When reflecting on why he founded the Senior Dining Association in 2018, CEO Harris Ader says it comes down to one reason: “The most important thing in senior living is food service, because for residents, it is their home and it’s all about the food.”

As the association observes its first anniversary, Ader counts more than 400 members in his organization, which suggests to him that senior living community operators are taking food quality and service excellence very seriously. As someone who has worked with providers and food service contractors, Ader says he started the association because there has been a noticeable gap in connecting providers with food service resources.

“So we took a leap of faith in thinking that if there was a need, they would come,” he says. “Now our growth and evolution is progressing quickly.” Lou Boudreau, senior vice president of operational excellence at Unidine, agrees that quality food service is a timely revelation for senior living operators.

“As the industry expands and evolves to accommodate the growing aging population, we are seeing a proliferation of new senior living housing being developed,” he says. “For these communities, a standout dining program isn’t just ‘nice to have.’ It is a must-have in to attract and retain residents in this competitive marketplace.”

Boudreau says Unidine is committed to being “agilely responsive” to two parallel trends affecting senior living operators — younger, vibrant residents who seek elevated experiences, and residents with complex health issues.

“Resident demographics are evolving, and with that comes changing expectations that we need to meet,” he says. “These discerning residents are retail-minded and expect dining experiences that are nothing like the conventional dining of senior living communities of the past. We are seeing that our commitment to scratch cooking, healthful offerings and passionate hospitality culture resonates strongly with them and aligns with their existing food experiences and service expectations.”

BE CONSISTENT

Many components make up a quality food service program: locally sourced ingredients, imaginative dishes, professional preparation, attractive dining environment and a “fun” approach to meal time. One aspect supersedes all of them, however, Ader says.

“Consistency,” he says. “That one is the biggest. If you have consistency in your food and what you do, that’s the ultimate.”

Comprehensive training is another essential aspect of a quality food service program, Ader says, because the senior living environment “is not a restaurant, which just focuses on the food. No … for us, there is much more to consider.”

Variety and choice are other critical pieces of the food service puzzle, because they enhance resident choices to create an overall positive experience, Ader says.

One more ingredient in the equation is something that may get overlooked when trying to present a high quality program: food optimization.

“A big reason for high food costs — especially in smaller communities — is improper utilization of food resources,” he says. “Manage portions so that there is little left over at every meal.”

CREATING AN EXPERIENCE

Food service contractor Sodexo has implemented forward-thinking programs across the senior living continuum, working closely with operators to ensure that each resident has a memorable experience with each meal.

As Vicky Kriczky, director of marketing and sales for Frederick (PA) Living observes, “Food brings our community of residents together.” The dining program at the community “is not just about providing meals, but about delivering an exceptional experience that engages all the senses — from delicious aromas to modern atmospheres to opportunities to engage with fellow residents,” she says. “In fact, it is common to see residents pushing tables together to enjoy their meal as a group.”

At Garden Spot Village in New Holland, PA, the primary mission of the food service program is “to enrich lives … that includes delivering a high-quality dining experience that exceeds residents’ expectations,” says Chief Marketing Officer Scott Miller. “The high value that today’s senior living community residents place on their dining experience has escalated dramatically in recent years. They are looking for the authentic flavors they’ve tasted in traveling the world, as well as farm-to-table freshness and options to customize their meals.”

INNOVATIVE TRENDS

One of the Senior Dining Association’s missions is to research current food service trends and report their findings to members through published articles. Among their findings are innovations such as farm fresh ingredients, destination dining, fast casual, college model and chef-driven meal preparation.

Destination dining is “a newer concept, where you have a dining room for specially themed meals, like intercontinental dining, steakhouse fare or Chinese flair,” Ader says. “The college model is a brand of marketplace, like a food court with different stations. Some communities have even installed touch-screen point-of-service kiosks.”

Boudreau considers developing new programs for senior living communities “a crucial priority” for Unidine.

“Consider for a moment the university student or corporate experience and the dining programs created for those demographics,” he says. “We hope to translate those successes and learnings into the senior living experience, with the correct modifications and appropriate elements.”

For senior living residents, dining isn’t just about early bird dinners, but about the experiential factor, Boudreau says.

“From poolside cooking and Hibachi grills to chef’s tasting menus and craft cocktails, these worldly residents expect their communities to have multiple retail-style dining experiences beyond the traditional sit-down dining room,” he says. “Retail-oriented dining, such as pubs, bistros, coffee bars, healthy fast-casual options and to-go service, are available to cater to their needs and wants.”

Additional branding opportunities, such as providing house-branded coffee and signature cocktails, give communities a valuable competitive advantage in the marketplace, Boudreau says.

Tara Ober, vice president of communications and resident life at Brethren Village in Lititz, PA, says Sodexo’s chef-driven program has generated much interest and engagement from residents and their families.

“Our chef’s innovative menus help drive our brand and identity among peers and a strong waitlist for our community,” she says. “Inspired by the rising popularity of celebrity chefs, people are eager to try new and interesting tastes.”

Responding to the trend for freshly prepared, made-to-order food, the Brethren Village Center Bistro features multiple stations, including a pizza oven, sandwich and salad station, grill and chef’s daily specialties.

“Our residents and other customers enjoy talking directly with the chefs who are preparing their meals, offering both customization and socialization,” Ober says.

MORE VEGGIE OPTIONS

Health, wellness, nutrition and vegetarian options have become increasingly important to senior living residents, and communities are responding accordingly.

At Laurel Circle in Bridgewater, NJ, the community’s philosophy is “healthy life services,” and the food service program accurately reflects that stance, says Sara Miller-Philpott, director of marketing.

“Sodexo is proud to source nearly 90 percent of produce from local farms, enabling chefs to build creative menus around what’s in season,” she says. “Local sourcing aligns with our priority to provide healthy and fresh food to the Laurel Circle community.”

With more vegetarians and vegans among senior living residents, communities are searching for the freshest produce available. Garden Spot Village, for instance, has installed a 4,600-square-foot aeroponic greenhouse on its property to ensure true farm-to-table produce.

The movement toward healthful meals makes perfect sense, and companies such as Sodexo are making it a priority, says Ray Torres, senior director of business development.

“Good nutrition is key to a healthy lifestyle,” he says. “With more seniors taking control of their health with gluten-free, keto and other dietary programs, chefs must know how to provide excellent food that meets food preferences and intolerances.

“Chef demos provide a terrific way for residents to try new dishes, learn about ingredients and see how their meals are cooked — all creating an enjoyable activity that keeps them mentally active and healthy,” Torres adds.

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