From evolving tastes to rising cost pressures due to lingering supply chain issues, the world of dining and culinary services in senior living is constantly changing. Few know that lesson better than Oakmont Management Group Vice President of Culinary Services Andrew Moret.
As a new generation of older adults moves into senior living communities, they are bringing with them desires for new flavors and dishes. At the same time, the pandemic is still having lingering effects on where and how residents dine in their communities, and staffing continues to be a thorn in the industry’s side.
But those are also opportunities if managed correctly, and Moret is focused on creating a next-generation dining experience for residents while mitigating the company’s culinary headwinds.
“Dining in senior living was always a necessary thing. You have to feed everybody, right? We’re literally keeping people alive through food,” Moret said during a recent appearance on the Senior Housing News podcast, Transform. “Especially with the incoming population, there’s so much more of a focus on wellness.”
Moret and the culinary team at Oakmont are also keeping a keen eye on recruitment and retention. For example, they are promoting leadership development for culinary positions from frontline associates to chefs.
“We’ve had to look at new ways to staff, new ways to extend our reach at job fairs, not just when a community opens, but constant job fairs, virtual job fairs, reaching out through social media has been a big one,” Moret said.
On the state of dining operations across Oakmont communities:
That’s a good question, and kind of the standard starting question everybody seems to have. I think we’re here in this new world. Although we’ve returned to normal dining operations however possible, we’re doing whatever we can to keep our residents safe.
In the past year, we’ve gotten most of our residents back into the dining room, we’ve gotten away from the in-room service, but now we’re dealing with all the challenges that are the aftermath of the world returning to normal. So, a lot more supply chain issues, a lot more inflation issues. I’m sure we’ll get into that down the road.
But I’d say the state is we are fully in this new world that we’re all living in and trying to figure out together.
On Oakmont’s biggest culinary challenges this year:
The challenges that we’re dealing with mostly now are staffing, which is obviously a nationwide or worldwide issue, as well as supply chain issues.
It’s great that the world is opening back up and traveling is back up. But the aftereffect of that is there are a lot more restaurants that we’re competing with when it comes to working with our vendors. So we’re dealing with a lot more supply issues.
Travel seems to be really hot right now. So in addition to just being in the hospitality sector, we’re dealing with a lot of challenges. And part of that is just over-saturation of jobs. And it’s a total buyer’s market when it comes to the team members. It’s been difficult to staff some of the operations, and we’ve had to rely on creative ways to remain relevant and kind of put ourselves on the forefront there. So we’ve had some pretty good success with that.
What we’ve seen are a lot of staffing issues from some of our vendors, they can’t get people to work in the warehouses to pull products, they can’t get truck drivers on the road. So we are having to partner with our vendors as well as hold hands with them as they try to solve their issues, as well. We are also working on some of those challenges ourselves.
Over the past couple of years since the pandemic started, I feel like I have built such a stronger relationship with all of our vendors because the lines of communication have been so important. A lot of times, it’s small things like there’s an aluminum shortage so we can’t get our products in the right types of container. Or, it’s a production issue where they can’t get the proper packaging to package their products to even get them on a shelf.
On navigating staffing challenges:
One of the things I think that’s been amazing about the pandemic is that we’ve all had to develop an extreme level of resilience to overcome a lot of these challenges. At first,we were dealing with an unemployed buyer’s market, with so many jobs available.
I think that’s been especially tough for frontline team members. It’s been a struggle over the years to find a position that they wanted to work in where they saw growth and opportunity.
We’ve had to look at new ways to staff, new ways to extend our reach at job fairs; not just when a community opens, but constant job fairs. Virtual job fairs — reaching out through social media has been a big one. LinkedIn has a really great platform to reach new levels of team members as well as getting badges that you can put on your profile picture if you’re looking to work or if you’re looking for team members.
In addition, [we have] invested in our infrastructure to find additional director-level recruiters. We’ve been able to bolster our structure with some some field recruiters to go out and try to really connect with those team members, put on job fairs, and reach new networks through social media.
That’s meant coming up with ways to utilize technology and to be more appealing with flexible schedules. We want people creating the environment that our team members want to work in.
The biggest thing we can do is understand our new team members. It’s not even millennials anymore. It’s the Gen Z’ers that are coming in and making up a larger section of the workforce.
On cost pressures, battling inflation:
I don’t see it going away, but we hope it’s not going to get much worse. Building those open communication lines and strong relationships with our vendors so that we can actually know what our standard inflation rates are. We can look at the inflation on raw food and we can look at inflation at a more micro level. It’s been a really big fight this past year. So I think that keeping a strong relationship with your vendors is key, not only so that you know where you’re currently standing in real time with inflation.
In tandem with that, working with a general purchasing organization to maximize your savings and your buy-backs and your rebates. The more we can save, the more we can put back into the program.
We’ve challenged everybody to get creative and build those relationships and to come up with ways to still operate a smart business but not take things away from the residents. In the culinary department, we haven’t had to cut anything. Residents pay a lot of money to live in our communities and we want to deliver the product we’ve sold them on.
On mentoring younger culinary staff:
The biggest thing I am really focusing on is running discipline in our organizations.
There’s a lot of stigma with screaming and yelling, and we’ve all seen Hell’s Kitchen and we’ve all seen these movies that are these Hollywood blockbusters where there’s the crazy chef running around. And unfortunately to some extent that’s true.
I think that a lot of chefs that have come up in that type of environment struggle with leadership when they step into their roles working in senior living — and just working in really, really any industry. Now, you can’t operate like that. It’s not okay. It never really should have been okay.
I’ve really been trying to invest in our chefs across our organization and try to help cultivate strong leadership from them to, therefore be able to attract and retain their team members, you mentioned in the question, retention, and I think that’s, that’s the other key, but people are only going to want to work somewhere where they aren’t, you know, are happy, they feel appreciated, and they feel there’s opportunity to grow.
A lot of people had the mentality of, ‘I’m not going to work somewhere, unless I’m feeling appreciated.’
We’re trying to cultivate those environments through and really, I think it just comes down to leadership and communication.[It’s also] casting a wider net, trying to find new networks to recruit from, showing what the opportunities are from coming aboard the organization; and then at the same time, just really investing in our current team members. And at my level, it’s working directly with the chefs to try to cultivate better leadership so that they can create a healthy work environment that people want to work in.
I want them to be excited to go to work, and go to work to build their network of friends; but also feel good about what they’re doing, and feel that they’re actually not only just contributing something. One of the great things of senior living is that we have the ability to actually make an impact on somebody in their vulnerable end years of their life.
On fostering more leadership skills among chefs:
When I stepped into management, one of the first things I realized was, it was important to learn how to manage everybody a little bit differently. I thought that leadership books or blogs or podcasts were for people that just didn’t quite have it. And then I hit a point in my career where I realized that, you know, we should always be learning and we should always be trying to be better and be a better leader.
If I can find ways to be a better leader for my team, then I can pass it along to that. So along with that, there’s so many great people that are writing leadership books or hosting podcasts.
Maybe it’s an article I’ve read, maybe it’s a snippet of a book or you know, a video interview of somebody, but some sort of content. And I’ll relay how it relates to me and how I feel like it relates to our sector of dining or culinary services.
I’m investing in my team, and I’m sure some people aren’t going to read it or pay attention. But if one or two gets it, I think that’ll be worth it in the end. What I found is I’ve had the opportunity to connect with our chefs.
I think it’s just starting to create that pay it forward aspect of leadership. Once it’s giving us content, I think people will start seeing that other people are buying in and it’s going to create stronger leadership across our organization.
Why Oakmont elevates wellness and lifestyle in dining:
It’s what people want. Dining in senior living was always a necessary thing. You have to feed everybody, right? We’re literally keeping people alive through food.
People obviously want better food and people want a better dining experience. You aren’t seeing cafeterias, there are restaurants in communities now. I think, especially with the incoming population, there’s so much more of a focus on wellness.
And so we’ve used that to our advantage during our marketing efforts. We’ll host smoothie bars and healthy bites when we are opening a new community.
We recently did a smoothie bar about brain health, like a high coconut fat smoothie for brain health or a Vitamin C laden smoothie for immune health and a ginger smoothie for digestion. So, there’s a lot of opportunity. I think not only do people want to see healthier foods and not so much fried foods,but people still want to have those healthier options, and also the education piece.
I think there’s a push to create more restaurant-style dining programs across the industry and it’s given us the opportunity to include healthier options on the menu all day. So in addition to the residents wanting a lot of the family members, too, which is really great to see because we need everyone to advocate for our seniors no matter what stage they are in.
Everyone is on some sort of fad diet to some extent right now it seems. When I entered the industry there weren’t a lot of things about allergies and not a lot about diets and not a lot of vegetarianism or plant-based diets. We’ve started seeing a lot more about gluten-free food.
The greatest generation was very meat-and-potatoes, and now people want to limit their carbohydrates and they want to have good farm-to-table vegetables.
It’s their community. It’s their restaurant. They should have a say in it. We always want to have as much resident involvement and engagement as possible. That is a great way to build the relationships with the residents and to just have a smoother relationship between customer and provider. And I think knowing that they like a certain style of food is going to encourage the chefs to then create more dishes or more menu items based around that.
I think more baby boomers are a little bit more adventurous to try new things. So through those networks, it’s a great way to introduce them to something, but make it a little bit more familiar.
On new culinary technology:
Everyone is dipping their toes in the tech water right now which is great. There are lots of tools out there that are going to benefit the industry as well the workforce in general. We’re exploring flexible scheduling and moving towards having the ability for since we work and live in a gig economy.
Additionally, there’s a lot of great procurement software out there. So we’re currently working with procurement partners. And that has been great. Not only just doesn’t make it easier, because it’s a one stop shop where you can punch out all your vendors. But when it comes to managing your budget, and when it comes to just the organization being able to help our team members manage their budgets as well to keep an eye on there.
We can set parameters if somebody makes a mistake. I had somebody try to order 111 cases of hamburger buns, so it got flagged to me. So that was a great save versus than getting 111 cases and hamburger buns delivered at their community. So that’s a cool piece of technology.