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Each prospective senior living community resident, or family member of a prospective resident, has a unique list of what is most important to them in a retirement community. Food is definitely on the list – healthy, locally sourced, nutritious food – along with options such as sugar-free, gluten-free, and vegetarian, to name a few.
A dining provider needs to offer all of that as well as accommodate the various serving styles of a senior living community. A continuing care retirement community (CCRC), such as Taylor Community in Laconia, New Hampshire, has various food service and food delivery requirements for residents that range from the sit-down meals in a main dining area, café, or bistro; to specialized food management for assisted living, memory care, and full-nursing units; to catering options for residents in independent living cottages and apartments. Senior living communities need a dining management provider who can handle all the meals, various types of services, special requests, and events, stay on top of nutrition requirements and allergy sensitivities, all while consistently delivering a high-quality dining experience.
Paul Charlton has been Taylor Community’s VP of marketing for more than a dozen years. When asked if he sees a relationship between dining services and occupancy rates, he said, “There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that a positive dining experience when visiting can lead more people to choosing your community as a place where they want to live. But it’s also only one touchpoint of many before a prospect turns into a resident.”
Michael Flaherty, president and chief executive officer at Taylor Community, agreed. He said, “I do think there is a direct correlation to people’s satisfaction in living in any community, with a dining program. It obviously depends on what priority people put on dining when making a decision, but clearly their satisfaction is going to be, in large part, driven by the dining and social options they have on a campus, since the two are often intercorrelated.”
The length of time from when someone decides on a CCRC and makes a decision to move there is three-and-a-half years and the number of touches is in the range of 30 to 40. This average covers the gamut from someone who inquired and didn’t do anything for 10 years to the couple who suddenly got a buyer for their home and didn’t know where they were going to go so are on the fast track to finding a community.
CCRCs offer a lot of amenities to residents, such as sports, activities, concerts, library access, pools, fitness centers, and trips and excursions – and some amenities are more important to one person than another, but everyone has to eat. Food, but more specifically, the dining experience, can become the deciding factor for a person in deciding on a senior living community.
Everyone has a desire to eat. Whether they go to the café or dining room, or have a special catered event, food is the at the center of any dining experience.
The dining experience goes beyond a warm meal. It includes anything related to the meal, such as the staff remembering your name, greeting you, and perhaps remembering something about your family or an interest you have and striking up a conversation. The dining experience absolutely includes the cleanliness of the dining room, the neatness of the table settings, and having a variety of freshly prepared items on the menu to choose from.
Paul shared an example of what makes up a food dining experience. He said, “I love going up to the bistro and seeing folks coming in. There are folks who know each other and ask, ‘Can I sit down and have lunch with you?’ and others who see someone they don’t know and ask, ‘Hi, would you like to join us?’ I look around the room and see so much animated conversation and laughter going on between residents and their visitors, residents and the food staff, and the food staff and visitors.”
First impressions matter. Paul said, “If somebody visits once and they have lunch here, that’s 100% of their experience. So they’ve only tried one thing on one day, but based on that, they are going to say the food is really good, not bad, pretty good, or whatever. Being able to offer a consistent dining experience day in and day out is important – to our residents, their guests, and, of course, to prospective residents.”
A food staff member who is accommodating to special requests or needs, such as a gluten-free meal, then checks in later to make sure the person enjoyed the breakfast, lunch, or dinner just as much as someone who ordered straight off the menu, enhances a dining experience. Small touches related to the meal can turn a meal into memorable, enjoyable, and positive dining experience.
Paul, whose family owned a country inn and restaurant, is no stranger to the food service industry. He’s met many people in the industry over the years, including Jim Hecker, who is now president of Glendale Senior Dining. “Jim is a familiar face from years ago,” Paul said. “So when I talked to him and others from Glendale, such as district manager John Decourcy, about what Taylor Community was looking for, I felt confident they knew what we needed, and their family-oriented business model fits well with Taylor Community.”
Michael said, “I looked at the dining program we had in place and it wasn’t meeting the needs of the residents. We now have a new group in, Glendale. They understand how to deliver a service that people are not simply satisfied with, but that they are very satisfied with. Glendale’s approach is, ‘Okay, what more do you want? We can deliver that.’”
Taylor Community has a high level of confidence in Glendale’s food service management leadership. Most of the staff was retained from the prior food service management company and the team is now involved in professional ongoing training and certifications. The food staff knows how to deliver a high-quality dining experience – consistently.
Paul said, “We were really looking for strong leadership and oversight and we get that with Glendale. There also is a level of professionalism, in that the food staff recognizes the importance of healthy food, proper nutrition, and allergy sensitivities – and they take it seriously. But they have fun too, and they absolutely enjoy what they do. They have become part of our community as much as our residents are.”
With the prior vendor, the menu options weren’t delivered consistently from one chef to another. “For instance,” Paul said, “you could order a steak and cheese one day and have it made with all the fixings and lots of cheese on a great roll and have it melted under the broiler and then the next day have it presented as a small bit of steak, hardly any fixings, and a single slice of American cheese barely melted on a hot dog roll.”
Dinners don’t need to be fancy – being nicely presented goes a long way. The meal doesn’t have to be filet mignon – having locally sourced meat, poultry, or fish and seasonal vegetables can be quite delicious and as satisfying.
Paul personally hired Glendale for a small catered birthday event for a family member. It was prime rib. Paul said, “It was possibly the best prime rib I’ve ever had – and I’ve had a lot over the years.” But, more than the great food, he noted a particular special touch that made a strong positive impression. An hour before the event was to begin, Glendale arrived. At first thinking it was a scheduling error, people were a little disappointed. But it turned out that the food staff, on their own initiative, created a tray of mixed cheeses and breads for the group to enjoy as an appetizer. They came back an hour later and served the meal. “It’s that kind of thing,” Paul said, “that attention to detail, and reaching beyond delivering something that is good enough to delivering something that is quite memorable.”
Taylor Community is impressed with the initiative, creative thinking, attention to detail, and the mix of food staff personalities that are now a part of the community. “Every one of the staff members loves what they do, and they show their passion at every meal. It makes a huge impact to each resident who has a meal here,” Paul said.
Paul said, “I love it when I bring prospects up to lunch and there is a high level of activity in the bistro. It’s one thing to be served a delicious meal at a table for four in an almost-empty dining room, but it’s more impressive when the staff is bustling about serving many people, and laughing and having fun at the same time. It makes for a wonderful dining experience and a great impression every time.”
Todd Lindsay, director of business development for Glendale Senior Dining has seen a tremendous spike in catering requests since the large Easter Sunday brunch Glendale provided to Taylor.
“Residents saw our capabilities and started asking about catering right away,” Todd said. “At Taylor and other communities, we are there and more than ready to help them plan an event with food, for any reason. We’re happy to handle any – or every – detail for a catered meal in a room, an apartment, a condo, a cottage, or wherever. Catering can be very complex when dealing with a lot of logistics, but we’re happy to do it, and we do it quite well.”
Of Glendale’s goal with food, Todd said, “We strive to ensure that when people finish a meal with us, they are happy; that they had a good and memorable dining experience.”
Food service may not be the most important factor for a prospective senior living resident in choosing a senior living community, but having a food service partner – who pays attention to all the details and enables your dining room to consistently perform and deliver the best meals – will make a positive impression, which can lead to higher occupancy rates.
Michael said, “We do know this, good dining is never a detriment, whereas bad dining can be problematic.”
A professional dining management service company can take all the worry about great meals and dining room management off your shoulders, so you can focus on other areas of your community.