How Priya, Wake Robin, Arbor Co. Remixed Dining to Suit Residents’ Changing Palates

It’s a trend known to many senior living operators: A new generation is entering their communities in the coming years, and they are bringing with them a whole new set of wants and needs for food.

Operators agree that the senior living industry must find new ways to cater to those interests now, or risk losing out on move-ins down the road. What is not nearly as easy is figuring out what or how to remix their dining programs with a new generation in mind.

“People are changing the way they eat; the times that they eat and that changes demand for the typical meal times,” Anjan Mitra, head of innovation for San Francisco, California-based senior housing company Priya Living, said during a panel at the recent Senior Housing News DISHED/WELLNESS conference in Atlanta.


But there are operators finding ways to elevate their dining to accommodate the industry’s changing consumer base, even while they have had their plates full of challenges in recent years with the Covid-19 pandemic..

Three operators, Priya Living, the Arbor Company and Wake Robin all made changes to their dining programs in recent years to bring more resident choice; solve staffing issues and evolve dining experiences to meet changing resident tastes.

New foods for new tastes

Atlanta-based operator The Arbor Company has seen a shift in resident tastes, from typical “meat and potatoes” dishes to more international cuisine, according to Vice President of Dining Services Ryan King. They also are more conscious about their health and wellness as it relates to food.


Arbor has catered to those tastes through offering a wider range of cuisine and more healthy options..

King said those menu changes have also meant some changes on the operations side, with Arbor working with general purchasing organizations (GPO) in a way that helps sell residents on the food they are eating..s.

“If they see the produce truck coming in the morning or see the seafood truck coming, then they perceive it being fresher,” he said.

Priya already serves many South Asian residents in its communities, and now the company is going all-in on the region’s cuisine, including through more vegetarian options. And the expectation is that this will be a selling point not only for South Asian residents, but for a broader consumer base with sophisticated palates.

Wake Robin has a number of vegetarian residents and others who are proactive about their health, wellness and the impact to the environment. The life plan community has in recent years worked to make dishes available daily with plant-based ingredients or meat alternatives. Past examples include dishes such as “faux-sobuco,” a meat-free version of ossobuco with seitan, tofu and a mushroom demi-glace prepared in the style of a cross-cut veal shank.

Even when meat is on the plate, it is not always the main event.

“That leads to more opportunities for customization,” said Hays, who is the community’s director of dining services.. “We’re seeing humanely raised and butchered animal-based proteins almost as a side, and then the vibrant side dishes as the center of the plate.”

The community also relies on its network of 50 local farms to source fresh produce that is used in its kitchens, and it has catered to resident preferences for fresh fare in the past, including by hosting onsite farmers markets.

As the boomers prepare to move into senior living communities en masse, they are likely to bring with them all of their preferences for food. That includes what they have seen on the grocery store shelf or in restaurant menus — and operators must be prepared to offer it.

King said he envisions a future of senior living dining where residents can choose from a long list of dishes and cooking styles and try something new. .

“We’re starting to see people that are a little bit more traveled and seasoned when it comes to different cuisines and cultures,” he said. “They want to experience those menu items.”

Experimenting with new serving styles

In 2023, senior living operators are trying out new ways to serve residents, including by having residents serve themselves and each other.

For example, Wake Robin is planning to pilot a coffee shop concept where residents serve the coffee and freshly baked goods, not community staff. The community also is trialing a concept that Hays called “pop-up potluck dinners.”

“We use that empty kitchen as a communal space where I set [residents] up, [and ask] ‘What are you going to cook?’” Hays said. “We work with them, and then they throw their own family-style dinner party.”

Priya residents also participate in “taste my cooking” showcases where residents will prepare dishes they enjoy and share them with one another.

Having residents cook for themselves “takes the load off the front-of-the-house and the back-of-the-house, even if it’s once or twice a week,” Mitra said.

Options like grab-and-go meals, a la carte and room service all rose in popularity and use as senior living residents sequestered in their rooms early in the pandemic. But that flexibility has carried over into the period that followed, and operators are finding use in many of the practices they first introduced in 2020.

Priya Living, was ahead of the game by offering grab-and-go meals in flexible arrangements for residents long prior to the pandemic.

Residents have gotten even more comfortable with the concept of on-the-go meals during the pandemic, and Priya is catering to those tastes with rice bowls, salads and smoothies. Grab-and-go meals have a longer shelf life and offer some flexibility to dining staff to plan around offering grab-and-go options around traditional meal services to compliment both offerings, Mitra added.

But he stressed that attractive — and cheap — packaging is a must for operators that plan to offer grab-and-go options.

“Maybe, you’ll have a photograph of the item inside and [it’s] clearly labeled,” he said. “If there are salads, you can actually see them — it has to be a clear lid. A rice bowl is the same,”

By keeping the economies of scale small and working with local food producers, Wake Robin was able to avoid some of the widespread supply chain shortages seen during the pandemic and its aftershocks.

After evaluating dining staff placement at the life plan community Hays said the community shifted to having servers wield dim sum carts, not for dumplings or buns, but for tableside beverages, appetizers and desserts..

“We can use it for independent living as a dessert cart or for other fun stuff tableside — and it’s been really successful,” Hays said.

With having staff on the floor, it improved resident perceptions regarding wait times for meals and helped line staff “get more done more quickly,” Hays added.

“We started doing it as a staff efficiency because if I had two people delivering carts at the same time to a dining room of 45 people, it puts servers on the floor,” Hays said.

Priya Living employs a “fine-casual model,” according to Mitra, that combines upscale dining spaces with self-service in a style similar to what one might find in an upscale urban food hall. Doing so has eschewed the need for hosts and food runners, and residents “actually enjoy the flexibility,” when they get used to it, he said.

Priya staffhave “cross-functional roles” that goes toward the idea of the “universal worker,” Mitra said. Front-house staff are trained with back-of house skills and vice versa.

“There’s a lot of cross-functional roles and we’ve seen that it actually becomes much more collaborative in the way people work with each other and gives them a greater appreciation for the job they are doing.”

The major shift on dining staffing philosophy also means that Priya Living communities are designed with this cross-functionality in mind, and include spaces ranging from chai bars to a marketplace where residents can buy food items and other sundries.

Wake Robin has a hybrid space combining a commercial kitchen and a dining room. And Hays added that by turning dining spaces into hybrid spaces, the community can host a broader range of functions, such as a teaching kitchen.

Staffing is another area of innovation. King said Arbor began to view hiring dining workers as a “two-way street,” with the operator having to remix benefits and offerings that appeal to a younger generation of workers.

Through a partnership with digital learning platform Rouxbe, The Arbor Company is able to train employees as part of an online culinary school, with the first cohort starting earlier this month. That’s led to buy-in from frontline staff. Arbor has also started offering bonuses and adjusting wage rates for various positions to remain competitive in local markets.

“We worked with the company on the grading aspect and everything runs through me so I’m the one that goes in and can give personalized feedback to staff that they might not receive every day,” King said.