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Leaders from senior living providers and dining industry partners shared their ideas and tips for dealing with pandemic-related challenges with Argentum. Above, Merrill Gardens’ chef’s service at the counter sparks greater enjoyment and interaction.

SIMPLE AND SOPHISTICATED

“We continue to focus on the center of the plate, putting high quality entrees out that offer a variety of choices,” says Juniper Communities’ regional culinary director Kris Kishbaugh. “We are serving everything from your traditional comfort meals like meatloaf and country fried steaks to more upscale offerings such as pan-seared scallops with olive tapenade.”

COMFORT FOODS REBOUND

“Comfort foods have been so fundamental to our approach to dining during the pandemic. We’ve really leaned into this concept to help our residents (and ourselves) through these challenging times,” says Nick Olla, Merrill Gardens vice president of special projects.

“Food has such a power to evoke memories of people and places that can seem so remote during times such as these.”

DINING LOCAL

Pandemic restrictions meant residents might have missed dining out in favorite local restaurants—and that those restaurants were suffering from the drop in business. Juniper Communities found an ingenious way to address this, with its Suite Eats program, an “upscale room service option.”

“This program was created at the height of the pandemic to offer residents local fare that can be found at our local restaurants,” says Juniper’s Kishbaugh.

NO PROMISES, NO SURPRISES

“Food supply-chain challenges and food manufacturing slowdowns forced us to get much more general on our menu verbiage,” says Guy Hemond, vice president, culinary, dining experience, and procurement logistics at Benchmark.

“We would typically list on the menu a variety of French fries, for example: curly fries, waffle fries, steak fries. On our current menu series, we have listed simply ‘fries,’ in response to the uncertainty of availability of specific product lines.”

FRESH IS KING

“Fresh is always king!” says Mike Lewis, senior director of culinary operations at Spectrum Retirement Communities, LLC.

“The biggest menu trend for 2022 for us is smaller menus done right with a focus on quality, not necessarily quantity. We are moving away from excessive variety and larger menus; concentrating more on doing a smaller core menu focused on ease of execution.”

“Our culinary philosophy is simple foods done right, using fresh, high-quality ingredients and variety that residents know and love. We want food that is approachable. The culinary experience doesn’t need to be over-thought. Comfort foods they grew up on, with a healthy twist. I call them ‘fast balls down the middle’—simple, and done right.”

CONSISTENT QUALITY

“We like the idea of focusing on fewer items and making them fantastic quality,” says Merrill Gardens’ Nick Olla. “This is especially true for our Truewood by Merrill middle-market brand. Excessive customization and trying to be everything to everybody is expensive and difficult to offer with the degree of consistency that is needed.”

IMPROVING IN-ROOM DINING

“The pandemic gave us the opportunity to focus on improving our room delivery experience, forgoing disposable containers in favor of a more sustainable approach with plates and lids, much like a finer hotel,” says Doug Anderson, vice president, marketing and communications, culinary services, at New Perspective.

CLEANER, SAFER, FUTURE

“The best processes that arose out of the pandemic are probably related to sanitation, with unsanitary things like salad bars and table menus hopefully going away forever,” says Nick Olla, vice president of special projects at Merrill Gardens.

“Beyond that, things like mask wearing and enhanced cleaning practices with electrostatic equipment might make sense in certain situations moving forward beyond the pandemic.”

PICKUP AND DELIVERY

Juniper Communities started a partnership with Cubigo, a platform that integrates with its POS (point of sale) system, says Kris Kishbaugh, Juniperʼs regional culinary director. “Residents can log into Cubigo and view menus in our restaurants and place orders for pick or delivery.

COLLABORATE AND CONQUER

“Be it with ghost kitchen operators to drive additional revenue, or with local restaurants to give our teams a break one or two nights a week, we believe that working together with others in the broader community will be to the benefit of us all,” says Merrill Gardens’ Nick Olla.

FLEXIBILITY AND FUN

“We have focused on developing dining rooms that feel purposeful, with counter and banquette seating, and engaging spaces that allow for both intimate and larger gatherings,” says Olla. “We like having semi-open kitchens that allow our chefs to look out, and our residents to look in. This enables our chefs to see when residents come in to dine as we are always open, and that allows us to anticipate their needs and be better prepared to serve them.”

“Our residents also like to look in, so that they can connect with the process and the people behind their meals. It’s dinner and a show!”

CULTURE AND CROSS-TRAINING

“Juniper’s culture has always been our advantage,” says regional culinary director Kishbaugh. “We have a leadership team built with servant leaders; we have doers from top to bottom in this organization. We have employees willing to be cross trained from housekeeping, to dining services, to our executive directors. So as we work our way through these unprecedented times, we have people who are flexible enough to meet the ever-changing challenges this pandemic has presented.”

VIRTUAL TRAINING AN OPTION

“We have certainly leaned into virtual training when it comes to training and onboarding our new executive chefs during the pre-vaccine days when we were limiting travel,” says Olla, of Merrill Gardens.

“While remote training will certainly have a place in the future, we’ve found that the in-person experience is still the best way to train and retain and is a worthwhile investment in time and effort.”

PERSONALIZED NEEDS AND PREFERENCES

“At the beginning of the pandemic, we delivered meals, snacks, and hydration options to our residents’ suites to help ensure their safety and well-being,” says Caitlin Rogers, vice president, dining and nutrition services at Sunrise Senior Living.

“When we were able to safely welcome guests back to our dining rooms, residents and team members alike were simply overjoyed. The warm, welcoming environment and ability to socialize is irreplaceable.”

“Even so, we continue to see an increased interest in room service that I believe will be here to stay as residents look for flexibility in how, where, and when they enjoy their meals—and we will continue to work to meet personalized needs and preferences throughout their experiences at Sunrise.”

GETTING LEANER

“Shorter menus that are easier to execute with a leaner staff will be with us in 2022 and, perhaps, beyond,” says Doug Anderson, vice president, marketing and communications, culinary services, at New Perspective.

ANYTIME DINING

LCB Senior Living is an early adopter of “anytime dining,” having started the practice about six years ago. It’s now becoming more common, because as the pandemic changed dining room hours and mealtimes to maintain safety, residents at some communities wanted this flexibility to continue.

LCB’s dining rooms are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. as part of its Everyday Gourmet dining program. Residents can order anything off the extensive menu at any time of day. “Whatever is on the menu for any of the meal times is available at all times,” says Ted Doyle, vice president of marketing and communications. “It’s all part of maintaining independence and choice.”

GENERATIONAL SHIFTS

Juniper Communities’ Kris Kishbaugh sees dining changing with demographics. “I see quick service, casual dining coming more into play over the next couple of years,” he says. “As our resident population demographics change so will our dining.”

“We are getting a younger boomer generation coming into our communities who want more freedom when it comes to dining. They want to eat when it meets their schedules. They no longer want to schedule doctors’ appointments and activities around the traditional mealtimes.”

“To start meeting these needs, we have started all-day dining in our communities. We are still seeing a majority of our population staying with those traditional mealtimes, but there are a few that come in the other times, and they are getting items from our grill menus or all-day breakfast menus.”

NEXT-LEVEL PROCUREMENT

“At Entegra, we are doing our jobs right when we provide peace of mind to our clients and make their jobs easier, all while saving them money,” says Jeff Porterfield, chief customer officer, North America, at Entegra. “We’ve taken procurement to the next level and truly partnered with everyone in the supply chain to help clients achieve performance goals.”

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