Food service is, justifiably, getting lots of attention in the senior living world these days. Residents and families have spoken, and the dining experience matters.

As a development professional, I have no argument; experience shows that no matter how beautiful the building or how great the location, if the dining experience is poor, there will be trouble.

The past few years have seen a strong push to create more variety in the dining experience by adding more venues such that the experience is different day-to-day. When I started in the industry, we basically built a formal dining room that would have scheduled seatings and a private dining room for smaller, special events. Now there are cafes, bistros, pubs, lounges, deli cases, tasting rooms, wine cellars, exhibition kitchens, sports bars … all with open seating times and restaurant-style menus. This all is wonderful news for residents looking to break out from the monotony of one table in the same room for three meals a day.

But at the outset of a project, how do you allocate enough space (but not too much space!) for these rooms if you don’t know where a resident is going to choose to eat any given meal? Food service spaces are some of the most expensive spaces anywhere in a senior living community, so we can’t afford to build a lot of extra space.

If we under-program those spaces, however, we could frustrate residents in entirely new ways. And we certainly don’t know the acuity levels of our residents when we start design. What if we end up with more wheelchairs than we expected in the assisted living wing? What if our independent living residents tend to age in place and their dining venues have more walkers than we thought?

If we don’t do scheduled seatings, how do we plan on table “turns” to have enough capacity? It’s no wonder dining struggles sometimes. It’s complicated!

I’ll start by offering this reassurance: If you are adding multiple venues, some of these issues resolve themselves, because residents who don’t want to wait for a table can choose another option. Don’t be intimidated to add options even if they are smaller, intimate spaces for fewer residents. Generally, it’s better to have a variety of smaller spaces that are in high demand than one large space that excites no one.

Here is some math based on experience and best-practices from the hospitality industry. Be sure to have your architect check with local codes for limitations based on occupancy classifications, your sprinkler system and number of available exits. (sf = square feet)

Establishing how many residents will dine in each venue on any night is a very individualized calculation for every community. And as I said before, in some ways it tends to balance itself out. But I would say the mistake I see most often is that communities over-estimate the demand for fine dining venues. Even high-end communities see a waning of demand for the most formal dining venue.

This is partially demographics — younger residents tend to prefer more casual (perhaps social) venues. The more friends a resident makes, the more likely he or she is going to want to feel comfortable with a conversational and comfortable dining atmosphere. In fact, where we used to plan on two and even three dining room seatings at dinner, you’ll see above that residents are staying longer at meal time. This is good!

Another trick to keeping the expensive dining space lower is to offer in-unit dining. Residents at all levels of care appreciate and enjoy this option. Just don’t forget the housekeeping rounds to collect dishware and trash. 

Michael Hass is a managing partner at Drive DP in Arizona.

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