Dished: How Dining Can Be Senior Living’s Biggest Asset

From celebrity chefs and restaurant-caliber meals to upscale venues and unique programming, the senior living dining experience is anything but average.

And while providers are increasingly using their dining programs as a marketing tool to entice prospective residents, they’re also using them as a way to attract top talent and rethink the staff training process.

Enter: Morrison Community Living, a member of Compass Group and a dining services company devoted exclusively to serving senior living clients.

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The Atlanta-based company is showing that providers can utilize dining not only in the obvious way, but also in creating a new approach to recruiting and training senior living professionals.

And it’s working. With roughly 370 culinary staff, the turnover rate for the last few years has been about 5.5%, even dipping to 3.25% at one point — a figure senior living providers should take note of, given that the industry average in continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs) alone is roughly 34%.

“That’s our measure to make sure that things are working,” says Senior Corporate Executive Chef John Rifkin.

Among those “things” that are working are Morrison’s chef competitions, new staff training model and dining-based approach to recruitment.

1. ‘Food Fights’ Spark Staff Engagement

Like providers such as Five Star Senior Living, Morrison recognizes the value of friendly competition as it relates to dining in senior living.

“Chefs thrive on a challenge,” Rifkin says.

As such, Morrison has launched a new initiative aimed at engaging its culinary teams — landing a handful of senior living chefs in a final, head-to-head challenge this week.

“We’ve been creating these challenges called ‘Food Fights,’ and this is the second year we’ve done it,” Rifkin says. “Each region has a competition that leads to a semifinals and then culminates in a final competition in San Diego.”

During the “Chopped”-style competition, the finals for which took place Wednesday, chefs are required to incorporate certain key ingredients in their dishes from the sponsors of the Food Fight, which are Morrison business partners.

Last year, Executive Chef Matthew Doman from Pine Run Village in Doylestown, Pa., won the competition with dishes that utilized all of the featured Kraft ingredients (Kraft, because Kraft was the competition sponsor last year).

One such dish included barbecue pork made with A1 Steak Sauce and Grey Poupon Dijon Mustard served over a fresh corn compote made with Piquillo pepper, Philadelphia cream cheese, heavy cream, sriracha sauce and fresh cilantro.

While last year’s Food Fight drew about 100 chefs, participation in this year’s competition doubled, with about 200 culinary professionals involved, Rifkin says. But only five chefs were selected to compete in the finals round — four from Morrison and one from Flik Lifestyles, Compass Group’s new Northeast/Mid-Atlantic senior living service provider.

Chef Drew Ward took home the winning title Wednesday, from his community home base of Sharon Towers in Charlotte, N.C. Ward’s winning dish included a prosciutto-wrapped black cod, roasted fingerling potatoes, baby zucchini and squash ribbons and a “delightful” sauce using A1 sauce, Grey Poupon and tomatoes.

“When other chefs realize there’s a competition, they want in,” Rifkin says, noting that Morrison focuses on staff retention, in part, by emphasizing staff engagement. “Compensation plays a little part of it, but it’s more about keeping folks engaged.”

2. On-Demand Tech Serves as New Staff Training Model

In what might be described as a “happy accident,” Morrison also discovered a new way to provide staff training after launching its Food Fight competitions last year.

Using Livestream — an online platform that allows its users to broadcast events in real time and archive the recordings — when publicizing its competition, Morrison found that the tool could be just as effective in training its culinary staff.

“As we were figuring out what the latest technology was for training, this fell in our lap,” Rifkin says. “We [realized we] could actually use this because it’s automatic — it communicates with [subscribers] when something is posted — and it has that social media aspect too. It’s perfect for education.”

Livestream videos are well-suited to serve as inspiration for everything from plating and techniques to proper attire and safety procedures.

Part of the draw for Morrison is the tool’s ability to capture the attention of a younger audience.

“The majority of our staff out there are Gen Ys and Xers, and they learn differently than we did,” Rifkin says. “So [we wanted to know] what tech would capture their imagination and make it stick. That’s something we’ve really focused on over the last year.”

Rifkin describes this new training model as a “learn-at-your-leisure” or “on-demand” method, using live-streaming and YouTube-type training as a way to deliver education.

“People just don’t have time nowadays, especially the younger folks. But they do want to learn and do a better job,” he says. “For us, it’s about what technology is out there that will capture our audience.”

3. Dining: The Segue Into Senior Living 

As the senior living industry strives to find ways to attract younger talent, providers’ dining programs may be the perfect place to start looking.

For Morrison, dining is the channel through which a younger workforce can enter senior living.

“When you come into senior living [as a dining professional], you’re almost under this protective umbrella,” Rifkin says. “You’re not working past 9 p.m., you have occasional weekends off, you’re given educational material — it’s such a great place to start out.”

Plus, it’s more “forgiving.”

“Another good reason for young chefs to come into senior living is because you can mess up — you’re cute, young and the residents love you,” Rifkin says. “At restaurants, you either make it or you don’t, and the majority don’t because it’s a very tough environment.”

Finally, working in senior living provides dining staff with greater cooking flexibility.

“When you’re just coming in, you’re still handling and touching food as you would at any hotel, restaurant or country club, but it’s a better work-life balance and you’re not stuck [only] cooking Italian [cuisine],” Rifkin says.

That’s also the draw for veteran culinary professionals, some of whom come from the hospitality industry or top restaurants to work in senior living.

It’s clear the industry is far from the institutional setting that many expect. And for Morrison, the “fight” to innovate has just begun.

Written by Emily Study

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