In a year that saw a range of persistent headwinds, from increased labor costs and supply chain disruptions, not to mention rising food prices, the world of dining within senior living is in a period of flux.
For Aegis Living Enterprise Culinary Service Director Ashleigh Pedersen, 2022 was a year of overcoming persistent challenges and finding ways to innovate while re-engage with the company’s residents.
In her two-and-a-half years with Aegis, Pedersen has helped lead a new wellness-focused approach to dining. She and her team have been “remixing and redoing” menus to usher in wellness-oriented, seasonal dining, and tap into trends such as the rise of meat alternatives and Asian-influenced menu options.
Bellevue, Washington-based Aegis Living operates over 34 communities in California, Nevada and Washington. The operator was ranked as the 54th largest provider in the country in Argentum’s 2022 Largest Provider list.
Pedersen sat down with Senior Housing News for a Q&A to discuss the state of the culinary landscape and dining in senior living today, covering today’s biggest trends inside the dining room and out as Covid-19 restrictions fade into the background and residents return in full-force to socialize and raise a glass.
Senior Housing News: Could you offer a summary of how 2022 has gone for Aegis in terms of dining operations?
Pedersen: 2022 has been a great year for dining, and we got to see our residents become so delighted and getting back into the dining room.
It’s been fun to see them back in the dining room and being able to have their families in our dining rooms as well, which plays into that intergenerational aspect that’s so important for our residents.
Costs have been a hot topic, and it’s something we are figuring out: How do we balance some of those expenses, and where do you invest in food to garner the results that we want. We made a focus of increasing a variety of protein-based foods, where we are remixing and redoing our menus to focus on seasonality.
And then working with our distributor partners to say, where are their opportunities, do they see savings that we may not be aware of.
It’s interesting to see how the food service or the food manufacturing industry has responded to everything that Covid has brought. But then it’s fun as a consumer to see how some of that technology is playing out to think about how we can bring it here within the plates that we’re putting together and serving to our residents and their families. So there’s been pros and cons that have come out of it.
Staffing is also an ongoing challenge. I think senior living has a balance that you can get a consistent lifestyle both within work and outside of work that maybe the restaurant industry doesn’t offer a culinary team, which is a huge selling piece for us. So building those resident relationships, as well as the peer relationships, are really critical to stabilizing that environment.
Senior Housing News: What are some of the trends you’re seeing right now in dining? Are there any trends that came to the forefront this year that weren’t around necessarily in 2021 or earlier?
Pedersen: Robotics is a hot topic. It solves some of the labor concerns, so that’s definitely a trend.
I think there’s a focus on plant-based dining. One of the things we are doing with our all-day dining menu launch was really focus on touching those health and wellness foods.
Everyone’s interested in healthy foods, immune boosting foods and how are residents going to feel healthier, and there’s evidence of a Mediterranean diet approach, and things that are heart-healthy.
In the last five years, vegan or plant-based diets have grown exponentially and part of that goes into the environmental awareness that we are seeing coming from the public in general. We’re seeing an increase in requests for those types of diets and abilities to accommodate those preferences.
Senior Housing News: What are some of the biggest challenges you’re seeing right now in senior living dining?
Pedersen: I think labor will continue to be a challenge, as we see the restaurant industry figure out what they’re going to do. There’s so much crossover between culinary teams that work in senior living or health care environments with those that would move into the restaurant world as restaurants get their feet back underneath them. I don’t think that that’s going to go away here in 2023.
I think the supply chain, I don’t want to say it’s completely caught up, because there’s still influences like avian influenza that’s just going on right now and other things like that. But some of those things we’ve seen coming ahead of us down the line. I think it will be curious now to see how that food inflation that has impacted the supply chain plays out if those costs stabilize.
Senior Housing News: What areas are more expensive this year than they were compared to 2021?
Pedersen: Some of the protein categories are more expensive this year, even in items that we considered stable, including poultry. There’s been shortages of turkey across the market for probably the past three or four months and going into Thanksgiving, I think we’re just going to see additional pressures around that availability for those items. So those large proteins have been a challenge.
There’s been some impacts to food oil costs with everything that’s going on in Ukraine. What seems far away from us actually impacts us, since Ukraine was the largest exporter of sunflower oil. It’s used in thousands of food items that are manufactured, so there’s been a ripple effect from the conflict.
Senior Housing News: Are there any initiatives or things that have worked well to improve employee retention to ease the labor pressure right now?
Pedersen: Wages are definitely a consideration. We’re aware of the cost of living going up and what we’re up against. Employees are entitled to free meals at our communities each day. In the peak of Covid we baked things and sent them home with staff. We’re going to be providing team members with a turkey again this year for the holidays.
It’s about driving that commitment in value to the team member as an individual that I think helps us focus on retention.
Senior Housing News: How do you think the senior living industry needs to evolve to appeal to the next generation of consumers?
Pedersen: We’re seeing baby boomers choosing to live with their children and potentially their grandchildren, and if they aren’t living with them, they are living within close proximity. That family value is there.
They want to know how communities are going to welcome that sense of family and for the grandkids to have something to do when they visit. We’re having to tailor enrichment and dining opportunities to all of these new audiences. The new generation entering our space wants more options. They want more than one dining room available.
Senior Housing News: What is your philosophy on dining as it relates to revenue? Should these outlets generate a profit like a restaurant or do you think that this is a cost center, or a mix of both?
Pedersen: I think it depends on the environment. So if a community has IL and other populations within it, I think that ability to do restaurant-style pricing exists. Aegis is very specific to assisted living in memory care. within our communities. Our structure is that menus or dining options are included within the resident cost. So we’re not doing a la carte or restaurant-style pricing within this space.
So there’s opportunities for revenue, and for driving those guests and family members into our community. If that’s our target audience, and we can encourage the grandkids to come and the family members that come into the community, there’s revenue potential there. But that revenue potential coming off of our residents is not a priority here with Aegis. That revenue would be from outside guests.
Senior Housing News: Are there opportunities in being part of a GPO?
Pedersen: Aegis does partner within food and beverage with the Premiere GPO and partners on food contracts and service-level expectations, and is partnered with manufacturers that align best with some of our goals in health and wellness.
Senior Housing News: Are you seeing more interest in meat alternatives?
Pedersen: Absolutely. We’re seeing more of that, and we have a plant-based burger on our menus. And we’ve used things like faux ground beef. We’ve used that in lasagna and in other applications for things like that. So there are definitely places where we’ve taken that and applied it in daily specials so residents could try something they haven’t tried.
Senior Housing News: Are there any really popular items right now for residents?
Pedersen: We’re seeing more variety around Asian influenced items. We’re seeing more curries come to market, both Thai and Indian curries.
Senior Housing News: What areas are you watching coming down the pike for 2023?
Pedersen: I will be curious to see how the technology continues to play out. I think there’s interesting technology that’s coming out. It’s just interesting to see what they’re solving for from a tech standpoint. And then I think it’s back to enjoying the celebration of dining with other people and continuing to put a focus on how we make it fun.