Faced with ballooning costs in everything from labor to ingredients, senior living operators have had to be quick-thinking in their dining programs.
Expenses have mounted in the last three years and change, and part of the problem is that culinary directors never seem to know what will be cheap or too expensive.
“Isn’t it bizarre that beef has gradually gone down while eggs have skyrocketed?” Chef Brian Patterson, Goodwin Living Culinary Innovation and Development Chef, said during a panel discussion at the 2023 Senior Housing News DISHED/WELLNESS conference in Atlanta.
But that doesn’t mean the senior living industry must be beholden to a higher cost of business. Thanks to creative use of technology and a willingness to try new things, some operators have found ways to offset costs even as their dining budgets are squeezed on both sides.
For example, operators are enhancing their point of sale (POS) sophistication in order to understand the cost of providing meals to residents and embracing group purchasing arrangements to ensure the food their residents eat doesn’t also break the bank. But doing so also takes a careful eye for details and a certain level of operational acumen
“You need a strong foundation to innovate, you can’t just start dreaming,” Patterson said.
Starting with a strong foundation for innovation first requires cost efficiency. In a world where the price of eggs or beef can fluctuate, that is not easy.
Some senior living operators have found success with group purchasing organizations, which are helpful to cut costs, according to Phoenix Senior Living Director of Dining John Baillie.
“The GPOs will come in and ask which ingredients we want and then our chefs will order from the GPO guide. It makes ordering so much more efficient.” Baillie said at DISHED/WELLNESS.
Oftentimes if a product is in short supply or prohibitively expensive, Baillie will open the floor to the community-level chefs at Phoenix’s 60 communities for ideas. He said he typically asks what the price needs to be for the company’s budget, then turns the process into a competition to see who can craft the best recipe within those constraints.
“The chef that gets the recipe, you know they’re a high performer, and it’s their recipe,” Baillie said. “And I’ll tell you that chef is calling all 60 communities asking how it went.”
Dining decision-makers are watching the development of robots like Bear Robotics’ Servi carefully — not necessarily as a way to replace humans, but as a way to ensure humans can spend time on their most important tasks.
“I’m very curious about the robots,” Patterson said, while acknowledging there is still a healthy amount of skepticism regarding them.
In Patterson’s eyes, robots enable caregivers on the frontline to have increased human interaction.
“At the cost of human iteration, I would never want to introduce a platform,” Patterson said.
But if artificial intelligence (AI) can help remember how a resident likes their food or their experience and save money, he is all for it. For him, cost savings make a big difference.
“I spent a lot of my time in compliance auditing kitchens and if there’s a way to track that and create an action plan out of that – it’s old-school IT, but it’s IT,” Patterson said.
For Goodwin,he cost of finding and compensating labor remains difficult. One idea has been to supplement their wages with tips, much like at any restaurant. And to that end, Goodwin does have a tip program so residents can reward associates’ work.
“That seems to be a lot more helpful in getting them in and keeping [workers],” Baillie said.
Developing cooks and using creativity
In the midst of the industry’s ongoing staffing shortage, many senior living operators have stressed the need to develop in-house talent and create career paths to higher positions. Roswell, Georgia-based Phoenix has extended that concept to its communities’ kitchens.
Phoenix Senior Living offers chefs and cooks the opportunity to learn cooking basics and advance their careers, albeit slightly, in a move that comes with a small bump in pay. As an employee moves up the ranks, they add tiers to their title. For example, someone might start as a “chef 1” and over time learn more advanced techniques and move up to a “chef 3.”
“They love it,” Baillie said.
Alexandria, Virginia-based Goodwin’s program is nearly identical.
Goodwin launched its tiered chef training program in the wake of Covid-19 as a way to develop its cooking staff and to incentivize them to stay longer once they started at Goodwin. The idea was to create three levels of skill tiers for cooks at Goodwin’s three Virginia-based communities.
Goodwin’s problem was that cooks in its communities were too far away from being capable of promotion, so they’d leave the company and look elsewhere for the next step in their careers. So, Goodwin took on their education.
“We literally atomized the cook position,” Patterson said.
The program has very specific criteria and competencies – like chiffonade, a cutting technique wherein chefs cut vegetables into thin strips – that are taught to whoever wants to participate, according to Patterson. Then, “every six months we offer the opportunity to train and test into the next tier,” he said.
Uber Eats as a revenue source
The ability to create alternate revenue streams is an attractive proposition for senior living operators with the flexibility and funding to give it a go.
Those revenue sources often involve public-facing offerings such as a restaurant that is open to the public. But Phoenix is going a step further by partnering with ride-share platform Uber to offer customers Phoenix’s food straight to their door by way of Uber Eats.
If an Uber Eats user in the Atlanta suburb of Braselton, Georgia opens up the app this summer, they may not know they are about to order food from Phoenix at Braselton, a senior living community with independent living, assisted living and memory care residents. But given that the community’s food can stand up to local restaurants, Baillie doesn’t think that will matter much.
“The hope is we make money,” Baillie said. “I can’t wait to see the delivery driver pull up to a senior living community.”
Uber Eats will market the Phoenix community’s food under Beau and Belle, a new dining brand it recently launched. To build brand identity, Phoenix bought a food truck that would be parked around the area to bring diners into the Beau and Belle restaurants once they were open inside the communities.
The food truck is about a year old now and does about $100,000 in sales per year, according to Baillie. In fact, he now swears by food trucks for senior living communities. When a Phoenix community experienced a kitchen fire, the Beau and Belle truck saved the day and quite a few dollars in catering expenses.
While Goodwin Living does not sell food through Uber Eats, the organization is still seeking to offer food and an experience that is of such a high quality “so that it’s everyone’s favorite place to eat, not just our residents,” Patterson said.
“It raises the idea of, ‘Is this where I would want to live? Is this the program that I would aspire to want to serve me?’” he said.