Brookdale Seeks Cost-Efficient Ways to Deliver Local Flavors in Dining

A company with the scale of Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD) must pay close attention to its dining programs. Culinary offerings are a huge driver of resident satisfaction but also a cost center for communities, and so dining leaders must strike a delicate balance to please palates at the local level without breaking the bank.

One good approach is to separate staple items from “emotional ingredients” that will resonate with residents, according to Marjan Kodric, a vice president of dining operations with the Brentwood, Tennessee-based senior living giant. Brookdale become the largest senior living provider in the nation following its 2015 mega-merger with Emeritus Corp., and currently has a portfolio of nearly 900 communities.

Kodric has been with Brookdale since 1997, and so he has seen many changes in the company and in senior living generally during his tenure.

He offered his insights on emerging trends and tips on sticking to a budget without sacrificing culinary creativity during an interview for the Senior Housing News podcast, Transform, sponsored by PointClickCare. Transform focuses on the people and ideas shaping the future of senior living.

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Highlights from Kodric’s Transform interview are below, edited for length and clarity.

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On how he joined Brookdale:

I started my career with a [dining] contract management company working mostly in hospitals and a senior housing. And in 1997, I joined Brookdale as a director of dining services at one of the communities in the Chicago suburbs. At the time when I joined Brookdale, we had eight communities.

So with my tenure with them, it’s obviously been a lot of growth and lots of opportunity, and I’ve been able to grow with the company over the years to my current position as a vice president of dining services.

On being a self-operated dining operation rather than using a third-party contract company:

Brookdale is a hundred percent self-operated. We don’t use any contract management companies. You know, over the years we’ve merged with several companies. So I think to kind of give you, you know, overarching is we’re a hospitality company, [and] obviously highly focused in assisted living and then have that skilled component … So you know, we do pride ourselves on fresh cooking. We have our own menu programs, our own recipes, that we’ve grown over the years, which is even through submissions of individual communities as well as residents submitting recipes.

On his primary responsibilities:

So the corporate function, what we really try to do is provide some of the best tools and programs available for the communities. Like I mentioned, our menu program. [We want to offer] a program that allows for some consistency and some of our standards, but still then gives the community the ability to do the customization so they can change their menus at the community level. You know, they’re able to choose what is being offered. So we try to act as support.

We have a saying, if you’re not serving a resident, you should serve someone who is. We’re really trying to serve those individuals that are taking care of our residents each and every day.

On trending dining formats and menu options:

Definitely the wine bars, bistros, different dining venues, I think they’re becoming more and more commonplace with a lot of providers. We probably about five to six years ago started with a bistro concept and that’s been really, really successful for us.

But what I think you’re seeing a little bit more of now from a trends standpoint is not even just building out some of those spaces, but in the main dining rooms, having the ability to modify the space or take a large dining room and break it down into some smaller dining venues. Whether that’s use of air walls or glass partitions, you can still have that large dining room when you want to do some of the bigger functions, but then break those rooms down into smaller areas, and really offer some different dining concepts.

You can have one of the rooms a bit more of a casual pub-type feel menu. You can have one that can be a little bit more formal, and you can do that by there, again, by just partitioning it down. You know, switching out your linens, tablecloths and even having your service staff wear some different uniforms.

You mentioned vegan and gluten and I think once again, most companies are offering those in one way, shape or form or another. But I think that what you’re seeing … starting to creep into the senior housing venue is kind of the slow food movement, and that kind of encompasses everything from organic, sustainable, purchasing local, [and] you’re even seeing more and more of even broad line vendors realize that that is a demand for their customers and are having products available for purchase.

On where to spend and where to save money on dining:

You know, you obviously have national contracts and you try to contract a lot of your staple items … not emotional items. Items like juice, etcetera, you know, those are items where you’ve got a lot of economy of scale. But what we do at Brookdale is that we have a certain portion of the individual communities’ food budgets that we encourage them to purchase locally and outside of even our national vendor program.

And in some instances that is to help supplement — you may be only getting one or two deliveries a week with a broad line vendor, but you want to have fresh seafood on your menu.

On how “emotional ingredients” can be cost-effective:

You know, chicken is chicken. I mean, you can cook it a thousand different ways, but there are certain regional items that communities are going to be looking for.

So as an example, you’re down in Florida, halibut is an example of something that you’re going to want to see on the menu.

If I’m purchasing something down in Florida that hails from that area, you know, if I buy it locally it’s going to actually be, or sometimes can be, more cost effective than if I am shipping it across the country and trying to serve it in Seattle, Washington on the other hand. So you can still get that quality. You can still get that customization, provide the residents what they’re looking for and you’re not really going to break the bank.

On memory care dining initiatives:

One area I think that we’ve had a focus on over the last year and are looking to continue into this year is really taking a look at some of our texture-modified foods. And we have a program that we’ve been presenting in select markets where we do a hands-on training with our associates that we call Puree With Love.

It really takes a look at those texture modified foods. And you know, obviously it needs to make sure that they’re prepared correctly, the consistency is correct, but most importantly, you know how they are presented. I think oftentimes you can kind of get away from how much we do eat with our eyes. And if you think about that kind of first impression from a resident, you know it’s when that plate is presented in front of them.

So regardless of what it’s going to taste like, what the temperature’s going to be like, if it doesn’t look appetizing or just makes you want to dive into it, you know, you’ve kind of lost the battle.

We took some photos from one of our sessions and we presented it to our executive team and we asked them, “Can you pick out which one is the puree versus the non puree?” And I would tell you some of them did not, couldn’t pick them out.

On the changes he’s seen during his long tenure with Brookdale:

When I first [considered] started with Brookdale, I was picking out my 401K companies — I looked at which ones had the best five year returns, because I swore I wouldn’t be with the company more than five years. I mean historically that was kind of the track [record]. You know, I would be with a company four or five years and then it was time to do something new and different.

The big difference with Brookdale is that … it wasn’t even four or five years, it seemed like it was every two to three years, it was almost like a new company. So whether it was expanding in size, whether it was merging with another company, whether it was regulations have changed. So if you would’ve told me 21 years ago that you would be with Brookdale this long I would have told you absolutely there’s no way in the world.

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