How Executive Chefs with LCS, Solera, Sage Oak Keep Senior Living Dining Fresh

Rising food costs, staffing struggles and creating the right experiences for a new and incoming group of residents are among the biggest challenges senior living executive chefs face in 2024.

As the baby boomers bring with them new desires and preferences for dining in senior living, that is changing how operators staff their communities, devise menus and generally keep things fresh.

The ongoing shift to new dining trends is why Hagop Hagopian, executive chef of The Clare in downtown Chicago, is looking to “just keep learning, keep teaching and keep serving” in the years ahead.


“I try to stay relevant in the industry and not compete with other communities – I try to compete with different restaurants,” Hagopian said during a panel at the recent Senior Housing News DISHED conference. “You have to hustle, you have to stay relevant, you have to keep proving yourself and not live off the name you had five or 10 years ago.”

There are also issues in staffing and food costs that must be ironed out in the coming months and years – and there, too, operators are taking inspiration from real working restaurants.

Making changing preferences a centerpiece of dining

Two big forces are driving senior living executive chefs to shift strategies in 2024: Changing preferences of a new generation of older adults, and food costs that in many cases are still not settled.


Residents are hungry for new and unique dining experiences, according to Kristen Burman, executive chef and culinary director at Solera Senior Living’s Trulee Evanston property north of Chicago.

At the property in Evanston, Solera hosts events like pop-up dinner farm-to-table meals with themes such as “French circus” and “summer picnic.” The community also has a guest resident chef each month, who showcases their own style of cuisine.

“They’re getting this really, really unique experience, and we have a lot of repeat customers for that,” she said during the panel at DISHED.

Twelve miles to the south in the Chicago Loop, Hagopian and LCS also hold unique experiences for residents. That includes pastries – Hagopian is a pastry chef – handmade chocolates and six vegan dishes that change each week.

The Clare also has six dining venues, ranging from a gourmet dining room with fine fare to a bistro with simpler dishes. The community’s workers follow what Hagopian coined the “80/20 rule” – “80%, familiar 20% innovative.”

Like Burman, he also advocated for frequent resident feedback, and noted that chefs should try to keep their “chef’s ego” in check by talking with them on a regular basis.

“If you listen to them, I think that will solve a lot of the problems,” he said. “Chefs, be on the floor, and just keep working with them and taste everything.”

Larry Atwater, executive chef for Sage Oak Assisted Living and Memory Care of Denton, said spends as much time with residents as possible to understand their likes and dislikes. That is helped by the fact that Dallas, Texas-based Sage Oak is a smaller operator with eight bungalow homes, each with about 16 beds each.

“I write my menus weekly, so I’m able to take feedback … off residents’ preferences and diets and adjust accordingly,” Atwater said.

Changing resident preferences is also top of mind for Burman and Solera. The community in Evanston has an “open kitchen” policy, where residents can provide feedback at any time directly. Sometimes, that feedback is harsh – like a resident throwing a piece of skirt steak.

“We had a little banter and I never put skirt steak on the menu again,” she said. “If somebody down the hallway yells out chicken vesuvio, it’s probably going to go on the menu next week.”

Food costs, staffing still top issues

As chefs change up menus, they are running into challenges related to food costs. Although the cost of many food items has stabilized since the worst days of the Covid-19 pandemic, the price of certain items is still not always predictable.

That is why Trulee Evanston is mixing in “more humble ingredients” in dishes, though “nothing off the back of a truck,” Burman said. The community is also augmenting meals with soup and bread in many cases to give residents “a little extra” and help drive home a sense of value.

Hagopian noted that, on the topic of food costs, communities should choose their battles wisely and not blindly slash costs with quality by the wayside. He advocated for doing more with what one already has, such as making soup stock or mayonnaise in-house, and using high-quality but lower-cost ingredients in place of others.

Burman and Solera see it in a similar way.

“Instead of having grilled asparagus on a plate, we might do something like a spring vegetable succotash,” Burman said during the panel. “We do more braises which is also better for food costs most of the time.”

Alongside those methods, Hagopian highlighted a need to train staff to be less wasteful when cutting ingredients such as meat or vegetables. That is also an approach that Sage Oak takes, Atwater said.

“We need to be smart. We need to know that we make money on the buy and not the sale, especially in our industry, because we don’t make much on it,” Hagopian said.

Given all of the innovation and experimentation underway, staffing is still a critical area for operators to focus.

Today, Trulee Evanston’s kitchens are fully staffed after two years of struggles. To improve retention, the company focused on new and personalized training for kitchen staff, along with one-on-one meetings.

Staffing is not as big of a challenge for Sage Oak, given its smaller size. Even so, Atwater said the biggest challenge facing his kitchen is finding the right chef for the right community. More than simply cooking experience is required, but knowing how to engage with residents fits the more boutique approach the community offers.

Sage Oak has relatively low levels of turnover, which Atwater attributed to the operator’s practice of giving staff more flexible schedules with three-, four- and five-day workweeks and morning and night shifts.

The Clare and LCS regularly post on Instagram and engage directly with LinkedIn, along with directly connecting with schools and chefs in the Chicago area. That has resulted in kitchen staff who are staying for longer and recruiting their friends to work at The Clare, he said.

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