SHN DISHED: Serving Up Innovation – Tapping into the Full Potential of Senior Living Dining Brought to you by ServingIntel

This article is sponsored by ServingIntel. This article is based on a Senior Housing News discussion with Jim Livingston, Senior Vice President of Sales at ServingIntel. The discussion took place on June 6, 2023 during SHN DISHED/WELLNESS Conference. The article below has been edited for length and clarity.

Senior Housing News: Jim, what does it mean to tap into the full potential of senior living dining?

Jim Livingston: The answer is, how can we leverage everything that we do in the community? Is it about the food, is it about the service, or is it about the experience? I think you’ve heard some of the folks earlier today. I think you’ve got to provide an experience for folks, and so we do that in many different ways within innovation, but I think you’re also hearing about how people are looking at restaurants and what restaurants have done in the past and bringing that sort of mentality into senior living. We’re seeing that more and more.


How many of you believe that dining in your facility is a revenue center? Raise your hand. Less than 50%. How many of you believe dining is a cost center? How many of you have a wait-list to get into your communities? In other words, you are at 100% occupancy. Awesome. How many of you are fully staffed? Okay. How many of you believe the dining experience directly impacts occupancy? Good.

We’re going to be talking about innovation today. Why exactly do we need innovation in senior living dining?

To elevate and to differentiate, those are the two things. What are you doing in order to elevate the dining experience? Did you know that 40% of the reason a senior chooses a community is based on their dining experience. That matters. I don’t know about you, but I keep asking myself, how far am I away from going to one of these facilities? Well, if you’re going to go to the 55-and-up communities, I’m not too far away. When I think about it, I say to myself, if I go there, am I going to want the same things that I have today whenever I go? The answer is, of course I do. Ask yourself, are you providing that? Most people, I would tell you, from my experience, are not doing that.


Those of us that are younger, don’t look at senior living as, “I can’t wait to go.” Some people that are there that are experiencing some good things that you guys are talking about, they love it, and they want to go. They want to be around people. They want to have that dining experience, and so that’s a big one. You also must find a way to differentiate yourself from other communities. You’re trying to grow. Right? It’s like a restaurant. If you offer great food and great service and the other guy doesn’t, he eventually goes out of business and you keep thriving.

It’s the same thing about trying to keep your occupancy up. The second highest driver of census growth is referrals. On the referral side, I want to go someplace and I want to tell my friends about it. I want to tell the people in the community, are they participating? I heard some folks say earlier that they’re opening their dining to the outside community. I’ve said that to people and they thought I was crazy. I’m glad to hear that it’s happening. Why not turn it into a revenue center? Why not have it be a place where people want to go, they want to spend their money, they want to have a good meal at a good price because they’re expecting to pay for it?

Quite frankly, in senior living, I think you guys are doing it better, could do it better, and do it for less than some of the other restaurants as well. The other thing is, can we charge more, charge more from a facility perspective? If it costs $5,000 to have everything that you need, and you have the best dining in town within a 30, 40-mile radius, then are you going to generate the ability to bring in more revenue possibly for that?

That’s where this whole thing matters. I think bringing dining to the forefront and understanding the value of it is important. The last thing I’ll say is, if you’re going to do it, whatever you’re going to do, just do it really, really well. Innovation by technology, and we’ll talk about that a little bit here in a minute, is the way you’re going to be able to do it and do it better than others.

Before we talk about that innovation, I want to ask you this question of why now? We all have a lot to worry about, so why is this something to pay attention to now?

I got staffing as my top one on this list. We’ve all been through it. We’ve all lived it. What are we doing in order to do staffing? I’ve heard comments about, “Shall we increase training? We got to do better recruiting.” Well, I can tell you that from a person who’s been in the hospitality industry for a very long time, there are servers that are working 40, 50 hours a week, and they make $2.13 an hour, for example. They’re killing themselves. They don’t realize that there’s a potential opportunity in senior living to go work there and actually do quite well.

They don’t realize that people pay $13, $14, $15 an hour. The problem is that there’s no tips. Well, I was at a conference about three weeks ago, and I heard for the first time somebody say to me, “We actually have a tip program.” I’m like, “Wow, we’re getting somewhere.” They actually have a tip program. What does that mean? That means that when you come in and you sit down at that table, your seat costs a certain amount of money, and I’m reserving it. That’s $2.50 or $3 per person to sit down at that seat. That tip is being split amongst the crew.

How many of you currently pay your servers $33 an hour? How many of you wish you could pay your servers $33 an hour and it not affect your bottom line? The answer is tips. People don’t even think about it. People are already doing it. Think outside the box. We’re a point of sale company. We offer a lot of different solutions, but we’re also big into robotics. I heard people mentioning robots. Well, I actually came from, previously, Bear Robotics, which is the largest manufacturer of robotic food solutions that do the food running and the bussing.

If you have any robotics questions, I’ll be more than happy to answer those because I think that was a good subject earlier today. They do help, and I’ll give you an example here at the end of somebody in the audience that’s actually benefiting from that. On the staffing side, we’re worried about the lack of staff and then how to train them. I would say we need to figure out how to do more with less. The only way I know how to do that is with technology. We’ll try to share some examples here in a second. Efficiencies. Again, being able to do it faster. How many people are using pen and paper to write down orders and have the servers take them back into the kitchen?

Well, that’s our biggest competitor, pen and paper. More than 50% of all senior living clients we talk to, potential clients, only use pen and paper. That takes a lot of time to go back and forth to the kitchen to actually bring that piece of paper, as opposed to spending time with the resident. The efficiency of what technology can do for you matters. Lastly, your future depends on it. I know that’s pretty dramatic. I wrote down, “Tech not adopted. You will fall behind.” It’s no different than in any other environment. Where are you in that spectrum? Are you in the beginning, the middle, or the end?

I would challenge the entire industry based on what I’ve seen so far. Everybody’s down on the first 25-yard line if you will. We’ve got to get everybody past at least the 50-yard line to start, and we need to do it sooner rather than later.

We’re going to talk about innovation. I actually want to ask you a question, though. The little guy running around out here, that’s a Bear Robotics Servi+ robot, isn’t it?

It is. His name is Servi, and they just recently came out with Servi+, which has four actual layers. That one only has two plus a bottom. We find it being very useful in bussing in senior living, but don’t forget about food running. I think we’re going to get into some reasons here regarding the technology, but think of a restaurant that you have, or a dining facility that has 24 tables.

Ask yourself, how many tables do you give a server to manage for the restaurant for that night, for that dining establishment? In a restaurant, it’s typically four on your busiest night. In a senior living facility, it’s four, five, potentially more, but again, what level of service do you want to provide? What the robot allows you to do is tell that server, stop going back and forth to the kitchen. I do not want you going back anymore. Because of which, you’re going to spend all your time in the front. If you do that, are you going to provide better service? Absolutely. When Mrs. Smith needs her water filled or she wants another glass of wine, you’re right there. She can see you, and you’re able to have conversations with them.

That level of service allows you to actually do more with less, meaning that a 24-table restaurant that has six servers and four tables, now flip it. Now give yourself six tables and four servers. I just fixed the staffing problem because I’m too short, I just fixed the overtime problem because I’m constantly having overtime, and I’m providing better service overall to my client, to my residents. That’s what matters. That’s what innovation allows you to do.

What are some other innovative ways operators and dining directors can tap into the full potential of dining in senior living?

I keep saying, I’ve already said it before, leverage what everybody else has already done. Everybody keeps talking about, “Well, I kind of act like a restaurant,” if you will. We don’t have to kind of act like one. Why don’t we just do it? Right? From a restaurant perspective, do they have a point of sale in every restaurant? Pretty much. Every time you open a restaurant, it has a point-of-sale system. As mentioned earlier, point of sale matters. I listen to exactly the reasons why they thought it was valuable. I want to add to that. There are hospitality point-of-sale systems, and there are senior living point-of-sale systems. What are the differences? Well, I think somebody mentioned Toast.

Toast, great point of sale provider for the restaurant industry. Not the ideal one necessarily that I would use in senior living because it doesn’t offer all of the things that you need. Think about your census import. Does it automatically import into the POS? The reporting is all great, but being able to tie into recipes, tie into nutrition, being able to tie into an accessory, for example, that you put your watch up to, and you have a handheld tablet at the table, and you’re getting ready to take an order. You walk up to Mrs. Smith and she reaches her hand up and you tap it, and boom, it pulls her whole bio up in front of you, her picture.

Then it turns around, it says what her dietary preferences are, what she can eat and what she can’t have. It tells you what her current balances are, her meal plan management. There are folks out there today in senior living that are not just doing one meal a day or three meals a day. There are many that are doing a la carte. How are you doing that? How are you taking money for that? How are you accounting for it? How are you managing all of that?

All of that is done with a senior living point-of-sale system. There are many folks here that do that as well. See one of them. Talk to them about how it works and what the benefits are because that’s where we’re going, and that’s the solution that I would recommend from a senior living perspective, on the point of sale side that is.

Do you have a success story to share with us or something about future growth, about a new market of seniors that will want that?

Yes. I want to mention there’s a gentleman in the audience from a company called Oakmont, and his name is Andrew Moret. You guys will probably know him. He goes by Charles Andrew. He goes by all those names. I only know him from Andrew. He actually implemented robots. He already uses a point of sale. Let me just say one other thing. I said to you earlier that if you’re going to have a robot, the reason is so that you don’t go back and forth into the kitchen.

Well, if I don’t have a point of sale system and I’m writing it down, I have to manually walk the order to the back. It defeats the purpose. For me, the point of sale is like the foundation. You gotta have it first. They already have a point of sale. Now they want robotics because they have staffing challenges. We were talking about, does it make a difference? Ask him. I’ll tell you what he told us when we interviewed him. Number one is he’s actually saving 1.5 FTE per year. Think about that. Think about what that number is, knowing that a robot on average, for those who don’t know, is going to cost you about $700 to $800 a month to have a robot unless you buy it outright.

You do the math. It’s about $10,000 a year. How much are you paying your full-time employee? Probably $20,000, $30,000, $40,000, depending on the number of hours that they’re working. He’s able to save 1.5 FTE. The other thing he realized that he did not expect is that call-offs would come down. “Why?” he asked. The answer was because the staff’s not as tired anymore because they’re not having to work so hard. Right?

If I don’t have to walk as much and I don’t have to carry as much, then I’ll actually be more productive when I’m at work, and I’m not necessarily dreading having to go to work. Then the third one, and I don’t want to miss anything here, he eliminated overtime. As we all know, overtime now in senior living, unlike a normal server in a restaurant, a senior living at $16, $17 an hour all of a sudden becomes a $20 – $25-an-hour person. It gets really expensive. We also had another example in California when I was with Bear Robotics, and they literally saved just in overtime by getting one robot, $7,000 a month in actual overtime. $7,000 a month.

For those who don’t know robots and can help you on your FTE, the answer’s yes. Can it improve overall efficiency? The answer is yes. I met somebody out here earlier today and she said, “We didn’t know about robots. We were concerned and we were worried that they were going to scare the residents.” Everybody said no. They named it and it was Susie or Tommy or whatever. It runs around and everybody thinks it’s pretty cool. Don’t think that your seniors don’t like it. As the newer generation comes in, it’s going to be even more well-liked.

Obviously, you gave a great use case today, but is there anything else that you would say to skeptics in the audience that maybe say, even after all that, “I’m not going to do the robots.”?

The challenge is it doesn’t go through a door. It doesn’t push a door because it’s very secure. It will not hit people. It will not hit doors, people, chairs, whatever. How does it get through a door? Well, unfortunately, right now, you have to leave that door propped open. That might be a problem with some of the facilities. There are door-opening solutions out there, third-party solutions. You got to get the door to see the robot, and as he sees it, the door opens up. That’s the first step you have to get behind.

The second one are thresholds. As it goes over the difference between a doorway, a threshold, it will bump. It depends on how high that threshold is, depends on how smooth that transition is. Those are the two challenges you’re going to have. With regards to cost, efficiency, productivity, people liking it, it’s a home run. You just have to try it. We have a 30-day program where you basically try it before you buy it, and so that would be what I would recommend for those who are skeptical.

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