Dished: Top Food Trends Making Their Way to Senior Living Dining

The senior living industry has seen a veritable revolution in dining services over the last decade, and many of those trends started with restaurants and cafes across the country. It wasn’t long ago that convertible bistro/wine bars and fast-casual dining were relegated only to the world of consumer dining.

But consumer trends change over time, and while these concepts aren’t played out yet, they will be eventually. So, providers must search for new dining trends that might translate well in senior living communities.

“Today’s [senior living] client was the general consumer yesterday,” Andrey Teleguz, principal with Ephrata, Pennsylvania-based SCOPOS Hospitality Group, told Senior Housing News. “Now, the client expectations have changed. They’re more traveled, more educated, and they say … when I retire I want to continue my lifestyle.”

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Bringing consumer food trends into the senior living fold is often easier said than done. And not every trend can work in senior living. For example, while DIY roast-your-own-s’mores setups can be fun among Brooklyn-dwelling friends, keeping hot coals in a senior living community’s common area isn’t always up to code.

But there are also plenty of trends that could — and in some cases, already do — translate well into senior living. In 2019, these could include continued interest in food trucks, early experiments in food halls and a range of trends driven by technology.

Building a food truck

One of the biggest trends to grip the consumer dining world has been the steady rise of food trucks. While once relegated to large cities with busy downtown areas, these mobile kitchens are now found in cities large and small across the U.S.

The senior living industry has not ignored this movement, and many providers already invite food trucks onto their campuses. Fleet Landing, a roughly 500-unit continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in Atlantic Beach, Florida, took the idea a step further when it embarked on a plan earlier this year to build and launch its own food truck called “The Anchor.” If all goes well, the truck will be operational by February.

Plans call for Fleet Landing to staff its food truck with some of its kitchen workers and serve seafood snacks in a nautical-themed design. Menu items will include fish tacos and quesadillas, hamburgers, sandwiches and other classic seafood dishes, according to Fleet Landing CEO Josh Ashby.

The community budgeted about $75,000 for the food truck, and worked with SCOPOS and a local food truck manufacturer on its design and build. At the same time, Fleet Landing is undergoing a $118 million expansion that will add more than 200 new units to the community and include an overhaul of its fast casual dining venue in the next 18 months.

“The food truck concept was conceived out of the need to create a new temporary fast casual environment,” Ashby told Senior Housing News. “It essentially is a full-service small kitchen on wheels.”

When it launches, the truck will serve the residents in a semi-permanent spot on campus outside the CCRC’s coffeeshop. But it will also occasionally roam into nearby Jacksonville to serve members of the wider area. It would station itself near events, such as car shows or symphony performances, that may attract older adults that fit the profile of a prospective Fleet Landing resident, in terms of age and income demographics.

Bringing consumer trends like food trucks into senior living can be a great way to differentiate from local competitors, and also help attract a younger age demographic, Ashby said. And because the price point is relatively cheap when compared with building out a new dining venue, it’s an experiment Fleet Landing can afford to undertake.

“We want to build an environment where people want to live here, and not need to live here,” he explained.

With that in mind, the CCRC routinely looks to restaurants and other public-facing venues for inspiration. Then, the community’s management weighs things like safety and resident preferences when deciding whether to bring those ideas into the fold in some way.

“We always think about how can we translate this safely to an experience that our residents can access,” Ashby said. “The last thing you want to do is create an amenity that can only serve a small percentage of the population.”

Pop-ups and quinoa

Kendal — which is the No. 12 largest non-profit senior housing operator in the U.S., according to the 15th annual LeadingAge Ziegler 200 (LZ 200) ranking — typically looks at consumer dining trends through three different lenses: menu design, physical space and layout. Using those concepts as guideposts, the provider works out how best introduce concepts in small pilots.

“It’s about bringing [consumer trends] back and saying how can we integrate this as a component in a future product?” Ben Butler, vice president of culinary services and operations at Kendal, told SHN. “And if it’s popular, we make that a larger part of the next project.”

Some consumer trends Butler sees  on the horizon for senior living providers include:

Focused dining arrangements for small groups of people

Pop-up eateries or other temporary restaurants centered on a specific theme

Zero-waste programs, where food scraps and other disposable trash is minimized as much as possible

Alternative sources of protein, such as lentils, black beans, quinoa and artichokes

At the end of the day, it’s about giving prospective residents many of the same things they might already be enjoying in their daily lives.

“This next generation of residents … I refer to them as the dinner party generation, where they were accustomed to hosting folks for dinner,” Butler said. “That’s what this next segment of residents moving in is looking for, that same convivial dinner party theme where every meal is an experience.”

And bringing consumer dining trends into the mix might have an added benefit — it’s engaging for the employees.

“We’ve got to make sure these programs are fun for the staff to be apart of so we can attract and retain the best,” Butler said.

More than a fad

It can be tough to determine which trends would and wouldn’t work in a senior living context, and an important first step is separating mere fads from longstanding trends, according to Matt Schuler, directory of culinary for SCOPOS.

“You have designs and you have fashion and things that are timeless and classic. Things that don’t ever go out of style,” Schuler told SHN. “And then you’ve got the Dippin’ Dots of the world that come in and fizzle out. You’ve got to approach food service like that. There are things that are going to change.”

For SCOPOS, one trend with staying power in addition to food trucks seems to be food halls, which are massive open spaces with a variety of different eateries and food venues. The main appeal of the food hall trend is that diners have many different options and brands ot choose from.

The hospitality company is working with one of its Pennsylvania senior living clients on a food hall concept that is due to launch sometime in the future.

Other consumer trends that might be on the horizon for senior living include robotic chefs, automated grab-and-go ordering and touchscreen kiosk ordering — as SCOPOS’ Teleguz imagined during this year’s Senior Housing News Dished event in Chicago.

“Within the next five years, you will see a very big push with technology, especially in terms of the marketplace or the grab-and-go-concept similar to what Amazon Go is doing,” Schuler said. “Those are the type of things we see translating into senior living.”

Written by Tim Regan

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