Problem Solvers: Creating a High-Quality Dining Experience During Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic has created myriad problems for senior living providers. But these problems are not insurmountable, and companies across the industry are devising creative solutions.

In this series, we’re surveying industry leaders to highlight these actionable solutions. As Covid-19 outbreaks spike across the country and some states and local governments return to lockdowns, Senior Housing News reached out to providers to ask them all the same question:

How do you keep the dining experience satisfying for residents, given all of the restrictions and pressures of Covid-19?

Marjan Kodric, Vice President of Dining Services, Brookdale Senior Living:

Brookdale addressed this question in three ways: nutritional, social, and experiential.

Nutritional intake: Our top priority was to make sure in-room dining provided residents with a nutritionally balanced menu, and we adapted our menus quickly following the change to in-room dining. What we found to be most challenging for in-room dining was determining whether residents were eating enough each day. That’s because we couldn’t observe them while walking around the dining room. We weren’t able to offer something else to a resident who hadn’t eaten much.

Associates worked hard to follow up with residents shortly after their meals were delivered or after meal service to observe consumption. We made sure to have alternate menu items or snacks that could be delivered quickly, or even kept on the floors to provide additional options to residents.

Social interaction: Everyone knows dining is more than just consuming food; it’s a social event that happens three times a day. While in-room dining changed the social aspect of meal service, we worked closely with our resident programs team to find new and creative ways for socialization and added additional elements such as a mobile happy hour service. Associates knock on each resident’s door, take the opportunity to say “hi” and ask how they are doing, and offer a complimentary beverage.

Dining experience: Menus are planned for serving in the dining rooms and aren’t always conducive to being pre-plated and transported to resident rooms. When the pandemic started, most residents had to pre-order meals. They couldn’t change their menu selections at the time of service. As a result, we looked for other ways to bring a more typical dining experience to in-room dining. One way was through the use of snack and dessert carts. Dessert carts are loaded with a wide variety of items and residents can choose what they want after they have had their meal in their room. Selections could also be customized by the resident with a variety of sauces or condiments.

Rina Younan, Vice President of Program Development, Oakmont Senior Living:

First and foremost, creating dining experiences for all comfort levels is a must. Seniors, just like the general public, should have their right to variety, access and dignity when dining. At Oakmont, we created dining options for our residents. Elevated room service, quality and convenient take out, social distanced small group indoor dining and al-fresco patio dining are simultaneously offered in our communities for every meal. In addition to ensuring they have multiple dining options, we also enhanced and expanded our menus and offerings to ensure variety and avoid boredom with food selections. While others limited their menu, we created more choice.

When the residents couldn’t come to the restaurant, we brought the restaurant to them.Doorway dining is an interactive live mobile cooking experience that we created to stimulate all the senses and create social interaction between the chefs, servers and residents. This affords us the ability to deliver top quality food and personalized service to each and every resident in an engaging way. Some of the residents’ favorites are our sizzling steak and seafood fajitas, create-your-own Italian handcrafted pasta station, Chef’s Belgian waffle bar and fresh ahi poke bowls. This brought aroma, excitement and life to our residents’ doorways.

Keeping families involved and engaged in the lives of our residents is so important to keeping our residents happy. Without the ability to visit and engage with their loved ones, we wanted to keep our residents connected to them through food. By creating grab-and-go-style culinary events for our families, friends and loved ones we were able to keep our families present, involved and connected to the community. We offered grab-and-go family appreciation lunches, dine-and-dash hot and ready dinners and continued our annual tradition of our famous holiday bake sale fundraiser to raise money for Alzheimer’s research.

The key to overcoming the restrictions and pressures that we have faced with the pandemic and keeping our residents satisfied with the culinary experience is by creating accessibility, innovative and interactive experiences and inclusion of extended community. In doing these things, you create a sense of normalcy even within these unfamiliar times.

Jonathan Pinsker, Southeast Regional Director of Culinary and Nutrition Services, Acts Retirement-Life Communities:

In this challenging time, people are looking for normalcy. As we start to re-open our dining venues, residents are eager for any taste of the way it used to be. We have developed some creative solutions to meet our residents’ needs while adhering to the Covid-19 safety protocols.

We make it special for them: anything from themed dinners like pop-up restaurants, with limited seating and spaced six feet apart, to setting up a table with a special treat when residents pick up takeout meals. Even something as simple as cloth napkins makes all the difference in the world to our residents.

At our Boca Raton, Florida, community, Edgewater at Boca Pointe, our executive chef created a raffle for residents who filled out takeout orders. The winner of the raffle received a five-course gourmet meal delivered to their apartment in stages to mimic the experience of dining at a fine restaurant.

This is a time for opportunity to train our staff to be more efficient in cooking and serving food: more cook-to-order for independent residents, and breakfast in bed for our assisted and skilled residents. The key is to make the dining experience more than a meal, and as special as possible. The best way to engage our residents is with our service staff. Our residents love the young people and our servers love talking to them and listening to their words of wisdom. To say it simple: keep it fresh, keep it fun, with a special touch to create memories.

Francesco Tardio, Director of Dining Services, The Clare, a Life Care Services CCRC:

Dining at The Clare is a social and culinary event, and a crucial aspect of our residents’ lives. With Covid-19 restrictions in place, our top priority is always resident safety. Still, our goal since March has been to work within these limitations and provide as much normalcy and excitement as possible for our residents.

To that end, we have maintained the premium quality of our menus every step of the way, delivering the likes of filet mignon, ora king salmon, duck breast and more, directly to resident apartments. We also implemented a number of programs to keep residents engaged and connected. We have conducted virtual wine tastings with cheese and chocolate pairings, as well as virtual demos with our acclaimed chef Hagop Hagopian, in which he cooked favorite resident dishes or displayed his butchery skills.

Weekly happy hour is a staple on The Clare calendar, so we now provide a bar cart five days a week with a specialty cocktail, beer and wine. For holidays and special occasions, we take the bar cart a step further, distributing pretzels and cheese along with German beer for Oktoberfest or decking out the cart for Halloween.

Through it all, we value resident feedback, which has resulted in revamping our menu offerings with healthier choices and plant-based options and introducing new items in our marketplace convenience store. Moving forward, we will continue to push the envelope and strive for resident satisfaction. Their gratitude, patience and opinions keep us motivated to do more and do better.

Bob Raymond, Vice President of Procurement and Dining Services, Commonwealth Senior Living:

2020 is the year we’ll all look back at and say “I remember when…”

Over the duration of this year, we focused on the basics, like keeping our hot food hot and our cold food cold, and serving as we did before the pandemic: on china, with smiling, engaging team members. Residents have been limited with dining rooms not open. However, we focused on the menus, delivery and engagement. We did not reduce or eliminate any menu items but enhanced our options. The delivery is extremely important — it cannot just be a knock-and drop, but it must engage everyone.

We wanted to ensure that all our CSL team members knew the importance of their responsibilities, and we created an award program that every member in the community could participate in, with monetary prizes and a grand prize of a 2020 Chevrolet Malibu. Our CEO, Earl Parker, presented the car to the winner, a dining services member in South Boston, Virginia.

We again installed micro-farms in our communities, which has been very enjoyable for them, as they get to select what will be grown, with our programming teams harvesting it for them to enjoy.

We also feel that now is the time to enhance our dining service training for our teams. We have partnered with The Pineapple Academy to ensure that our teams have the resources to perform at the highest levels. This is in addition to all our dining directors attending the Center of Excellence in Charlottesville, Virginia, which complements our levels of service to our residents.


Interested in learning more about keeping senior living dining fresh during the Covid-19 pandemic? Senior Housing News is hosting a virtual dining event called DISHED on Dec. 15 and 16. Learn more and register here.

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