This article is sponsored by Culinary Services Group. In this Voices interview, Senior Housing News sits down with Rich Valway, president and CEO of Culinary Services Group, to learn more about the connection between delivering a top-flight dining experience and building census. Valway also shares the biggest value that operators can gain from partnering with a privately owned dining services company, and offers his look into the future of senior living dining.
Senior Housing News: Rich, what career experiences led you to co-found Culinary Services Group with John Ramey?
Rich Valway: I’m a third-generation food-service professional. My grandfather was an executive chef, and a number of my family members actually worked for my grandfather in New England at St Michael’s College and the University of Vermont. Food and family was always the focal point of our lifestyle. It was my passion. As I pursued my education and my professional career, it was natural that food was going to be a part of that.
I’ve spent so many years and so much time just working for companies that were very good at running their business, but weren’t really focused on running their customers’ business. I just felt like we needed to be better and do things differently. That’s probably the big driver for why we founded the company. What we wanted to be offering the market was a real alignment around their needs as our client and the needs of their residents, and create a custom approach to everything we do, as opposed to the cookie-cutter approach that most organizations offer.
How do you describe Culinary Service Group’s mission and vision, and how are you and the team working to create a company culture that aligns with it?
Valway: Our mission is very clear. We recognize that, especially for our senior communities that we serve, we have a responsibility to care for people who can’t care for themselves, or who need support in that care. Our mission is to improve their quality of life. We’re very clear about that, and that creates a bigger purpose for our team. If we can align our values with our customers, and create a culture aligned with the values of our customers, we believe we will deliver a dining experience that is significantly better than other operations. That translates to a competitive advantage for our customers, when they can really have a positive experience for their residents — their customers.
Our vision is that through that type of approach, we can change the way people think about health care food service. We are expecting that our customized approach can be leveraged exceptionally well through today’s technologies. Really, innovation is key to that approach. The tools, the expectations and the tastes, compared to years past, are very different today. Our approach with customization and personal touch sets the foundation for us creating innovative solutions.
What is the biggest value for senior housing operators in partnering with a privately owned dining services company?
Valway: When I talk with my clients and they tell me the real value of our partnership, it is that we deliver on our promises, that we have personal relationships with them. With our residents, we see them as people first and we treat them as though they’re the drivers of our purpose. If I had to sum up our value to our customers, it’s peace of mind, knowing that they have a business partner that’s as dedicated to caring for their residents as they are. Not only are we dedicated, but we bring a wealth of resources and talent to the table that in many cases they wouldn’t have access to as a self-operated department.
What is your best advice for a community that has never outsourced its food service before?
Valway: Without a doubt, it is aligning their values and culture with the partner. There are so many options available to them out in the marketplace. I see it time and time again: administrators choosing a partner based on cost, based on promised bells and whistles, or the special features of a program. That is part of the marketing, but at the end of the day, operators need to know that they have a business partner with a value system and a culture that meshes with the community.
That’s one of the things that we do very well. We don’t just assess operational needs. We also assess, “Are we aligned with our customers?” We’re looking for customers for life. We want to find a basic fundamental value system or culture that we can embrace, that treats our people as people first and focuses on a resident-centered business.
What is the connection between a quality dining program and building census, and why do you think so many communities underestimate that connection?
Valway: People have choices in the marketplace. When they are selecting where they may put a loved one, or when they are a prospective resident searching for the right community, food is a big piece of the decision. With food, three times a day, we get to impact the quality of life and get to put a smile on their face. Unfortunately, I see many cases where senior housing communities only see food service as an expense department or an expense line and not as an opportunity to drive revenue and be a differentiator.
That’s an area where we look to bring value to our clients. It’s not just great food and great experiences and a resident-centered approach. We work to help them get their name out and to build a reputation as a community with great food. I believe that in many cases, and especially in today’s market, dining services are really viewed as a compliance element as opposed to a marketing opportunity.
What excites you most about the future of dining in senior living communities?
Valway: Innovation is typically fueled by challenges, and we’ve had plenty of challenges. These are unprecedented times that we’ve been through: the pandemic, staffing and the labor force, supply chain disruption and the economy. That’s where we’ve been. As we move beyond these challenges we are using technology and exploring innovative concepts to bring food service to the next level. We’re exploring and utilizing service bots in our business right now. We are continuing to look for ways to integrate technologies into everything that we’re doing and allow our people to still bring that personal touch from the service side.
I am optimistic that the future will be bright. It will be different, but these are exciting times, with more resources and tools available to us today than we’ve had in years past. I’m probably most optimistic about getting back to communal dining, to more of the in-person interactions. Our intent is to leverage technology into the future. Whether with robots or simply the use of tablets for tableside or bedside ordering, our focus is to make order entry for our customers easier. We’re offering a blend of new technology in a very traditional setting.
Finish this sentence: “2022 in senior housing dining will be the year of…”?
Valway: Resurgence and stability. I feel like we’ve been on our heels the last few years, and we are bouncing back with resilience.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Culinary Services Group delivers on its mission to offer restaurant-quality food and better outcomes to senior living residents. To learn more about how Culinary Services Group can help bring your dining program to the next level, visit culinaryservicesgroup.com.
The Voices Series is a sponsored content program featuring leading executives discussing trends, topics and more shaping their industry in a question-and-answer format. For more information on Voices, please contact [email protected].