Overhauling dining programs in senior housing is an intensive process. The circumstances are especially unique for owners and operators building scale through acquisition.
Operators taking over operations must contend with space constraints, acclimate existing staff to new procedures and policies, and balance providing the best care possible for seniors with shareholders seeking returns on investment.
Grace Management identified solutions to its dining programs by thinking outside the box, National Director of Culinary Services Operations Frances Showa said during Senior Housing News’ recent DISHED conference, which was held online.
Those solutions included creating new programs and dining venues, including adding farm stands in communities stocked with fresh fruits and produce; all-inclusive pricing, allowing residents to eat what they want, when they want; and holding dining departments accountable for identifying, and enforcing, revenue offsets.
But first, Showa needed to enact a cultural change within Grace Management. The operator, a wholly owned subsidiary of CPF Living Communities, had 30 communities when she joined in 2016, and no two dining programs were the same. She believed bringing a centralized approach to dining operations would differentiate Grace in the market, generate excitement and buy-ins among residents, serve as a marketing tool for sales teams in their pitches to prospects, and generate revenues for an aspect of operations that was previously treated as an afterthought.
“I didn’t want the food departments to remain just a line item. And that’s, unfortunately, what was happening,” she said.
Convincing staff, ownership
Showa’s market research, as well as polling residents across Grace’s portfolio, revealed that they preferred an all-inclusive dining package. Starting with four communities, she identified areas in these facilities that could be repurposed to create new dining venues, brought in equipment for these venues and had dining staffs repackage food for residents who preferred to eat at their convenience.
“Those [venues] were for the four o’clock person who wants to eat every meal early,” she said. “By midnight, you’re hungry again. We found that we had a lot of people that were walking around because they were hungry, and they were bored.”
Arguably the tallest hurdle for Showa to clear was getting dining staff and ownership on board.
Dining departments believed that she was creating more work for them, and that more money would be needed to implement the changes.
“The chefs were really angry. They said, ‘Fran, you’re insane. I need $1,000 a day to do this,’” she said.
Ownership, meanwhile, was also skeptical, to say the least.
“The owners thought it was crazy,” she said.
But Showa was convinced that implementing this plan would require no additional expenses. Instead, it necessitated changes in operations and gradually rolling out components of the plan. Dining rooms were rebranded as restaurants, and hours of operation were changed. Next, Showa introduced 24-hour pantries for residents to pick up food at their convenience.
This afforded several benefits. First, it freed up kitchen staff to do less large batch cooking in favor of made-to-order dishes, creating a restaurant-style feel and more efficient workflows for line cooks.
“Now, they had a much better workday,” Showa said.
Second, residents embraced the changes almost immediately, although there were a handful who took longer to adjust to the new dining room schedules, out of a fear that a favored menu item would be gone by the time they arrived.
In fact, the rollout went smoother than Showa envisioned. She believed that it would take around three months for the initiatives to run smoothly. Instead, it took about 30 days, with no additional expenses.
Showa believed that dining staffs were leaving money on the table by not charging for guest meals and takeout and other ancillary services. This was another reason why she held firm in not spending additional money to roll out the new dining plan.
“I made it clear that for this to work, we have to have revenue offsets,” she said.
The changes Grace Management made to its dining operations were intended to improve the social benefits of dining together and encouraging engagement among residents. Communities paid more attention to ancillary charges such as room service and carryout meals.
For example, if a resident wanted meals packaged to go, they were now charged a $2.50 service fee. This eliminated a sizable amount of to-go service because residents were reluctant to pay that. It also forced residents inclined to eat alone to engage with the greater community.
The biggest thing that Grace Management did was eliminate free meals for non-residents — another move intended to get staff and residents to embrace the quality of the food and the care in preparation.
“Just like any other great restaurant is proud of their food, they’re not giving it away. We did that as well,” Showa said.
Within time, dining venues at Grace Management communities were busier than ever, and dining programs were seeing revenues ranging between $3,000 and $4,000 per month, on a monthly budget of around $1,000 per person.
The benefits were clear to dining staff, once they bought in.
“That was where everything started to change. The next thing you know, we were a differentiator in the market,” Showa said.
More recently, of course, Covid-19 has disrupted Grace’s dining operations. During the outbreak’s early weeks, the operator stopped stocking the 24-hour pantries because so little was known about how coronavirus spread between people. Kitchen staffs added 500 calories per day to residents’ meals, usually in the form of pre-packaged snacks and wrapped fruit. And most communities have started to restock their pantries.
The results have been mixed. Showa allowed that some communities are running over budget, depending on resident care levels.
And meals are no longer made to order in the dining venues. Instead, they are prepared in kitchens and brought out to the dining rooms for servers to hand to residents. Showa is monitoring this moving forward, and acknowledged that the increased labor may be a long-standing effect of the pandemic.
“I don’t know if we’re going to be able to [cook in front of residents] again,” she said. “I know that we’re proceeding very cautiously. I’m just looking at the first quarter — we’re still going to stay in conservative mode.”
Overall, Grace’s shift to a new operating model was successful, and Showa wants to build on that once the pandemic is behind the industry. Concepts such as all-inclusive dining and multiple venues will remain, but with tweaks to ensure the safety of residents.
And she sees opportunities to scale up the use of technology in Grace’s dining program. Currently, the operator is broadcasting chefs’ action stations directly to residents’ rooms through community broadcast networks. This allows residents to still observe the food being prepared, which they can then pick up in pre-packaged form and bring back to their rooms.
“[Covid-19 is] pushing us to be even more innovative, innovative, and different,” she said. “It’s an awful but exciting time.”