Costly, Complicated Dining Overhaul Keeps Paying Off for The Clare

Revamping dining programs in senior living can require significant upfront costs, in an industry where mission versus margin is a constant balancing act.

But providers that pay attention to the details in adding dining venues and services can realize a successful return on investment, improve operations and give sales and marketing teams something new to build referral pipelines.

Take The Clare, a 53-story continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in downtown Chicago jointly owned by Des Moines, Iowa-based senior living company LCS and Harrison, New York-based Senior Care Development. In 2015, The Clare exited bankruptcy with a 40% occupancy rate, struggled to separate itself from its traditional multifamily competitors, and its dining venues — a dining room on the 17th floor and a small bistro on the 12th floor — were operating at full capacity.

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Leadership identified an expansion of dining services as an area that, if developed correctly, could make the community stand out, create long-term value and be a marketing asset, Executive Director Kyle Exline said during a discussion at Senior Housing News’ recent DISHED conference, which was held virtually.

The Clare expanded the bistro to include an exterior courtyard; gave its dining room, The Grafton, a complete overhaul including adding a full service bar; and built out a special event and kitchen space on the top floor. Each venue has a separate menu, staff and uniforms — creating a unique look and feel for each.

Today, The Clare is nearly fully occupied, boasts a deep waitlist of prospective residents, and Exline credits the dining overhaul as a linchpin in that success. And leadership is looking at ways to adapt the venues to a post-coronavirus landscape.

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“When The Clare was built, there was the assumption that many of our residents would elect to dine outside in the city,” he said. “As we learned over the winter, and just as residents age, they’re much more comfortable dining inside of a community.”

An expensive overhaul

The dining program overhaul was part of a multimillion dollar renovation of The Clare, launched by previous ownership after the CCRC exited bankruptcy. The costliest part of the revamp was the buildout and expansion of the bistro.

This required knocking down load-bearing walls to create more space and maintain the structural integrity of the building.

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“Our building is kind of like a Jenga: we had to pull out blocks and move them, which is not the easiest thing to do and was quite costly per square-foot, compared to the rest of the space,” Exline said.

In addition to maintaining structural integrity, ownership enlisted an interior designer with hospitality experience to upgrade the finishes and give the bistro more of a residential feel.

The bistro is The Clare’s dining venue with the lowest price point, serving lunch and dinner. The Grafton has more of a steakhouse feel. The special events space is upscale, with a finishing kitchen ideal for gatherings of 20 to 25 people. Both The Grafton and the event space have full service bars, which required The Clare to obtain a liquor license.

Exline noted that each venue has its own experience and feel. A cut of meat served on the 17th floor would be priced $20 to $30 higher on the 53rd floor, in part due to the services provided to create a high-end dining experience.

“We definitely price based off the value,” he said.

Essential resident input

The Clare’s dining renovations would be for naught without granting residents agency in the overhaul. This is harder than it seems, at first glance.

“That changes all the time. You have to try new things, even if it’s not something that they seem that interested in,” Exline said.

The Clare experienced a lot of success implementing a Mediterranean-style menu in its bistro — a result of residents being cognizant of eating healthier and cleaner. This spurred executive chef Hagop Hagopian to get creative with some menu items on the daily specials. Soon, those dishes were selling better than the menu staples, which Exline presented as an example of the dining program’s willingness to try new things.

“You have to listen to the residents,” he said.

The Clare’s dining program now reflects the life experiences of its residents, most of whom have traveled the world, dined at some of the best restaurants and hotels, and expect that same level of service in their golden years.

“If we’re delivering a product that matches that, they’re going to be really happy and their families are going to be really happy,” Exline said.

Lessons learned

With trial comes error, and there are some things that Exline wished The Clare could do over.

The biggest lesson was putting more thought into the flow of elevator traffic. Having three dining venues on three separate floors adds to congestion and complicates logistics. Initially, staff believed that breakfast could be served on the 53rd floor, lunch in the bistro and dinner on the 17th floor. Leadership soon realized it needed to consolidate serving times and offerings at each venue.

“We had to get real smart, so that we were driving traffic and the elevators in a similar direction, so elevators weren’t swimming upstream to get someplace that was more of a destination,” Exline said.

He also noted that, given a do-over, The Clare would have allotted more space for coolers, freezers and storage — a problem highlighted by Covid-19. With communal dining on hold, the 53rd floor venue turned into a mail sorting room and the bistro became a staff breakroom.

The pandemic has disrupted The Clare’s dining program in other ways. Residents were able to enjoy in-person dining in the summer, but the ongoing surge in positive Covid-19 cases has scaled that back and forced Hagopian and his staff to look at ways to continue delivering high-quality food through delivery.

The Clare made menu modifications and is using serviceware to ensure food is delivered to residents warm. The dining menu still includes between 30 and 40 items, allowing residents variety in what they eat.

The hardest modification is maintaining the social aspect of dining in a community with restrictions on group size and secured common areas. Bartenders make rounds to residents’ rooms every night. For Thanksgiving, The Clare implemented day-long dinner service with a different menu item delivered to residents every hour, for a six-hour stretch.

These are a couple of ways that The Clare is working to maintain a luxury product, in an environment that is not conducive to it.

“[We’re] trying to keep that social aspect [through] connecting the staff [with residents], even if it’s at their doorway instead of in the restaurant itself,” Exline said.

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