Senior Living Operators Grapple With Food Costs, Changing Resident Preferences

The rising costs of food have forced senior living culinary teams to get creative with their budgets and operations.

At the root of the issue is the fact that operators must limit the impact of growing food costs to margins without sacrificing overall quality. It’s for that reason that Amy Robinson, national vice president of culinary services at Solstice Senior Living and Integral Senior Living, personally trains culinary staff on how to properly read financial statements and adjust accordingly.

“If they don’t have full access to their profits and losses and their final financials, we’re doing them a disservice,” Robinson said during a recent panel discussion at the Senior Housing News DISHED conference in Chicago. “The better and more well-versed they are at not just reading their financials, but understanding them, is going to make them a more powerful leader.”


Solstice is not the only senior living operator looking to insert more creativity into the culinary planning process, either. 12 Oaks Senior Living and Cordia Senior Living are also tweaking what they do for a new cost landscape underscored by the incoming generation of residents.

Offsetting the rising cost of food

Since the start of the pandemic, the price of certain readymade foods and ingredients have ebbed and flowed. That has continued into 2024.

Solstice budgets for food cost increases between 2% and 3% each year, with some variations due to the lingering impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.


12 Oaks Senior Living’s food costs per resident day typically range between$550 and $758, according to Regional Vice President Travis Wick.

Paige Hoffman, director of sustainability at Cordia Senior Living noted that the company is budgeting annual food costs of $13,500 per unit, reflecting a 5% increase over food costs last year and 8.5% over food costs in 2022.

Complicating senior living culinary teams’ jobs is the fact that there is an incoming generation of older adults with different needs and wants than the previous one.

Cordia is adapting its operations for boomers in search of a more premium experience, which Hoffman said she thinks they will desire. The company has catered to those desires by slinging things like latte art in lieu of drip coffee.

Savings can ‘start small’

Given that rising food costs are just baked into the process, senior living culinary teams have looked to tweak operations to keep costs low. 12 Oaks adopted “cafeteria-style line” serving methods, where residents choose only the foods they want on their plate. Doing so has resulted in “huge reduction in our costs,” Wick said.

One strategy the company has wielded is making dinner a bigger meal than it previously was. Wick noted that some communities often make lunch a large meal with more filling items like fried chicken, mashed potatoes and pot roast. But the company started serving those items during dinner service, resulting in more family eating with residents – and often buying goods such as cookies and pies in the process, boosting the operator’s bottom line.

“When you’re charging $10 to $15 per person and you’re getting more and more people coming in that way, you are a business,” Wick said. “You’re able to generate revenue, and then that revenue goes back into the food, which then creates more demand.”

Both Solstice and Cordia have shifted to reusable containers for to-go items, with Hoffman noting there was an almost immediate return on investment within six weeks of implementation.

“That was an easy one,” Hoffman said. “It was a quick changeover once we decided what we wanted to go with. And I can’t think of a reason why we wouldn’t continue that one.”

Solstice has fine-tuned how it works with group purchasing organizations to “get the biggest bang for your buck.”

“It’s kind of a cross between … knowing your vendors very well, and making sure that you’re training your chef’s not only how to meet their food costs, but how to do so and navigate through that intricate use of your GPO,” Robinson said.

Wick noted 12 Oaks utilizes a group called Nutrition Systems to help calculate menu costs. As a result, Wick said there was a “huge reduction” in the amount of money the company spends on food for residents every day.

Community events that draw families, such as a Mother’s Day brunch and a community book club are another source of added revenue for senior living operators.

“Think outside the box, it doesn’t always just have to be a sit down meal,” Robinson said.

Wick suggested limiting the number of people that are coming, as it helps reduce the amount needed to cater to guests and allows for more timely service, which encourages them to come back and spend more. Robinson added doing so adds a sense of urgency to the event.

“It can start small – getting the revenue starting at $5 dollars a ticket and then gently increasing up to where you’re charging $30 per plate,” Wick said.

Additionally, operators are looking at ways to cut back on turnover within culinary staff. Travis Wick, regional vice president at 12 Oaks Senior Living, said his teams are largely given autonomy to control who they are hiring, as well as focusing on how much more stable the working hours and conditions are compared to nearby restaurants as a recruiting method. Additional training is often provided for directors to encourage emotional intelligence, noting as a result it has helped reduce turnover.

“[It’s] been very huge for us, which allows us to talk to people on a level that most restaurant people never learned,” he said.

Hoffman added what happens in dining and employee training affects the overall bottom line for a company.

“If we can do a really good job in every facet of dining, then we are being profitable, but we’re being profitable for the business,” she said. “Our biggest concern is making sure that what we’re doing today holds on for a long time.”

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