Dining at a Distance: Senior Living Culinary Teams Make Tough Decisions Due To Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced many senior living providers to retool their dining programs in short order.

The operational challenges have been intense and in some cases “gut-wrenching,” as they fly in the face of dining leaders’ natural inclinations to bring residents together and offer the highest-caliber experiences possible. Indeed, many providers have spent considerable time and money in recent years catering to residents with multiple dining options and lengthy made-to-order menus. Now, in just a matter of weeks, many senior living communities have gone from managing packed dining rooms to delivering meals to residents’ rooms. Others have implemented social distancing measures at mealtimes in communal settings.

But even as senior living providers run into dining challenges related to Covid-19, the crisis could propel innovations that were already gaining momentum, such as ghost kitchens and high-quality pre-prepared meals from companies such as Luvo. Providers are also highly aware of how crucial food is to residents’ wellbeing, and they are working to find solutions that are safe and maximize the benefits of this part of community life. For instance, some of Brookdale Senior Living’s (NYSE: BKD) roughly 750 communities were able to implement staggered dining services instead of delivery-only meal service, according to Marjan Kodric, Brookdale’s vice president of dining services.

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“In our assisted living and skilled nursing communities, we are still providing meals to our residents three times a day, and in our independent living communities, we are still providing meals two to three times a day,” Kodric told Senior Housing News. “We also continue to offer beverages and snacks, so everyone is still busy serving our residents.”

Other providers — like Garden Spot Communities in New Holland, Pennsylvania; and Kennett Square, Pennsylvania-based The Kendal Corporation — have also pivoted away from large communal dining settings and are now doling out takeout, meal kits and heat-and-serve options in the face of social distancing measures. Both providers have also found new duties for staffers who used to work in front-of-house positions, like servers or bartenders.

Still, times are challenging, and the fact that residents can’t come together for a meal every day is a frustration for both operators and residents alike, according to Garden Spot Communities CEO Steve Lindsey.

“The biggest frustration on our part is knowing the benefit that it brings residents to be able to … enjoy a good meal as a group and break bread together,” Lindsey told SHN. “So, not being able to do that just kind of symbolizes the loss that a lot of people are experiencing right now.”

With a client list that includes as many as 500 senior living communities across the U.S., hospitality services company Morrison Living has a unique vantage point from which to survey the industry. The Atlanta-based company is part of the Compass Group.

So far, Morrison and its clients are weathering the storm with creativity and compassion, according to the company’s vice president of national accounts, Angus Brown.

“It’s posing some major challenges operationally, but our teams are stepping up,” Brown told SHN. “[We’re finding] creative ways to work with what we have on hand.”

‘Gut-wrenching decision’

Many senior living providers have in recent years placed a heavy emphasis on dining as a way to stand out from other local competitors. So,when Covid-19 hit, it left some operators scrambling to find ways to feed and engage residents outside of the dining room.

Kendal, which has a portfolio of 13 affiliated CCRCs in seven states, has long prided itself on its culinary services and socialization, so moving away from communal dining was not easy, according to Ben Butler, the organization’s vice president of culinary services.

“It was a gut-wrenching decision for us to not allow residents to come together,” Butler told SHN. “I think that was the hardest thing.”

To cope with the disruption that the pandemic brought, Kendal is now offering limited meals from on a delivery-only basis. The organization has also beefed up its inventory of ready-to-heat and grab-and-go meals, such as frozen lasagna, casseroles and chicken soup. All the while, the organization is keeping in close contact with two of its service providers and strategic partners, Sysco and Ecolab.

“Right now, people are looking for comfort food,” Butler said. “So we’re trying to sort of balance [healthy eating] with … more familiar foods that people are comfortable with.”

Meanwhile, residents are finding creative ways to stay socially connected, such as talking to one another through HAM radios, Butler said. And at a community in Hanover, New Hampshire, some are even using conferencing app Zoom to remotely dine with one another.

On the staffing side, Kendal hasn’t had to furlough or lay off any of its frontline culinary workers. Instead, the organization is finding new roles for them. For instance, where one employee might have previously helped serve residents in the dining room, they are now tasked with packaging meals for delivery or cleaning.

And in the kitchen, Kendal has doubled down on its cleaning practices.

“We’ve gone from a mindset of sanitizing to a mindset of disinfecting,” Butler said. “With sanitizing, it reduces bacteria to a safe level, where with disinfecting, it kills everything.”

But while the Covid-19 pandemic has taken an emotional toll on Kendal’s employees and residents, the operator is taking things in stride.

“We’d rather be too cautious than not be prepared,” Butler told SHN. “[Residents’] biggest struggle right now is not being able to see each other and see the staff.”

Similar trends are playing out at Garden Spot Village, a nonprofit CCRC that serves nearly 1,000 older adults. In its residential living settings, the provider has curtailed all of its dining programs in response to the pandemic. All of the provider’s sit-down dining venues are closed for communal meals, and instead are offering delivery and takeout service for residents.

Garden Spot hasn’t had to curtail dining services in its health care settings, however, as those are organized in a household model, with smaller groups of people eating together at one time.

“For our residents, that has changed life pretty dramatically,” Lindsey said. “They really look forward to the socialization that occurs around meal times.”

To keep residents nourished physically and mentally, Garden Spot has expanded its normal menu to include more items residents can take home and reheat. Like Kendal, the community is also serving lots of comfort food.

“We have seen our dessert orders really increase in the midst of this,” Lindsey said. “They’re looking for that one feel-good moment in the day when they can dig into a piece of chocolate cheese cake or something else that’s going to make them feel good.”

Servers who were previously waiting on residents in the dining rooms are now delivering meals directly to residents. The provider has also organized social distancing measures in the dining venues where it’s letting residents order takeout.

“We’ve created a pathway through some of those dining venues so people can come in, pick up their order and then leave without queuing up in a space where they’re going to be close to other people,” Lindsey said. “We have visual cues, like footprints on the floor, so people can see they need a six-foot distance from the person in front of them.”

Garden Spot Communities

In many Brookdale communities, meanwhile, the provider has stuck to the usual number of menu items, with perhaps a few additions here and there in order to limit disruptions for residents who are grappling with enough change as it is. Specifically, the senior living operator has adjusted its menus to include some items that will hold temperature longer and transport better.

Where staggered dining is allowed, as many as 10 residents can eat in the same venue at the same time, provided they stay six feet apart. Brookdale has also transitioned to in-room dining in many of its communities.

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Brookdale has stayed in close contact with its food suppliers. So far, the crisis has had little impact on the availability of the food that the operator typically procures. But, the operator has seen a change in the availability of paper goods and disposables.

“As you can imagine, inventories of those items are a bit tighter due to demand,” Kodric said. “However, supply still remains adequate to meet our current needs.”

Ready to eat innovations

While more providers are working more ready-to-eat options into their communities’ dining programs, there are already some companies which are focusing on doing so today. They include two companies that are working with Welltower (NYSE: WELL): Priya Living, a senior housing company headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area; and Luvo, a frozen meal company that aims to also make affordable meals for older adults in senior living.

Priya Living, an active adult company which has three open communities in its portfolio and others in the works with Welltower, has a partnership with an offsite “cloud kitchen” service called Shef. Using Shef, Priya’s residents can order refrigerated, prepackaged meals for $8 to $10 and have it delivered directly to their rooms.

“It’s not in a congregate setting, and we’re obviously not doing the preparation,” Priya Living Founder and CEO Arun Paul told SHM. “We took this approach well before [Covid-19], and really for entirely different reasons … but in one sense it’s well-suited for what’s happening now.”

Luvo, on the other hand, is a producer of ready-to-heat, frozen meals. The company currently has two consumer brands — Performance Kitchen and Performance Kitchen Crafted, a small-batch line — and is working with Welltower on a way to deliver affordable meals to some communities owned by the real estate investment trust. Luvo also is working with Welltower on providing nutritious, frozen meals to older adults who are discharged from skilled nursing facilities owned by the REIT.

Luvo currently has about 130 wholesale accounts, and is focused on building a distribution network that could include different senior living providers as well grocers across the country. And the company is in talks to sell its frozen meals at Whole Foods, though it’s currently not yet selling any products in those stores.

While Luvo isn’t currently delivering food to senior living communities locked down by Covid-19, CEO Christine Day sees the company’s frozen meals as an ideal way to get food to residents who are practicing social distancing.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to spread across the country, we have been in discussions with providers on who we can help and have seen an increase in our direct-to-consumer delivery business,” Day told SHN. “We are working on new partnerships that would allow us to deliver medically tailored meal plans to seniors with chronic conditions, as well.”

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