“Food is the heart of any senior living community. Replicating a great dining experience, three times a day, 365 days a year is a challenge – but not impossible.” – Senior Dining Association
The coronavirus pandemic forced senior living communities across the country to close their doors to visitors, which introduced a multitude of challenges for operators. Culinary teams jumped into action and went to the drawing board to figure out how they were going to continue to feed residents safely, while bringing a new sense of community in a time when residents were isolated from family and friends.
We sat down with Harris Ader, CEO and founder of the Senior Dining Association, to discuss how operators continue to adapt and navigate the pandemic.
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges the senior living industry has had to overcome throughout the COVID-19 pandemic?
There were a lot of unknowns at the start of the pandemic and keeping up with regulations was a huge challenge for operators. New information about the virus was being discovered, state and local regulations were changing quickly, which left operators scrambling to find ways to adapt their meal services just as fast.
Operators had to think through the details of their entire meal services from their daily menus, how to deliver to residents down to the type of plates meals were served on and sourcing more products like disposables and PPE for staff.
For residents, when you move into a retirement community, there is a huge social factor to consider. Since the start of the pandemic, residents have been eating alone and have been isolated without family and friends. Helping residents stay positive and keeping their spirits up has been a major priority for the entire senior living community.
Q: What are some of the foodservice-related innovations you have seen come out of the senior living industry since the onset of COVID-19?
When you’re in the hospitality industry, you want to please people as much as possible – through food and many other ways. Some of the biggest innovations came in response to finding new, fun ways to deliver food and creating a sense of community for residents. Operators really had to think outside of the box to figure out how they could use the resources they already had to deliver a great dining experience. Some of those ideas are:
- Themed carts – dessert carts, happy hour carts, etc.
- Vacuum packed and sous vide meals to go
- Unique room service options like sushi
- Virtual entertainment like cooking demos, competitions and happy hours
- Using outdoor spaces for communal dining
Operators are getting creative when it comes to addressing hiring challenges – senior living did not stop when the pandemic started, and, in many cases, operators are losing staff members. Interviews over Zoom are a great way to address those challenges.
Staff engagement has been a major component as well. A lot of senior dining facilities are providing full meals or groceries for their team members to take home.
There’s always been some sort of convenience store, but it became more prominent because people needed to buy groceries, and they couldn’t go out. Innovations around in-house and online grocery stores have been a great solution for independent residents, family and staff to get groceries and supplies.
Q: How have senior dining menus and foodservice offerings changed?
It’s different for every facility – everyone has their own philosophy on their menus. Some continue to cook from scratch, while others switched to more pre-made, individually wrapped options, especially if they don’t have enough staff support.
When you look at different programs, the food itself was never really affected. It was more about the delivery method and adjusting the menu to how it was going to be served. Operators had to adjust their menus to account for holding heat in new packaging.
We would see more things like casseroles and mashed potatoes and tried and true menu options that held their quality and heat better when being delivered.
Q: What changes have been implemented that might have staying power post-COVID?
The pandemic isn’t over yet – sanitation will continue to be non-stop in facilities.
Having hotel-style room service delivery for breakfast and full entrees has potential to stay. A lot of people like to eat at a certain time, and it’s appealing to be able to eat at whatever time you want – it’s about offering more choices. Operators are also finding ways to use their community layout to facilitate dining in new ways. One facility had desserts to go – the dessert wasn’t placed in the dining room but in a hallway or another room to help encourage residents to move from the dining room when they were done eating.
Also, operators can no longer engage their residents in the same way so surveys and receiving feedback looks totally different now. Operators must make sure their engagement surveys are reflective of what they are doing.
Q: How are senior dining facilities preparing for the re-opening of communal dining?
Communities are starting to re-open now, and both staff and residents must be trained on what to expect.
Operators are preparing and educating residents for what to expect because they’re not going back to the same dining room anymore. Everything will look and work different, from how the meal will be served at the table down to how you get condiments. Some operators are implementing reservation systems to help facilitate a safe dining experience.
You also don’t have the same dining staff. Many have been delivering food room-to-room and now need training on serving in the dining room.
From back of house, operators are still reducing their menu offerings due to limited staff and limited product availability.
Q: How will collaboration between senior dining decision makers and industry partners look moving forward?
The question is, when is post-pandemic? There are so many online events now – it’s the easiest way to meet people and learn about new innovations from partners, plus it’s cheaper than traveling to larger national events. It can be done virtually, but it must be engaging.
Right now, vendors are still unable to come on-site. In some states, resident visitors are being allowed into facilities but foresee that changing during the winter months for safety precautions.
Q: What can manufacturers, suppliers and vendors do to support and engage senior dining foodservice decision makers?
Continue to bring new ideas, innovations and products to operators! Help us bring boredom breaking ideas to residents. Again, even though we do food, it’s all about creating a fun dining experience. It’s all about bringing those new solutions!