SHN+ Report: Inside the Rise of Multi-Venue Dining in Senior Living

Key Takeaways

  • Dining preferences of baby boomers and senior living residents and how those preferences are driving variety in senior living dining.
  • How designers are creating unique spaces for multi-venue dining.
  • How operators are using technology and innovation to help manage multiple dining venues within a single community or campus.
  • Where senior living dining staffing is becoming more like restaurant staffing, and

Garden Spot Village | New Holland, Pennsylvania

Executive Summary

Senior Living Dining has changed.

Many communities have updated their dining operations to offer a restaurant-style experience with multiple venues and a variety of options each day for residents. If you’re not providing options, you’re out of the game.

But managing the new process can be daunting. From staffing to food sourcing, managing the back of the house for a multi-venue, restaurant-style operation introduces new areas for challenges, as well as opportunities. The new multifaceted dining experience requires both smart design and savvy operations.

This report explores the top management and design principles that are shaping the new and improved senior living dining experience.

Multiple seating venues and dining options are becoming commonplace in senior living.

The Rise of Variety in Senior Living Dining

Operators report that today’s residents want options — many, many options. Generational preferences play a role in this trend; baby boomers and their predecessors want choice.

Dining is one of the greatest operating expenses a senior living community faces. In fact, according to LeadingAge, dining comprises around 23% of an average CCRC’s costs, second only to nursing, at 35%.

Given the expense, communities should make sure their dining dollars end up meeting the needs and desires of their residents, who today mainly comprise the Greatest Generation, but will soon make way for Baby Boomer residents. That means variety.

Senior living communities aren’t the only venues trending toward dining variety. Take a look at any university, resort, or large office campus. Even “food halls” are cropping up across cities nationwide, giving patrons the option to visit any number of stalls or micro- restaurants that are cooking up the latest in local cuisine. Choice is paramount.

Settings that are likely to have a more “captive” consumer base are all trending away from the cafeteria-style dining of the past, and they’re looking toward the future. The idea is less “high-school lunchroom,” and more “Cheesecake Factory,” says Alex Susskind, associate professor of food and beverage management at The Hotel School at Cornell University, and a faculty fellow of the Cornell Institute for Healthy Futures.

Source: Perkins Eastman and LeadingAge

“It’s adding variety to excite the people who have to eat there every day, or have that option,” he says. “[Residents] can go out and have excursions, but if the food service is really attractive where they are, they will look forward to it.”

Operators report that today’s residents want options — many, many options. Generational preferences play a role in this trend; baby boomers and even their predecessors want choice. They have often traveled internationally and they are used to having many different types of dining experiences and cuisines. But it’s also a reflection of more general trends in dining, Susskind says.

“It’s out there in almost every domain,” he says. “There are big players doing this that touch health care… they also run venues in stadiums, in parks. They do it for businesses and for manufacturing plants.”

Some operators will be required to retrofit their communities if they haven’t already. And new construction projects will be well served to plan in advance for this trend, which appears to be here to stay.

“I can’t imagine anything ever trumping choice and variety as number one,” says Ray Torres, vice president of business development for Sodexo Seniors for North America. “Multiple venues is going to be [standard] going forward for operators. For new construction, if they are not doing this, they are missing out.”

In Japanese designs, varied seating options among dining venues include traditional floor-style seating. | PHOTO COURTESY OF BAMO

For some communities, two flexible dining venues will suffice. Others are creating as many as four or five options, says Jerry Jue, principal with San Francisco-based international design firm BAMO. Some of the larger facilities that his firm has designed in the U.S. and Japan, he says, not only offer different types of food, but employ lighting, views, and orientation to create completely different experiences.

“The way it is evolving in the last five to seven years, the dining experience is becoming less institutional and much more like a restaurant or hospitality experience,” he says. “It’s not just a room with tables and chairs. It’s also lots of different dining options, especially for the larger facilities. It is offering more than one kind of view with every dining venue.”

At Chicago-based Vi, the company has opened a number of proprietary cafés that have multiple food and beverage uses, such as morning coffee and breakfast, casual lunch, or dinner overflow. The space is shared with the company’s Lifestyles department for special events and gatherings.

Managing for this level of variety can be challenging, especially for operators that are new to the restaurant-style approach to dining that today’s residents are demanding across multiple venues. Both designers and operators are addressing those challenges to provide a new and improved senior living dining experience — an experience providers need to cultivate, given the importance of food in the health care and senior housing decision-making process.

Source: The Hartman Group

Dining Design for the Next Generation of Senior Living Communities

The trick is in the design, but you don’t need to duplicate everything to have multiple venues. One kitchen can serve multiple spaces if staffed properly and laid out well.

— Ray Torres
Vice President of Business Development for Sodexo Seniors for North America

Senior living designers have adapted kitchen features to accommodate the trend of multi-venue dining, as well as an underlying shift to scratch cooking. That includes both equipment and layout, as well as transitional spaces that were once considered back-of- house, but have moved to the front-of-house space.

“The trick is in the design,” says Sodexo’s Torres. “But you don’t need to duplicate everything to have multiple venues. One kitchen can serve multiple spaces if staffed properly and laid out well.”


The design

For most contemporary senior living communities that have made the shift to multiple dining spaces, there remains a single back-of-house space to serve multiple venues.

The concept is similar to a mall food court, says Andrey Teleguz, principal with the Ephrata, Pennsylvania-based Scopos

Hospitality Group, a design firm specializing in hospitality consulting, design, and operational support services.

“You might have an Asian restaurant, an Italian restaurant, and a Thai restaurant,” Teleguz says. “They are adjacent, but separate. But guess what — the kitchen behind is a shared kitchen. We are doing the same thing in designing the kitchen to be multiple capability so it can support these different restaurants.”

Seating for different venues is also a consideration that’s evolving along with kitchens.

To accommodate more single diners, designers are creating counter-service seating, as well as large communal tables that have grown popular in restaurants and hotels. With both counters and communal tables, more people can fit into a smaller space, and the setting is more conducive to socialization.

“In Japan, we have been designing lots of private dining rooms and counter dining, where the chef is cooking your food right in front of you,” Jue says. “We are creating opportunities for diners to interact with the chefs.”

The rise of exhibition stations also lends themselves to this approach, says Teleguz, noting the interest among residents to interact directly with the food service staff.

“We are now doing captain’s tables and chef’s tables,” he says. “Those are the concepts where residents choose to be close to that experience.”

Whatever the elements, the design considerations behind a multi-venue concept are paramount, says Jan Crain, senior foodservice design consultant and interior designer for the Milwaukee-based Direct Supply Aptura.

“The kitchen is the most expensive room in a senior living community to equip and install and to operate,” she says. “People overlook the importance of it.”

The equipment

Equipment makers that serve hospitality settings including senior housing are creating new equipment to help make

operations more efficient. And within new installations, there’s also some older equipment that’s making a comeback.

Several types of equipment can be found in today’s senior living kitchens:

Blast chillers: With blast chillers, food preparation staff can chill a product quickly and transport it to different venues or outlets where it can then be cooked to order.

Induction cooking surfaces: With induction cooking, staff can quickly prepare food in front-of-house spaces without any flame or excessive heat.

Rapid cook ovens: Chefs use rapid-cook ovens both in front-of-house and back-of-house settings. Particularly with made- to-order and scratch cooking trends, rapid cook ovens allow for a baked potato to be made in just a few minutes.

Combination “combi” ovens: These ovens, which allow users to combine oven and microwave cooking types, can be used to prepare food that has been stored, or to achieve the perfect texture for food that has been par-cooked or is being heated after being frozen or chilled.

Produce stations: With a shift toward scratch cooking, these stations are equipped to allow prep staff to oxidize, sanitize and wash produce, giving it a longer shelf life.

Pressure cookers: Common in industrial settings in the past, pressure cookers have reemerged to provide quick cooking ability for items like rice and oatmeal in just minutes.

Cold rooms: A departure from cold storage, these refrigerated rooms are kept around 55 degrees, which helps preserve foods that require cooler temperatures but allows staff to prepare comfortably. Foods such as fish, sushi and, some Asian dishes that may require both cold prep and storage can be prepared in this cold room.

Self-contained cooking carts: Several manufacturers have developed self-
contained cooking carts that allow for induction cooking to enable tableside preparation and teaching demonstrations. The carts can also be utilized during renovation projects to allow for a mobile cooking experience when the traditional dining areas are under construction.

Back of house moves forward

One of the greatest changes in designing for multiple venues and high-variety dining is the shift away from large kitchens and small dining spaces to the opposite, where there is a blending of front-of-house and back-of-house spaces.

Some senior housing community designers estimate that the kitchen is decreasing in size by about 20% to 25% to allow for more spaces where service and prep staff interact directly with dining patrons and residents. An exhibition kitchen, for example, sits in the front of the house, where residents can see and experience the meal as it is being created. In many communities, the design favors an approach often seen in corporate dining, featuring stations where staff prepare and serve food to order, all within sight of those who will enjoy it.

“If you have a big kitchen and a small dining room, you’re putting the resources in the wrong place,” Susskind says.

Reconfiguring space to allow more front-of-house preparation gives way to several trends in multi-venue dining:

Action stations—These stations, which might include sushi preparation, an Italian pasta demonstration, or made-to-order panini stop, have become commonplace in market-style restaurants and corporate dining venues.

Today, they’re also taking hold in senior housing.

Pop-up dining experience

Demonstration kitchens—A counter dividing the dining area from a large open kitchen allows for residents to view cooking demonstrations conducted by a chef or food service staff member.

Mobile demonstration stations—These stations, which are equipped with electricity and cooking capacity, can be moved around a dining venue to provide a varied experience for residents.

Pop-up dining venues—From outdoor venues to indoor ones, surprising residents with a themed pop-up concept can add even more variety and entertainment to the dining experience.

“It fosters a lot of interaction between staff and residents, which is a nice thing to encourage,” Jue says.

The variety of foods that are being prepared in the front of the house is also expanding, and designers have updated kitchen designs to drive ease and efficiencies for staff.

“If we locate the dining room so it’s visible to the kitchen, then staff can come and go and work in both the kitchen and the dining room,” Crain says. “We’re bringing the exhibition kitchen into the dining room so the back of house prep can be done. They’re baking desserts in the oven in the front of the house, they’re baking breads and pizza crusts, so residents can see what’s going on.”

Senior living is making way for the open kitchen concept

Flexible spaces and multiple seating options are forging forward in senior living. This may include counter-style seating, chef’s tables, and even booths, says Steve Lindsey, CEO of the New Holland, Pennsylvania-based Garden Spot Village, which recently went through a renovation of its dining operation.

“There’s a standard protocol that you had a certain consumer and needed to provide easy access to them,” he says. “The interpretation was always tables with regular dining chairs with sturdy arms. Never booths, never high stools. We really broke through a lot of those stereotypes. We put in booths because if you are in a booth, you feel like you have more privacy and a sense of creating relationships and intimacy. We also included a long community table designed for people who come to dine solo. Pretty soon the table is full and it’s one big party.”

Increasingly, dining executives are seeing more single diners in senior living, rather than couples. They attribute this in part to rising acuity, where one member of a couple may dine in his or her unit, or only one member of a couple lives in the community. This has further pushed design to encourage fewer four-top tables and to better manage space in dining venues to accommodate solo diners.

“When people dine by themselves, it is usually quick casual, in a cafe or marketplace,” says John Rifkin, senior corporate executive chef at Atlanta-based Morrison Community Living. “More often than not, people dine alone. We may need to be more sensitive to it in the future.”

BAMO has created designs to accommodate this trend — specifically in Japan, where residents are more accustomed

culturally to a counter-style experience (see next page).

“In Japan, we have been designing lots of private dining rooms and counter dining, where the chef is cooking your food right in front of you,” Jue says. “We’re creating opportunities for diners to interact with the chefs.”

In a recent counter design completed by BAMO, the space was several venues in one.

“Each day, the way [residents] use it is different,” Jue says. “In the morning, there were pastries and coffee, then lunch and light fare. In the evening, they were serving drinks. We designed it so it could turn into a drinks bar. The seating was such that it could be a dress-up affair or bare wood with placemats.”

Photo courtesy of BAMO
Source: National Restaurant Association

Operations and Staffing for Variety of Venues

New tools are helping senior living dining leaders to manage multiple venues.

A greater variety of venues is leading to a greater variety of menu options for residents, from international cuisines to more choices per meal. As a result, operators are updating many of their management strategies and they are having to staff accordingly, which often means hiring a more skilled food service staff.

They’re also turning a close eye to efficiency when it comes to managing food cost and waste.

“We try to minimize waste by forecasting the number of each item we will serve on any given day,” says Steve Sandblom, director of food and beverage for national CCRC provider Vi. “We also portion our own proteins utilizing any remaining product for soup. Additionally, we often serve highly desired entrees together to help offset the cost of the more expensive item. One example of this is serving Lobster Tails on the same night as a traditional Turkey Dinner – it usually is about a 50-50 mix.”

New tools are also helping senior living dining leaders to manage multiple venues.

Technology and innovation

While many communities rely on technologies used in restaurants, such as point-of-sale systems and automated ordering platforms, they are also going back to basics to help achieve operational efficiencies in their dining programs.

One way they are doing this is to control the product from farm to fork.

“There are a lot of rural communities that are building greenhouses are part of their expansion,” says Teleguz. “This way they can produce enough for themselves, and also start sourcing to the community. This offsets the cost of having the greenhouse.”

Along those lines, some operators are developing culinary centers that can produce and support the food system for the entire organization. This allows them to not only control quality from the very raw ingredients that are being used, but it also creates consistency of production, allowing organizations to chill and distribute all of the raw ingredients to its various communities. This high-volume production reduces costs, and also allows faraway kitchens create scratch-made meals with fresh ingredients on site.

Residents themselves are participating in this change, as baby boomers and their predecessors prefer healthier, locally sourced food.

“They want to know the name of the chicken they are eating,” says Susskind. “This requires skill and different handling practices. Along the way, fresh food requires slightly different handling practices to make it work. It’s more perishable. You have to manage it more carefully.”


Managing traffic to multiple venues

With a variety of dining options on a single campus, some are bound to have more traffic than others. It’s important to

measure and track where residents prefer to dine and plan accordingly.

“It starts with back to basics and planning,” says Sodexo’s Ray Torres. “You can’t duplicate the servers, but through smart planning you can track labor hours and number of guests per hour. You may have 100 guests in one venue and two in another.

Point of Sale technology available via tablet can assist to this end. CCRC operator Vi recently installed (or in some cases upgraded) a point of sale system across its communities.

“This enables our servers to be more efficient in taking and firing orders by utilizing their assigned tablet,” says Sandblom. “This system also creates efficiencies in the kitchen where each order appears on the Kitchen Display Screen (KDS). Finally, the POS system integrates with our reservation system which enables us to better monitor the pace of service.”

Skills rising

Staffing represents one of the greatest areas of change for operators looking to change their dining operations to a multi- venue, restaurant-style approach. A 2015 Senior Housing News report pointed to 10 trends in dining at the time, with one being the rise of hospitality professionals and celebrity chefs. Today’s management agrees these trends in staffing are here to stay.

First, because of the scratch cooking trend, staff must be more skilled. Rather than simply serving food, a dining team must be versed in cooking techniques, safety and service — which also demands higher wages.

“The more complicated the food is, the higher the level of skills you need,” Susskind says. “In scratch prep, if someone is using a knife, that is going to require more skill than in [quick serve settings].”

Second, in a multi-venue model, dining becomes more of an experience, leading to greater interaction between dining staff and residents. This requires yet another set of skills and personality traits, says Teleguz.

“Previously, everyone was at the back of house. Now we are relocating that staff to the front of house where they are cooking, interacting and finishing. That’s a change because it might take a different type of personality, a different skill set. Now, it’s more of a show experience that requires more flair.”

Job titles, too, reflect the change. No longer does a “dining room manager,” suffice in running the dining room. Today’s management title is “executive chef” — a manager that is skilled in operations and can oversee the functions of three to four different restaurants.

Today’s senior living dining rooms are akin to high-end restaurants.

Thinking like a restaurateur

Dining leadership must adopt the mindset of a restaurateur. Rather than simply ordering product and working through the operations of serving food, the executive in charge must think like a restaurant owner, who must consider all of the aspects of opening a restaurant for service each day.

That means considering waste and sustainability, customer service, hospitality and entertainment — made even more challenging by the fact that there are typically several venues to manage at once.

“If Mario Batali ran our restaurant, what would he do?” says Rifkin. “If Bobby Flay or Thomas Keller ran this, what would they do?”

Key considerations include:

  • Technology to help determine what food preparation is taking place at a given time and location
  • Trends in mealtimes and popularity of certain venues at certain times
  • Where service is needed at a given hour
  • How staff communicates during rushes
  • Whether staff is prepared across all venues
  • Maximizing labor
  • Managing food waste and food cost

“It goes back to basics,” Rifkin says. “There’s a hierarchy — there’s always a leader, and the last person who [interacts with] the food. It doesn’t matter the budget; you can always set your operation in a way [such that] there’s a hierarchy. If the person touching the food last is the highest skilled, you will have a more satisfied customer.”

Photo courtesy of Garden Spot Village
Photo courtesy of Garden Spot Village

Garden Spot Village, New Holland, Pennsylvania


“It comes down to basics,” says Sodexo’s Torres. “We know what folks are looking for; fresh baked pastries, good coffee… how do you create experiences around those? It goes back to basics and to truly understanding the consumer.”

Through design and operations practices, today’s operators are creating the future of senior living dining, one venue at a time.