A conversation with Harris Ader, Founder & CEO, Senior Dining Association
The Senior Dining Association is the first professional organization focused entirely on dining for the senior housing industry. The purpose is to connect and educate hospitality industry professionals with careers in senior housing. For more information, visit seniordining.org.
“In my prior position I could not find the resources, best practices, industry trends or education that I was looking for related to senior dining. I was lucky and fortunate enough in my career to work for a foodservice contract company, and it was all about the food—all about the dining. It had resources related to what we were doing and development of what we were doing. And when I was in the self-op world, I could not find those resources. I could not find best practices, and I could not network the way I wanted to with my peers. That’s what made me start the SDA.
We are a mixture of someone’s home and a country club and a little bit of healthcare because of specific diets, but we serve the same people 365 days a year. Sometimes three meals a day, and sometimes one meal a day. We also host events with different types of experiences for the members and residents of the community. We’re more service-oriented now, and the food and presentation has evolved so much in recent years.”
Q: As you’re interacting with your SDA members, what are you hearing that’s keeping them up at night? What are their biggest concerns?
“One person I spoke to about dining preferences and services said the thing that keeps him up at night is creating new and innovative programs for the residents in older communities. The thing to think about is how to implement new programs with the current budget and labor hours. You know, how to be innovative while staying within the budget or how to present innovation that will have a cost impact to the CEO. That’s what keeps some people up at night.
Another person I spoke to worries about stabilizing their workforce before they implement new programs or changes. It’s important to have a stabilized workforce in order to implement new dining programs or new initiatives. Otherwise you’re looking at a revolving door, and nothing is going to stick properly.
The third, I think—especially with a lot of VPs I talk to—is about the growth of the industry and keeping up with new buildings or remodels while continuing the day-to-day business and working with staff and other community directors where they’re short. So, they have new growth going on, they have new buildings opening, and they must continue their current business. If you’re short-staffed or short managers or directors, that puts a hindrance on things, and sometimes there’s not a lot of that corporate support that’s needed.”
Q: What are some of the biggest shifts you or your members have noticed in dining preferences recently?
“It’s an increase of choice from the older models where you always had three items available or “x” number of items offered. Having that increase of choice has been a huge shift in addition to the type of cuisine and scratch made cooking. It has fallen by the wayside where people are in the back cooking. Now it’s cooking to order as much as possible. That’s one of the biggest shifts. And how do you continue that service if you’re short-staffed?”
Q: I know sometimes recruiting chefs or trained staff can be difficult in the industry. How are you seeing your members handle those types of issues?
“It’s about perception. For the recruiting part, what they’re doing now is changing people’s perceptions. That’s what a lot of communities are doing. They’re showing they cook real food. They’re entering contests on local levels in their communities and in their towns. A chili contest, a soup contest or barbecue—whatever kind of food contest in their local areas. Most communities are now participating in those kinds of things. They even have food trucks to show off their brand. But the point of doing this—going out in the communities—is to say we cook real food. We’re serious about what we do. We have real chefs, and we can compete with any restaurant. And I think that helps a lot. It’s creating the awareness that senior dining is a little bit sexier than people think.”
Q: How do you think operators can utilize suppliers, or how do you think suppliers should be supporting operators in the industry?
“If we go with a menu product, it’s coming up with menu innovation and looking at how we can take center-of-the-plate items and mix them with fresh items. It’s understanding the good balance of using their suppliers’ products with the balance of fresh products as well. It’s having more education for chefs that are coming from restaurants. That’s what I believe is important. Also, knowing your added value services. This is important. Whether you’re a distributor, a manufacturer—whoever you are—it’s about understanding the added value services that you have. I don’t think a lot of chefs really understand that. And what I mean by added value is you might have a display case that comes with your ham and cheese prepacked sandwiches to go. Operators need to understand what else you can offer—the added value.”
Q: Today, consumers are demanding food—when they want it, where they want it. This could be snacking or could just be nontraditional hours. How are members responding to requests from residents for more grab 'n go, snacking options?
“Grab ‛n Go/Retail is continuing to build in communities, and that’s important. Grab 'n Go items that allow residents to bring food back to their homes will continue to rise. Especially in CCRC communities where it gives residents the option of eating on site or going back home. It allows them to use their meal plan dollars how they want to use them.”
Q: What do you think is the most rewarding part of working in this industry?
“It’s about human and community satisfaction— making someone happy with their meal. Chefs get the immediate satisfaction of making someone happy with food. I love seeing my residents, or even my family, happy with a meal. And the one thing that I really enjoy that I do and that I think we bring to communities or locations that don’t have the best of the best or are growing and trying to evolve their dining program is helping them. It’s educating those dining directors and those chefs so they can improve their food, improve their service and improve their operation. To me that brings the most satisfaction. With just a little education you can make such an impact on a community.”