Dining Decompressed: How Volante Senior Living, Aspenwood Are Shortening Lines Before Mealtimes

It’s not uncommon to see senior living residents lining up well in advance of their usual mealtimes, a phenomenon known as “compression dining.”

Although it’s not the top issue that senior living communities face on a daily basis, compression dining is an issue for senior living dining programs. For one, serving many residents at once is harder to do from a staffing and quality perspective. It’s also not ideal for residents, who sometimes wait upwards of an hour to be seated in extreme cases.

Part of the problem is that the phenomenon can be driven by a fear of missing out, according to Frances Showa, vice president of culinary services at Volante Senior Living. But even larger than that, compression dining is often driven by a lack of options for residents – and it probably goes back to the early days of assisted living, she said.


“You had to have very rigid meal times … but most people don’t have a set meal time.” Showa said during a panel at the recent Senior Housing News DISHED conference in Chicago. “If you’re going to go into retirement right now or in the next five years, you better start eating at 7:30, 11:30 and 4:30, right?”

Showa’s point is that residents often feel like they need to line up due to the limited nature of senior living dining. Once Volante realized that, she said the company pivoted to a more restaurant-style model that gives residents freedom over when they dine, from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., foregoing the need for any of them to line up.

“We’re changing the way dining is presented,” she added.


Volante is not the only senior living operator focused on defeating compression dining. The Aspenwood Company is another focused on doing so, with more creative use of dining venues as a big strategy.

Restaurant-style dining requires restaurant-style staffing

One of the biggest challenges in senior living dining is staffing. Typically, senior living dining spaces set staffing levels by time of day, with multiple shifts. When one shift ends, all of the workers on that shift leave, while all of the workers on the next shift arrive.

But that creates a “glut” of workers, many of whom don’t need to be there the entire time, Showa said.

That is why Volante is in two communities piloting a restaurant-style staffing model that raises and lowers staffing levels depending on the time of day and what is being served in the dining room.

For example, there the company employs the most number of staffers during dinner rush, but fewer workers during off hours.

Volante is also training staffers to think more like restaurant workers. Because residents could show up at any time, the company routinely cleans tables and preps them for a new potential diner.

According to Showa, the staffing pilot has been budget-neutral overall, and has helped keep mealtimes efficient and enjoyable for residents. But more importantly, the pilot has been a hit with residents, who Showa said enjoy more leisurely days now that they can eat whenever they want.

“In this pilot, it’s worked really well,” said Frances Showa, vice president culinary services at Volante. “This is something I want to roll out to the rest of our communities.”

Dining venue remix

Like Volante, Aspenwood Co. also has what it refers to as all-day dining. But the company also took aim at compression dining by creating more dining venues and experiences for residents, Aspenwood President Heather Tussing said.

In all of the company’s new-construction communities, it is building at least five different dining venues, all offering different kinds of fare. In older communities, the company has also added new bistro spaces where residents can have a snack or dine between normal meals.

Aspenwood also has added outdoor spaces for residents to use for al fresco dining when the weather allows.

“We’re serving what our current residents want, but we’re also serving what our future prospective residents want,” Tussing said during the panel.

Flexibility is especially important for younger residents, she added. That is evident in a new community the company opened in Charlotte, North Carolina, where residents have an average age in the mid-70s.

“They want to do what they want to do, when they want to do it – and that’s why they’re moving in,” she said. “So, it’s very important for the dining to be flexible and to have multiple opportunities and venues.”

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