Op-Ed: The Future of Food Service In Senior Living

By Lee Simon

As a child, The Jetsons always intrigued me.  There were clearly numerous cartoon programs to choose from, but something about the ability to temporarily immerse myself in “the future” fascinated me.  The moving walkways inside your home, space ships, elevated or floating buildings, robot housekeepers, and meals in a pill all were glimpses of our potential future, from a point in the past.  Some of it seemed rather silly (and still is), but some of it … well, it’s not silly at all.  In fact, it has become our reality.

As I watched the Jetsons video chat with family and friends, I wondered if that would ever be truly possible.  And now, not only is it possible – it is typically done for free!  We can Skype or iChat with one another today just as easily as the Jetsons did, no matter where in the world we are, as long as we have a high-speed internet connection.  These same software programs allow us to share screens, make presentations, and transfer files.  With recent advances, we can now even hold videoconferences on our mobile phones.  One might even say that our current reality has even surpassed the future capabilities once envisioned in the Jetsons.  With this experience in mind, I would like to shift our focus to the future of foodservice in the Senior Living environment.  What does that future hold?  Which ideas are silly and which ones will soon become our reality?  Given the critically important role that Senior Living establishments will play in the coming decade, I believe that careful evaluation of our future – in the present – is worth a detailed exploration.

RESORTing to the New Norms

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The discussions of baby-boomers eventually reaching eligible age for senior living establishments are over.  The baby-boomers are here, and with them they are bringing a whole new set of expectations.  I watched in my own family a son helping to place his mother in an assisted living facility and convincing her that it was the best living arrangement option available to her – and it was, at that time.  But while filling out the paperwork and helping his mother move, this same individual was privately thinking “there is no way I am going to live in a facility like this.”  It is what I refer to as the hypocritical dilemma, and because it is currently being experienced by the industry’s future customer base it will be fresh in their minds when they are making decisions for their own future.

The baby-boomers are well traveled.  With respect to leisure and travel, they have seen and experienced much more than their parents.  This demographic group has used their discretionary income to engage with different cultures, places, people, and food.  Simply stated, their expectations are higher.  Further, due to their sheer size, prominence, and timing in history, the baby-boomers have successfully challenged the social norms at each phase of their lives, eventually changing the norms to something that better suits their values and desires.  Brace yourself, because they are about to do it again.

The potential senior living customer will be looking for resort-style amenities to incorporate as part of their everyday lifestyle.  Concierge service will be expected, and no longer viewed as an amenity.  Social activities that grow rather than maintain mental capacity will be commonplace.  There will be further advances in the physical design of new facilities to better balance independence and required assistance.  And if the industry cannot meet these expectations, it is very likely that new business models will arise to better provide the required support for an aging population within the home environment, thereby delaying the baby-boomers’ entry into the senior living market.  The challenge is clear, and the industry will need to adapt to these new expectations or risk losing its customer base.

Food For Thought

Food and beverage take center stage in the senior living model.  Those familiar with the industry will confirm that overall resident satisfaction rates are closely correlated with satisfaction rates related to the food and beverage program.  As the baby-boomers will be the first internet-savvy generation to enter the senior living market, they will bring their internet based expectations with them – namely having what they want, when they want it, the way they want it, where they want it.  They will be looking for the food and beverage program to adapt to their lifestyle preferences.  More specifically, the baby-boomers will not want to be told what to eat, where to eat, when to eat, or who they are supposed to sit with.  They will demand the capability to make those decisions on their own based solely on mood and preference, which may change from one day or meal period to the next.

So what types of food and beverage amenities will the future senior living residents be looking for?  In my opinion, I believe that studying the amenities currently offered by the travel and leisure industry would be a good place to start.  Listed below are just a few educated guesses as to what the future senior living food and beverage program will include.

  • FLEX DINING – Just as we have seen the cruise ships adapt their traditional model to accommodate customer preferences, similar accommodations will be required in senior living.  Residents will have the capability of choosing between restaurant dining, a fast-casual option in the Gourmet Market, private dining elsewhere on the premises, and in-room dining.
  • RESTAURANT STYLE DINING – The main dining facility will be developed more along the lines of an independent style restaurant, perhaps with a rotation of concept by season (to include modifications to the physical dining environment).  The menu, service style, tabletop presentation, and interior design will more closely resemble that of a private restaurateur’s dining establishment, and the institutional feel will quickly disappear.
  • MERCHANDINING – The concept of “selling” and “presenting” the food and beverage program will be evident through the use of display cooking and sophisticated buffets that resemble those in many casinos.  Emphasis will be placed on variety, presentation, and creativity.  Just as many universities have re-tooled the student dining experience in recent years to help market the lifestyle they offer, the senior living market will follow a similar path.
  • THE GOURMET MARKET – The ice cream shop of years past will be replaced with a more sophisticated Gourmet Market.  This market will serve many roles through the design format and food and beverage offering.  It will be part coffee shop (think Starbucks).  It will be part fast casual dining (think Panera), offering sandwiches, soups, flatbreads, and salads both made to order and pre-made in an open air refrigerated merchandiser.  Adjacent seating will offer residents the option of dining in the Market or taking any food items to go.  It will also be part convenience store, offering essentials such as milk, eggs, bread, beer, wine, frozen entrees, and sundries.  With extended hours, it will become a critical component of the food and beverage program.
  • IN ROOM DINING – More than the main meal wrapped in plastic wrap and delivered cold to the room, In-Room Dining will transform into a regular dining option for residents.  With proper place settings, candles, linen napkins, tablecloths, and new equipment designed to efficiently and effectively support limited volume meal delivery, the In-Room Dining experience will be transformed.
  • BAR – In the style of a neighborhood pub, this venue will fill a void that is often overlooked in many senior living establishments.
  • OUTDOOR DINING – Whether poolside or elsewhere on the property, outdoor dining (when and where possible) will offer residents the option of further varying their dining experience.  Just as many resorts offer dining for two on the sands of a beautiful beach, senior living establishments will be able to offer dining options throughout the property, supported by the newly revamped In-Room Dining equipment package.

Does This Make Cents?

You bet!  As the food and beverage program is transformed, the new model will also evolve to reveal new revenue opportunities.  Just as we have seen universities offer a variety of meal plans for students, there will be a wide variety of meal plan options available to senior living residents.  Some plans will include a fixed number of meals per day or week.  Other plans will include “flex dollars” that can be spent in any of the food and beverage venues on campus, including the Gourmet Market.  Hybrid plans will also be available in a number of different formats to ensure that each resident is able to select a plan that best matches their needs.

The flexibility, improved quality, and increased number of dining options will also make for a more appealing environment for residents to host their families for occasional (or regular) family gatherings anchored by a meal.  These options will help overcome typical objections by family members when they are invited to dine with a resident, also presenting the establishment with additional revenue opportunities.  Creating a draw for family members will support both the economic and social objectives of the senior living establishment.

Welcome Home, Mr. Jetson

I am unsure what the senior living options in George Jetson’s world looked like, as the cartoon never offered us that perspective.  My hunch, however, is that the model they would have portrayed would look a lot different from the senior living model that dominates the industry today.  Perhaps some of the amenities that would have been featured in George Jetson’s senior living residence would have been far fetched.  But some might be similar to the video chatting that we have now incorporated into our every day reality.  What I do know is that the expectation levels have been raised by future senior living residents, and if the industry does not respond, the baby-boomers will fill their needs in other ways.  We are at a crossroads.  The future is now, and it will be interesting to see how the future of foodservice in senior living unfolds.

About the author: Lee Simon is an award winning designer, former university instructor, and internationally syndicated author with Innovative Foodservice Design Team.  He has extensive experience within the Hotel/Resort and Senior Living market segments.  For more on how Innovative Foodservice Design Team can assist you, please visitwww.ifdesignteam.com or contact Lee Simon at lsimon@ifdesignteam.com