Beyond ‘Knock-and-Drop’: Senior Living Culinary Teams Step Up To Pandemic Challenges

With almost six months of pandemic experience behind them, senior living providers have mastered some new ways of delivering on ambitious culinary programs, and are continuing to innovate as communities gradually reopen.

Where providers have reopened dining venues, they are now more meticulous than perhaps ever before about managing the flow of human traffic to maintain social distancing and safety. And even as they bring food to residents’ rooms, providers are trying out new and creative ways to keep them feeling nourished and engaged, even down to the way meals are packaged.

Two of the largest senior living hospitality service providers in the U.S. — Morrison Living and Sodexo — have driven some of those innovations in the communities they serve. But organizations of all kinds are coming up with creative ways to beat the pandemic. That includes life plan communities Bayview in Seattle and Fellowship Village in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. Both organizations’ culinary departments have found ways to adapt, operationally and financially, despite the pandemic’s challenges.


And the pandemic could result in innovative and lasting changes to senior living dining, from food court and tapas-style venues to new materials used in food delivery and more al fresco options.

Attention to detail

When the pandemic hit in March, senior living providers switched from communal dining to delivering meals to residents in their rooms. In the months since, many senior living providers have slowly re-emerged from sheltering in place to resume some communal dining — but with a healthy dose of caution regarding infection control.

Brethren Village, a Sodexo client and CCRC with roughly 1,200 residents in Lititz, Pennsylvania, was able to reopen its dining rooms about two weeks ago at a maximum 25% capacity. In order to make the process smooth and safe, the community implemented safety measures such as glass partitions, signage indicating where residents should walk and stand, and ample hand sanitizer, according to Executive Chef James Carr. And Brethren Village is taking it slow.


“We’re allowed to be at a 25% capacity, but we haven’t hit that yet,” Carr told Senior Housing News. “Our residents are a little bit apprehensive.”

In crafting its dining venue reopening plans, Brethren Village was able to lean on guidance and best practices from Sodexo. The hospitality services provider has focused its efforts in recent months on sharing best practices for dining at a distance during Covid-19. In other communities it serves, Sodexo has implemented safety measures ranging from staggering meal services and requiring reservations to removing tablecloths, switching to single-serve condiments and eliminating self-serve buffet service. Some Sodexo communities have even drawn up complex dining room table plans dictating where residents can enter, exit and sit.

At Brethren Village, the community took residents through a virtual walkthrough of the dining room to help guide them through how to enter, exit and pick up food.

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“The residents were very quick to get accustomed to that,” Carr said.

Hot take-out

Morrison Living is taking a similar approach to its Covid-19 dining precautions at many of the communities it serves across the U.S. In the six Illinois communities that Regional Executive Chef Jason Ison oversees, residents are limited to just three people at tables that normally seat as many as 12 to 13 people at a time. To keep residents engaged during those scaled-down mealtimes, the communities have implemented new options such as pop-up meal stations slinging homemade tacos or breakfast “glow bowls” with vibrant ingredients. The communities also offer ample in-room dining options for residents.

Overall, Ison is encouraged by how residents have coped and reacted to the changes thus far. But altering meal service in light of Covid-19 has come with some challenges — particularly, in maintaining food temperature and presentation for its in-room dining options.

Food temperature and plating were already hot-button topics for residents before the pandemic. But delivering meals to residents’ rooms makes that challenge even bigger, according to Ison.

“It used to be we could steam vegetables, put them on a plate under a hot light, and then put a lid on it and quickly walk it to the table so it’s piping hot,” Ison told SHN. “Now the service model is one where we have to think of a way to retain that heat, while we’re adding additional steps, such as walking to another building.”

The communities Ison supports have looked to overcome that hurdle by serving up menu items that hold temperature longer, such as foods that use gravies or slurries. The Morrison communities have also added to the menu more options that residents can eat cold.

Ison’s communities are partnering with restaurant supplier and manufacturer Restaurantware to create a new line of to-go containers that check more boxes than the standard cardboard containers.

“We’re looking at something that not only is sustainable and recyclable and good for the environment, but we also want something that’s going to be trendy and hip, and accentuate the food that you’re putting in it,” Ison said. “So, we’ve partnered with them in creating some vessels that would complement the food.”

Food temperature and to-go packaging is also an area of emphasis for Marco Valadez, another regional executive chef with Morrison Living. Valadez supports a region that includes 20 communities in Colorado, Ohio, Indiana, Utah, Oklahoma and parts of Northern Texas. Like Ison, Valadez said maintaining standards around temperature and presentation has been a real challenge while residents take meals in their rooms.

To overcome that challenge at Clermont Park — a life plan community in Denver where Valadez works as executive chef — the community is delivering meals one floor at a time.

“[For example,] we do the first floor first: one wing, and then the other. So, we’re delivering hot food,” Valadez said. “But in order to do that, you need to have more staff.”

Valadez’s communities also transitioned away from the old disposable to-go containers. They implemented plastic containers from food service supplier G.E.T. Enterprise, which can be microwaved and washed between uses. And Clermont is also preparing to begin using reusable ceramic plates similar to what hotels use for room service.

Morrison Living

Regarding meal presentation, Valadez has instructed the chefs he oversees to “go the extra mile” with food presentation.

“That could be some sort of garnish, or something else that’s going to make them say, ‘I like what I’m eating,’” Valadez said.

Keeping it fresh

In addition to building in new safety precautions around dining, some senior living providers are remaking their dining venues for the new pandemic era.

Fellowship Village in New Jersey, for example, is expanding its dining options to include a new tapas bar and lounge, which is slated to open in October. The venue is set to include an outdoor covered patio, which has al fresco dining with patio heaters for all-year use. The plans also call for a pavilion, fire pit and an outdoor kitchen with seating that can be used for cooking demonstrations. Fellowship works with dining services firm Unidine, which is, like Morrison Living, under the umbrella of global dining food services firm Compass Group.

Residents can enjoy socially distanced meals or drinks outside, or take the fare back to their rooms to enjoy in a more private setting, according to Brian Lawrence, president and CEO of Fellowship Senior Living.

“We started outdoor dining for the independent living residents in mid-June, and that was a big hit,” Lawrence told SHN. “When we added that service, a lot of residents were excited about … being able to see their friends and neighbors, even if they couldn’t sit together unless they lived with each other.”

At Bayview, the community’s culinary program had “hit its stride” in the months leading up to the pandemic, recalled culinary director Galvin. The community had wrapped up a major renovation, and residents were exploring the community’s dining venues and newly expanded options with gusto. Then came March.

“Like a lot of other communities, we went to what we call a ‘knock-and-drop,’ where we’re packaging up the food, hanging it on residents’ doors and then knocking,” Galvin told SHN. “But the hardest part was maintaining an element of social engagement while also being safe.”

So, the community tapped its leadership and residents to brainstorm creative ways to overcome that hurdle, and landed on a concept to turn its independent living dining venue into a socially distanced food court. Two Bayview residents in particular — one who is an architect, and another who is an Emmy-nominated set designer — aided the process.

“And so, the Terrace Garden Dining Room became the Terrace Garden Food Court,” Galvin said.

The newly revamped dining area includes ordering stations with glass partitions, a waiting area and a new marketplace with grab-and-go fare. To aid residents as they navigate the space, Bayview added floor decals, large signs, separate aisles for employees and residents, socially distanced seating areas and sanitation stations. Additionally, the food court will be staffed by “social distance ambassadors” wearing bright vests, who will help manage infection control, compliance and answer resident questions.

Although Bayview paused the food court’s launch due to a new surge of Covid-19 cases in its local area, the community is closely following guidance from the federal and local regulators, and revisiting its plans each week. And while it’s not clear what the future holds or when the pandemic might wrap up, Galvin is convinced the concept can evolve in the face of whatever comes next.

“Something we think about all the time is, going forward, will our world have to think about social distancing and doing things in a more safe manner?” Galvin said. “Maybe our new food court option, with designated dining areas, will be a fun way of doing that in the future.”

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