Dished: How Providers Are Getting Creative With Controlling Food Costs

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Photo by Scott Elgart

As far as senior living selling points go, dining is a major one. And by nature of all of the moving parts involved, it is an area of operations that can be prone to inefficiencies. Add to that the rising costs of food being felt by both institutions and households nationwide, and providing a dining program can become a major challenge.

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Food costs are rising at a slightly higher-than-average pace, as projected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Based on its findings and projections on household food costs, the consumer price index for food is expected to rise between 2.5% and 3.5% in 2014, and 2% and 3.0% in 2015—compared with a 20-year average of 2.6%.

But for some categories, meats and poultry in particular, the anticipated uptick is much higher, according to the Department of Agriculture. For beef and veal, for example, price increases this year are expected to surpass 10% or even 20% in some areas—a shift attributed largely to a drought-induced supply shortage.

The market is already feeling these stresses, but the increase is likely to make its way to households and other organizations in the coming months, analysts told the Wall Street Journal in a recent report.

Food costs don’t have to derail a community’s menu offerings, however. Operators are finding new ways, and they’re going back to old ways, when it comes to driving food efficiencies while still offering top-notch dining plans.

Back to Basics

First, there are some age-old approaches that dining program managers are working into their plans to address costs.

“It’s important to be reactive to it in a timely manner,” says Kevin Early, director of dining for WindsorMeade of Williamsburg, Va. “If there’s a freeze and tomato prices go up, try to do a menu minimizing higher-cost items. Go local.”

Going local, while trendy in its own right, can also mean big savings, dining managers say. For WindsorMeade and its location near coastal Virginia, that means more seafood and less beef.

“We may use flounder versus beef tenderloin,” Early says. “We’re not only using fresh local seafood, but the residents love seafood so we sell a lot of it.”

WindsorMeade also sources herbs from a garden on-site, contracts with local purveyors of produce and has applied to be a “Virginia Green Restaurant” through the state of Virginia, already having achieved the minimum core requirements of eliminating some glass bottled items.

Going local forces the menu to follow the seasons, providing more variety for residents. That means steering away from asparagus in the winter, and instead looking to winter vegetables like rutabaga and cauliflower.

“When your costs rising, you want to have your high-volume items be your low-cost items,” Early says.

Crunching the Numbers

Other operators take a very technical approach to management of food costs in the current environment—an approach that began as a mere Excel spreadsheet.
Pedestal Foods, based in Ballwin, Mo., contracts with schools, universities and senior living communities to provide dining services. Its restaurant-style approach to senior living called for a cost-controlling solution, says Scott Elgart, Pedestal Foods’ area manager for senior living.

“I came from restaurants, and when I came to senior living with no point of sale system, it threw me for a loop for how I controlled everything except portion,” Elgart recalls. “I really had to set pars, usages and depletions. It’s hard to project cost if you are changing the items every day.”

Pedestal looked to a simple technology to help crunch the numbers and direct staff as to managing their costs. The concept, Digital Nutritional Database, is a program Pedestal’s two senior living communities now use to account for — and project — food costs, down to the ounce. It also tracks nutritional information that can be provided to management, nurses or family members, and drives consistency among food offerings.

“We wanted to be able to integrate what we knew was happening on the inventory side with what we knew on recipes and menu planning,” Elgart says.
The system keeps tabs on what dining planners think they know. While in the past they portioned fruit plates each morning based on careful estimates, they didn’t have an exact measurement for how much the fruit cost per serving. The new systems allows them to track it.

“Years ago, we realized food costs would expand beyond our control,” Elgart says. “We figured out we could stop using processed foods, and serve everything from scratch. We’d have a better product, and reduce food costs. But even when doing that on the big things, we were still losing on the little things.

“Just like in a restaurant environment, now we have the ability to see what 2 ounces of sour cream costs on a plate. That translates into savings,” he says.

Savings Meets Satisfaction

Just because food costs less, doesn’t mean its any less appealing to residents.

“We have discovered that in senior living, the advantage is that residents connect with homemade flavors,” Elgart says. “That allows our teams to take more time with less expensive proteins. We have learned that tender for the residents has less to do with mouthfeel than being able to get a fork into the meat.”

At WindorMeade, implementing cost-cutting measures goes a long way for its 8,000 meals per month, including a menu that rotates monthly to include two soups, two salads, a variety of appetizers, eight entrees and four desserts. Each day also brings a seafood special, an entree special and a 5:30 p.m. special.

The meals are planned around the seasons, which means less transportation of ingredients, less storage, and a variety of choices for those who are dining.

“Our residents appreciate the seasonal menus,” Early says. “Proper management and creative menus really help out with the food costs. We are not over-preparing but not under-preparing. We want to be local, creative, and changing with the seasons to accommodate residents’ wishes.”

Written by Elizabeth Ecker

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