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By Sara Wildberger

Throughout the pandemic, senior living culinary services have faced factors that make the food and dining business tough: inflation, competition, and scarce supplies due to continuing supply chain and procurement woes–but have kept quality a top priority.

Yet culinary and dining services in all regions and levels managed to turn lemons into lemonade, continuing to improve menus, service, and safety. During days of quarantine and social distancing, senior living culinary departments met the challenge of trying to keep dining alone in a room tasty, interesting, and delivered to them in the past two years.

“When it comes to ordering in today’s market you have to be creative—this goes especially for kitchen equipment,” says Davis Martin, procurement manager at Maxwell Group, Inc.. You have to be willing to utilize many different distributors. It’s been helpful to lean on GPOs [group purchasing organizations] to provide additional contacts when suppliers outside of my normal circle have lengthy lead times.”

“It feels like there is a different supply chain issue to navigate each week,” Martin says.

This is echoed by others in culinary, from chefs to procurement: Be creative, be flexible, and be collaborative.

“The past two years have not been easy, and that’s no exception for the senior living industry,” writes Jeff Porterfield, chief customer officer, North America, at Entegra, in an email interview. “No one expected this; no one was prepared for the unique challenges, supply shortages, workforce issues, and isolation felt across senior living communities.”

To meet the challenges, in October 2021, Entegra, a division of Sodexo, launched its refreshed brand with services including not only procurement and a GPO, but also a digital platform, advisory services, and a corporate responsibility commitment (not a surprise, considering Sodexo’s reputation for excellence in that area).

“What we saw as the trends unfolded were opportunities to step in and find solutions for our clients,” Porterfield writes.

STARTING WITH THE MENU

The most obvious challenge was what to serve: how to deal with uncertainty of supplies. But solutions to the supply crunch are more complex than paring down a menu. Food service began to rethink and redesign processes from local procurement to resident needs to food waste.

Supply chain issues even affect labor, as Merrill Gardens vice president of special projects Nick Olla points out.

“We’ve been costing out menus forever, but rarely has the labor component of producing certain items been taken into account,” he wrote in an email interview.

“With labor being challenged like never before, I feel that efficiency in menu planning to accommodate not only leftover items, but also accounting for the time it takes to prepare everything, will be a metric we study and a potentially a trend moving forward,” Olla says.

Porterfield says Entegra keeps an eye out for items that are easily available from suppliers and arranges custom contracting for items that are both readily available and easy to prep and serve, whether in a community dining room or delivered to resident rooms.”

“With labor being challenged like never before, I feel that efficiency in menu planning to accommodate not only leftover items, but also accounting for the time it takes to prepare everything, will be a metric we study and a potentially a trend moving forward,” says Nick Olla, vice president of special projects for Merrill Gardens.

Entegra also advises on interchangeable SKUs (stock keeping units, which track supplies of various items) so culinary can more easily make substitutions or get creative with available items.

CUTTING WASTE PAYS OFF

“With food cost and inflation being front of mind for us all, we believe that there will be an intense focus on how to stretch your dollar and minimize waste,” Olla writes. “From herb and vegetable gardens moving beyond just a novelty, to in-house butchery, to alternative protein options, we see this as a space that is prime for innovation.”

Cutting food waste is an area Entegra has tackled as well. “Another way to combat supply shortages is to make sure that kitchens are making the most of what they have,” writes Porterfield. “Our Leanpath program was designed to help kitchens track waste, whether through overproduction, trim waste, or spoilage.”

“Understanding those trends will allow operators to adapt production levels quickly, using everything they have on hand purposefully, saving money and labor resources in the process.”

HOW, WHEN, AND WHERE

At the beginning of the pandemic, as residents often had to take meals in their rooms, culinary faced shortages of disposable plates and cutlery. A few months in, some providers were looking for sustainable (and more attractive) alternatives to plastic foam containers. Kisco Senior Living, for instance, found eco-friendly, reusable containers that could be disinfected—saving money and increasing goodwill.

With the dining room less central to dining, communities moved toward “anytime” dining and grab-and-go alternatives for some meals. Entegra created Grab ‘n Go, a “turn-key solution with curated recipes using contracted products and easy-to-follow, bilingual recipe cards,” Porterfield writes.

“You save money on the ingredients, and staff at any skill level can prepare the meals in advance. It works well in senior living communities because it’s easy to bring a pre-packaged meal to a resident or offer a selection of pre-packaged meals for residents to pick up on their own as a convenience.”

SAFETY FIRST IN MIND

Another factor continuing to complicate dining programs is the new approach to food safety. Food safety has always been serious business and non-negotiable in senior living, but with a dangerous new virus on the scene, communities tripled and quadrupled their efforts.

“Juniper continues to do yearly training with our dietary staff and leadership to ensure everyone has been through ServSafe mangers certification,” says Kris Kishbaugh, Juniper Communities Regional Culinary Director.

“The health and safety of our residents and staff have always been top priority for Juniper. Partnering with Handgard to have these trainings in all our communities ensures that everyone is given the tools to make that happen,” Kishbaugh says. “They have been a great resource for us as well when gloves were becoming hard to come by—they were able to keep us well stocked.”

“Cleaning protocols needed to level up,” writes Porterfield. So Entegra developed a Sanitation and Safety program, in partnership with Bureau Veritas.

“The comprehensive program not only takes participants through an audit, but includes personal consultation, training and solutions through Entegra’s broad portfolio of contracted products,” Porterfield writes. “Upon implementation of audit recommendations, clients earn the Safeguard Label of Hygiene Excellence and Safety to demonstrate their commitment to providing healthy and safe environments.”

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