy fees, often limit the ability to provide varied choices.
  • Commercial kitchens often limit the ability to provide variety in both menu items and presentation.
  • Experienced food production and service employees can earn significantly higher wages in the hospitality sector.

Although the reasons may be valid, they can also be construed as opportunities we can innovatively overcome. Operators know they work in a referral-based business, and a less-than-stellar reputation with respect to food is difficult to reverse.

How can food service be made easier?

While the challenges listed above can appear difficult to overcome, when examined individually, progress can be made.


The general manager and the dining room

The general manager should see the dining room as a restaurant with a steady base of repeat customers. One way to help this along is for the general manager to dine at a local (i.e., non-chain) restaurant with a solid reputation two or three times. While there, they should look for two things above all others:

  • the manner in which the manager and all other staff engage with their customers
  • the steady and efficient sequence of service


The general manager and the kitchen

Most general managers have relevant education in one of the departments they oversee, whether in the field of nursing, sales and marketing, property management, administration or hospitality.

We don’t expect the general manager to be an expert in all departments, but they should be able to manage all functional areas of their residence and be held accountable for the results. However, it seems the kitchen can be the area of greatest discomfort for many managers. This is especially risky given that food is usually the second-highest operating expense and resident satisfaction relies heavily on food service.

Once again, a couple of easy initiatives can go a long way toward making the kitchen a comfort zone for any general manager:

  • Spend a week with someone who runs a good seniors’ housing food service program. The intent here is not to find a program to clone, but to understand all the components that go into managing the department.
  • Eat lunch or dinner in the residence’s dining room each and every day. Many managers eat at their desk while they work. Trust me, more can be learned about the residence in those 45 minutes than at any other time of the day.


Only one dining room

We know residents want variety, but unless you have a big new residence, chances are your residents are eating in the same dining room every day.

Since the general manager would have by now spent some time in a restaurant, some incidental spending on décor and food-and-beverage displays in the dining room could express a theme of the celebration of food rather than the idea that this is simply a place to eat.

More often than not, additional attention on the table top itself is required. If the manager has not historically spent a great deal of time in the dining room, there is a good chance place settings are less than presentable and may not even match. The reason for the latter is that quite often food service managers take the easy way to address supply shortages by ordering equipment from their food supplier. Reviewing the table top need only be done once to set the standard and then every six months thereafter to ensure sufficient stock is on hand. The cost of doing it incorrectly is essentially the same as doing it correctly, and we can be certain the new competitor has matching place settings.

Another consideration for breaking the monotony of one dining room could include buffet-style meals displayed restaurant-style, rather than cafeteria-style serving stations.


Food cost budgets

While restaurants measure food cost as a percentage of the price they charge, seniors’ housing measures “cost per resident day.”
Regardless of what the budget is, many operators make two critical mistakes in trying to balance their budgets.

First, the daily budget need not and should not be the monthly budget divided by the number of days in the month. Just like at home, some days offer more premium meals than others.

Second, and most importantly, every effort should be made to move as much of the budget as possible to the centre of the plate (i.e., the entrée). We know residents talk about the food, and for the most part they are talking about the entrée they had rather than the groceries (e.g., dry goods) that went into making or completing the meal.


Ongoing resident engagement is essential, which is where the need for daily dining with residents comes in.

Managers should take the time to review food invoices to see where the money goes. For example, a resident who has a can of ginger ale and a pre-packaged granola bar as a snack and a slice of cheesecake for dessert at dinner could have had a steak dinner rather than pot roast had the snack been a glass of juice and piece of fruit, and dessert a slice of apple pie.

With respect to variety, running an à la carte menu is not as costly as many think. The traditional offering of two entrées could be replaced by offering one main entrée as well as a standing à la carte menu of items that can be cooked rapidly (often from frozen) and include steak and seafood offerings. One reason this option need not cost more is that the more traditional offering usually entails preparing more actual entrées than needed because nothing is prepared à la minute.


Kitchen limitations

Most commercial kitchens offer the space and equipment necessary for the à la carte alternative described above. That said, there may be the need for some relatively modest equipment, including under-counter refrigeration and a grill cook top.
Typically, an investment of approximately $50,000 would allow an older community to offer a varied menu to stand up against the newest of competition.


Experienced employees

While it is true the hospitality industry offers more lucrative jobs than the retirement sector, it doesn’t mean they have to get the best talent.
If by talent we are seeking people who truly enjoy making a difference by serving seniors, and doing so in their own neighbourhoods while working a reasonable and stable schedule, we have a clear advantage over restaurants and hotels.
The key of course is educating non-experienced personnel in the basics. Most community colleges could assist with basic training designed to offer orientation programs as well as daily 10-minute education programs that fit into the work shift (the all-important “pre-meal meeting” is an excellent opportunity for reinforcing the basics).


A perpetual challenge

There is no question food service will always present a challenge, and new challenges will present themselves as seniors change.

I suppose that’s good, because if our residents were all in a position to shop for, prepare, serve and clean up after all of their meals, most would not likely be residents.

The key is to orient managers without relevant experience in food service as to what promises are being made to prospective residents and how to effectively manage all aspects of delivering on those promises. Of course, ongoing resident engagement is essential, which is where the need for daily dining with residents comes in.

Taking the time to establish the basics and then remain current within your own community and the sector at large will go a long way toward increased resident satisfaction and occupancy rates.

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About Richard Noonan

Richard Noonan is the Chief Operating Officer of Chartwell Seniors Housing REIT.

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