To glimpse the future of dining in senior living communities, one might only need to step inside a Chipotle.
More and more senior living providers are opening “fast casual” eateries with customized food orders, stylish menus, kitchens that are visible from the dining area and modern decor. The idea of incorporating fast casual dining a la Chipotle into senior living isn’t especially new, and forward-thinking industry leaders have mulled the concept since at least 2011.
What is new, however, is the fact that some larger providers seem to be finally embracing the trend. Erickson Living, which has 20 sprawling communities throughout the country, recently opened a fast casual eatery called the Mile High cafe at its Wind Crest continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in Highlands Ranch, Colorado.
The cafe—which serves pastas, soups, salads, flatbreads, sandwiches, desserts and baked goods—has everything one might see in a Panera or Noodles & Company, including digital menu boards, an exhibition-style kitchen, cash registers in full view of the prep area and a made-to-order menu.
The provider landed on the fast casual concept after examining what’s hot in the consumer restaurant world, according to Tom Carlson, director of dining at Wind Crest.
“We want to make sure we are providing our residents and guests with the experience they want,” Carlson told Senior Housing News. “Looking at pioneering [food] in the CCRC world, a fast casual concept made a lot of sense.”
If that trend holds and providers continue to embrace it, fast casual eateries could one day be as common in senior living communities as pubs and bistros are now, according to David Dillard, principal at senior living design firm D2 Architecture.
“A 75-year-old is profoundly busier today than a 75-year-old was 20 years ago,” Dillard told SHN. “That, to me, is driving up the demand for the ‘fast’ in fast casual.”
Part of the reason why fast casual eateries seem to be taking root among senior living providers is that the dining setting holds appeal with younger seniors. Erickson Living, for example, embraced the idea in part because of its popularity with baby boomers and their families, Carlson said.
Garden Spot Village, a CCRC with slightly less than 1,000 residents in New Holland, Pennsylvania, opened a fast casual restaurant called The Harvest Table about three years ago. There, chefs sling pizzas, sandwiches, stir fries, burgers and steaks—all of which are fully customizable, made-to-order and prepared in full view of the residents.
Like Erickson Living, Garden Spot Village’s decision to move into the fast casual realm stemmed from a desire to keep up with the tastes of younger residents, said Garden Spot Communities CEO Steve Lindsey.
“If we are going to be responsive to our customers, then we have to create the environments and service styles… that they’re looking for,” Lindsey told SHN. “The old environment where there were three entrees, four vegetables and a dessert doesn’t work anymore.”
About 25% of the CCRC’s incoming residents are under the age of 70, an “anomaly” in the New Holland market, he added. In addition to capturing a younger crowd, Garden Spot’s fast casual restaurant even lures members of the surrounding community—which can help prompt move-ins down the road, Lindsey said.
“When they’re thinking about a retirement living option, we’re already familiar to them. It feels friendly,” he said. “We’ve been meeting their dining needs for years at that point.”
Opening a fast casual cafe even helped Garden Spot Village cut down on raw food costs because the meals are made to order, he said.
‘They want their Panera’
Garden Spot worked with SCOPOS Hospitality Group to develop the concept. The Ephrata, Pennsylvania-based consulting and design firm is currently working on 187 active projects across the country, nearly half of which involve senior living communities.
Many of those projects have fast casual components, according to Matt Schuler, directory of culinary for SCOPOS. To Schuler, the fast casual trend isn’t just rising in popularity—it’s already hitting a fever pitch.
“From coast to coast, there’s been a dramatic shift in food service trends, not only in senior living, but just in general,” Schuler told SHN. “As the baby boomer population starts moving into the senior housing market, they want some of the same things they had before moving in. They want their Panera and their Starbucks.”
Written by Tim Regan