Confessions of a Culinary Director: Senior Living Dining Staff ‘Very Insecure’

Even if they’re turning out impressive and delicious plates of food like clockwork, chefs in senior living are probably very insecure.

Chefs tend to be insecure due to the nature of their work, and knowing that should help senior living executives provide more consistent and helpful support to these teams, according to a culinary operations director with a senior living provider, who is featured in this latest installment of Senior Housing News’ “Confessions” series.

In this interview, learn why opening senior living restaurants to the general public is a big risk, what dining-related technology is most promising, and why providers should invest in upgrading the experiences that residents have in dining venues.

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The goal of the “Confessions” series is to share candid perspectives that might be hard—but helpful—for readers to hear. To encourage this level of honesty, the culinary operations director has been kept anonymous.

Do you work in the senior living industry? Do you want to participate in the “Confessions” series? Email me at: [email protected] Confidentiality will be maintained for all sources for this series.

Is it fair to say that senior living dining has improved a lot in recent years? Where do you think the industry is still coming up short?

We’ve gone through a progression from dietary services to nutrition services to food services to, now, culinary services in most systems. I think … senior living has done a better job than hospitals and health care settings in staying ahead of the trend that food is becoming more ingrained in our culture.

Where I still think we’re lagging is in the experience area—in having consistent experiences in communities, because of either a lack of infrastructure or money available to improve that experience. That’s what it really comes down to, or training, because of the turnover in staff that we have.

What’s driving that turnover and do you have any ideas for how to reduce it?

A lot of our positions are entry-level, and historically, we’ve relied on staff either coming to us while they were in high school, as a first job, or while they were in school after high school, like at the local community college. They were part-time, casual labor positions in many cases. They’d get trained, and then move on to something else. We didn’t have a professional group of staff to fill those positions.

I think that still holds us back. The lack of focus on the positions. We’re going to have to re-think the compensation, not just the financial but other compensation that is afforded these folks, and really put more money into career ladders and creating what they see as a career path. Many staff members right now see our organizations as very flat, without much opportunity for advancement.

You also brought up the lack of money to upgrade dining experiences. Do you think too many providers are short-changing their culinary programs?

I think it’s very easy for us in the culinary world to say that we need more money for our programs and that we’re underfunding these programs. But it’s a fine line. If all of a sudden we get what we wish for and spend that money, but it doesn’t impact occupancy and/or it may have a negative impact on the bottom line, then we haven’t met our fiduciary responsibility. I think it’s a very delicate balance that needs to be struck.

Can you give an example of how to strike that balance?

To go all-in and spend $8 million on a bistro renovation budget, I think you have to think long and hard, versus $1.5 million on a refresh [where] you can do minimal improvements to that space and still be current for maybe 10 years. That’s sort of how we’re thinking. Can we improve this space from an infrastructure standpoint … and still have it be relevant and current for a lot less money than an all-in project?

What dining trends or innovations do you think are overrated or over-hyped?

I’m really nervous about the idea of opening restaurants to the general public in our communities.

Number one, I think these are the residents’ homes. I think those seats and those dining venues that we’re operating are theirs, and theirs to be used. That being said, the most expensive thing in a restaurant is an empty seat. So, that’s where the operators are coming from, that there’s the opportunity for additional revenue. But we have to really understand what it costs us to produce one of those meals versus a restaurant.

The margins in a restaurant are razor-thin, but our margins are nonexistent. Most of our food programs are not profitable. They’re cost centers for the community. So, if we increase the number of meals we’re serving, we just made a bigger cost center for the community. So, that really scares me, and I don’t think that operators of senior living understand the margins of a restaurant well enough, and would allocate overhead properly, to support that project—to understand what it’s truly going to cost to open it up to the public.

What about having an independent restauranteur come in to run a restaurant in the senior living building?

I think that an exciting part of what we’re going to be doing in the future is partner more with existing restaurants … very effective, successful, proficient restauranteurs who want to hang their shingle at one of our communities and operate a restaurant in the community that’s also open to the public. That would make sense to me.

Then, we become like a lease-holder and we still provide meals to our residents, maybe in a separate dining room, but there’s an addendum to the building where there’s an outside restaurant that’s open to the public but also our residents. Maybe it’s also part of their meal plan.

I think that’s something that could potentially be a win-win for us in the future, because the historical slow nights of the week [for a restaurant] are not historically slow nights of the week for us. We could almost guarantee a certain number of diners a night to a restaurant like that, to help offset the costs of doing business and really create an intergenerational experience.

Why can’t senior living providers achieve the same thin margins as independent restaurants?

We don’t traditionally have wait staff who are tipped employees. Tipped employees make a lower minimum wage with typically not many benefits. We can say we’re paying a higher hourly wage plus a benefits package that can add anywhere from 20% to 45% on top of that wage. So, where it may cost a restaurant $6.50 all-in to produce a plate, it costs us over $10. Add in all the indirect costs—the management, lights, water, utilities, et cetera—and you quickly see that there’s not a lot of dollars left, or even pennies left, for profit.

What dining trends or innovations are you most excited about?

The most exciting thing on the horizon, I think, is what we can do with artificial intelligence, IT and robotics to meet further demands of production in the kitchens, in the dish rooms. Can we automate dish rooms? Can we automate the ordering experience, which we already have in many of our communities? What else can we automate?

I’m also excited to see almost all operators going to chef-prepared menus. Chefs are writing the menus locally and moving away from a corporate menu that gets pushed out to everybody. I’m excited to see a move to all fresh ingredients. Almost every community now is buying all fresh produce, using fresh herbs, moving away from convenience products. That’s spectacular. Those are really proud accomplishments for the industry.

What are the main obstacles to culinary innovation in senior living?

For sure occupancy in a community drives what we can do. Number two is probably the mindset of marketing folks versus health care folks versus culinary folks about whether we’re leading with our brand and values, our hospitality model, our health care model—it all depends on who you talk to, at what time of the day. I think it’s a continuing struggle for the industry, that we try to be all things to all people, based on who we’re talking to at the moment, and that becomes confusing. And then it becomes a struggle for resources, depending on who’s talking the loudest.

Is there a right answer about what providers should lead with, strategically? Or is it up to each organization?

I think it’s up to each organization. For sure. Based on their market, their history, their occupancy, and what’s their strategy for growth and how do they want to be identified in the marketplace as an organization.

What about contracted third-party dining services providers? Are they driving innovation? What do you see as their role in the industry?

I think that they are an excellent choice for somebody who decides that they have limited time to devote to managing the culinary facilities and want to focus on something else. I think that what they offer today is very much what the independent operator can offer itself. I’m not seeing a lot of innovation coming out of them that’s unique. I think they’re coming up with things that any one of us has seen or thought about, but they’re maybe expanding on those [ideas] and making them systems or programs.

I also think they’re really expensive for what they do. Put it this way … that money is put forth to have them manage your service. If you were to take that and reinvest it in the program, could you have the same program or a similar program? I would say probably you could, if you had a couple strong people who were running it.

And I think they have the same challenges we do, as far as staffing. They’re as good as the person they hire to run a community or account. So, we’re very much in the same position. If we have a great director, we’re going to have a great program. If those folks don’t have a great director, they’re going to struggle. All the systems in the world are for nought if you can’t … make the staff feel good about what they’re doing and manage the staff in a way that’s meaningful.

I don’t have the statistics, but I bet they all go after the same 12% of the market, and the rest is self-operated. But they don’t really engage that other 88%, 90%, whatever the percent is … I think they know there are some communities or systems that are like, nope, we’re managing it ourselves. So, I think it’s hard on them that they’re fighting for that same segment all the time.

I think that they have a very specific place for us in the future. I think they’re good partners for the industry. I find them all to be very convivial. They’re more than open to share ideas and talk, and I think as long as they continue to be seen in the marketplace as good stewards and focused on cultivating talent, they’ll continue to be valued members of what we do.

What makes you excited to come to work each day? 

It’s seeing the growth of our communities and creating opportunities for people to stay with us and grow. That’s spectacular, to see someone who joins us and stays for 25 years and makes a career.

What’s keeping you up at night from a business perspective?

The thing that scares me most right now is food-borne illness, an outbreak, something that we can’t control. You see it in the news all the time. There was just a romaine recall. It really scared us. It’s something we pay close attention to.

It used to be, “It won’t happen to us” was the mentality of operators. Now it’s, “It’s only a matter of time, and how do we react to it?” Those are the words I’m hearing in the industry. It scares me, when I hear that.

Also staffing … I can find chefs, sous chefs, directors, managers, but we can’t find cooks. We can’t fill entry-level positions in every market we’re in. I think that’s going to continue.

What’s causing that shortage? Tight labor markets in general?

When you look at the demographics, I think the last time I looked, the way I interpreted the data was, there are fewer available high school students and recent college grads out in the marketplace looking for this type of work. I also think the fascination with working in kitchens and culinary has sort of worn off. The realization that it’s really hard work has set in. Even enrollment in culinary schools is down. So, I think it’s complicated, but obviously it’s [also] the strong economy.

How about chefs and other higher-level culinary positions? Is the industry doing a good enough job of appealing to them?

Once a chef or sous chef finds senior living and realizes the hours, schedule, benefits, paid time off, they don’t leave. It’s a fantastic industry. The hard time is getting people to think of it as the next step in their career. They think about the institutional model … [when] everything was cooked in a batch, trayed with a little quart of milk, and everything came down with wrapped silverware in a large utility cart and they served the trays to everyone in a large room.

Fortunately, we’ve completely moved away from that as an industry. But there’s still a perception, I think, for the culinary talent that’s out there. So what we do is, when we talk to folks at career fairs or when we’re putting out messaging, we try to include pictures of our kitchens. We try to talk about the equipment—the combi ovens, blast chillers—so they understand they’re walking into a fully functioning professional kitchen. A scratch kitchen. Once they start to put those pieces together, it piques their interest.

What are your biggest pet peeves in your role as culinary operations director?

We have a hard time, as an industry, in delegating. I would say that for the folks I work with, that’s something that I’m constantly thinking about helping them with, to delegate, do less themselves. The industry has programmed us to be folks who just do it. The hospitality business is, if it comes to you, you just solve it. But to be a good leader, you have to delegate.

What do you wish more people in your organization, or in the industry as a whole, understood about what you do or dining in general?

I would want people in our organization to know that our staff in many cases work two jobs, travel 45 minutes to come to work, many times are already tired when they get here. Their car may be broken down. They don’t have a washer and dryer, so they have to use a laundry, so they have less personal time or downtime to rejuvenate. I remind leadership all the time … those frontline staff are the backbone of what we do. We need to continue to find creative ways to help solve some of those issues outside of work for them. Whether it be workforce housing or transportation, we need to consider those things. That is something that I don’t know everyone thinks about in our industry.

The other thing I would want people to know is that culinary is not a 9 to 5 job. Most of our staff work 10 to 12 hours a day, a minimum of five days a week.

And we’re very insecure. Food service people are probably the most insecure people you’ll ever meet, because they’re only as good as their last meal. Literally. Service is done, and now you’re worried about the next service. So, if you’ve done this for 20 years, you become really insecure. It’s not that we’re just needy people, it’s how we’re programmed, because we worry about, okay, lunch is done, where’s the cook for dinner? He was supposed to be here at 1:00, it’s 1:15. The Sysco truck was supposed to be here at 10:00. Now it’s 12:00. We don’t have everything we need.

There is a direct correlation between how much time the CEO or executive director spends with their culinary director and the success of that program. They need to have that, because of that insecurity, they need to have that constant mentoring and guidance about where to go next. I have seen this throughout my career, that the communities that have strong programs have a strong connection to the leadership and are given constant positive support and direction on where to go next and improve the program.

What does senior living dining look like in five years? Similar to today or very different?

Unfortunately, there has not been that much change in the last 25 years as far as technology. In the back of the house, the kitchen, there have been small technological advances. Some would argue they’ve been big, but I tend to disagree. Combi ovens and a couple other things, that’s about it. I’m hoping we see more automation, especially in dish rooms. I’m hoping we see a different user experience, an interface for ordering, that’s not clunky. A lot of what’s out there right now is clunky and doesn’t work well, especially for seniors.

I don’t necessarily see that there’s going to be a dramatic change in how we deliver services. Probably the most exciting opportunity for us is to put the chefs closer and closer to the residents and have menus prepared locally. Seasonally driven menus that are also impacted by residents’ likes and dislikes, which we’re already doing, but I want to see that continue. I know there’s a conversation about doing more with farming, aeroponics, hydroponics, some are talking about small on-site farms, some places are raising chickens, llamas, goats, pigs. It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.

The challenge is … people relate a meal to the experiences they’ve had in the past. Your meatloaf might not be the best meatloaf they’ve ever had, because the best they ever had was the day they found out they got a promotion, years before. So it’s not the meatloaf, it’s the experience around that. We need to provide a really good experience, where residents connect with the staff, where staff are welcoming and take the time to listen to their needs and talk to them. I think that’s where culinary can differentiate itself. To really try to address the specific needs of the individual rather than shoot for the middle of the bell curve.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.