Dean Maddalena

If you want to move away from an institutional environment in your senior living community, begin with food service.

Nothing is more seminal in shedding the institutional baggage that senior living has carried for so long than the dining experience of the residents — and their families. It begins and ends with the chefs.

More and more communities are hiring their chefs and food service directors directly from the various culinary institutes across the country. They’re not cheap, but they pay off, and quickly, by serving up delicious, restaurant-quality meals that break the stigma of institutional food. These chefs also interact directly with the residents. This interaction results in happier residents and higher occupancy rates for the communities. Many of these communities make their meal services available to the families of residents, or even to the general public, in some cases. Word gets around.

To emphasize this new direction, we at studioSIX5 have striven to incorporate hospitality design into our communities. Besides attending the senior living trade shows, we also attend HD Expo, the main trade show for Hospitality Design, and the National Restaurant Association show. We mine these shows for the latest ideas in hospitality and restaurant design, along with the latest furnishings, finishes and hardware. The results are dining rooms that look more like fine restaurants or bistros, with display kitchens and other “wow” spaces.

Our communities usually make use of multiple dining venues that allow for a variety of choices, from fine dining to more casual, comfort food. Combine these environmental features with the improved, non-institutional food offerings, and you can consider that institutional baggage shed.

The dining rooms can evolve during the day, with placemat service for breakfast and lunch and tablecloth service at night. There are also food- and wine-tasting activities and guest chef nights, where local celebrity chefs are brought in as a special treat for the residents.

The new Starbucks is the model for the heart of the community: a bistro with multiple coffee selections; quick, casual food offerings; and a bar offering beer, wine and mixed drinks that is a comfortable gathering place for all generations of family and staff to enjoy.

Just as in the larger society, there is an important impetus toward farm-to-market, locally sourced meats, vegetables and fruits. Many communities incorporate a chef’s garden, allowing residents to see their produce grown and produced onsite. There also is a proper chef’s kitchen that resident groups can use to prepare special meals. And in line with the hospitality model, communities offer take-out meals and even room service.

Because of this new model, some of the dining venues in our new communities actually are open to the general public, especially in more urban or denser settings. And with all these options, many communities are shifting from the typical meal plan model, wherein a resident purchases a certain number of meals per month, to a depreciating balance plan, where the residents begin with a fixed balance in their meal account, from which their various food choices are deducted as a dollar amount.

Why this new direction? Because it’s what residents want, and it’s also what their baby-boomer children, who are helping their parents decide on which community they want to move into, want for their parents. Communities with these new features and food service programs, therefore, will benefit from higher occupancy rates.

With the growing popularity of food-related television shows, more and more Americans are becoming “foodies” and have increasingly sophisticated expectations when it comes to the food choices they expect in their senior living communities.

And as noted, they don’t want to live in an institution with institutional food. They want to live in a stylish environment with multiple food venues and restaurant-caliber food. Smart developers will find a way to give them what they want.

B. Dean Maddalena, AIA, NCARB, IIDA, ASID, is founder and president of studioSIX5, with locations in San Antonio and Austin, TX.

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