Hoosier Village has added a bistro, a cafe, and a fast-casual dining spot in addition to its dining room.
By Cynthia Bombach
The past two years have brought seemingly endless changes that affect the way senior living communities design their dining options–opening new venues, switching from dine-in to takeout and back again, and trying to cover gaps in staff coverage have forced providers to become adept at pivoting on a moment’s notice.
Those skills can be applied to making the long-term changes that are necessary to keep a community’s dining options appealing to current and future residents.
CHOICE AS PRIORITY
A major priority for incoming residents is dining choice. They don’t want to eat every meal in the same dining room. During the pandemic many communities with single dining rooms needed to create impromptu eating areas in other spaces in order to accommodate social distancing guidance. Those who hadn’t planned to offer multiple dining spaces on a long-term basis must now reconsider.
“The pandemic is helping us get rid of what I used to call the 4:30 lineup for dinner, because we’re just not willing to seat that many people in a space any longer,” says Phillip Dopson, senior vice president, consumer experience, design, and retail at Compass Community Living.
Having several smaller dining venues can offer both additional safety and be more appealing to residents.
RESIDENT AND PROSPECT FEEDBACK
Dopson leads the Hub Design Services team that oversaw the renovation of three dining venues at Hoosier Village Retirement Center in Indianapolis.
The community has four venues in its community of 600+ residents. The campus was originally built with multiple dining spaces, but residents didn’t use them as much as expected. Analysis of the spaces and feedback from residents and prospects showed that the locations of the venues were fine, but they needed to be updated in terms of functionality, ambience, and identity.
The three renovated venues opened on a staggered schedule in 2021: Heartwood, the community’s full-service restaurant, remained in use during that time and will now be renovated.
The original bistro had walk-up ordering and didn’t inspire residents to linger. Now called The Dash!, the space has been reformulated as a fast-casual bistro open for breakfast and lunch.
Servers take orders and bring the food, and the atmosphere is warm and inviting. The space also contains a 24-hour self-serve retail market with packaged sandwiches, salads, snacks, beverages, and Starbucks coffee.
Zenergy is a small retail café created to fill a need for quick daytime food options in the campus Community Center.
When Zenergy closes at 4 p.m., the new bar opens. The bar, called The Social, has a vapor fireplace and outdoor patio with a pergola. It serves alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages as well as small plates. It is a popular gathering spot for residents before and after dinner at Heartwood, which opens at 5 p.m.
Engagement in the revamped spaces has been much greater than expected. Dopson attributes their success to a combination of resident feedback, market research, and giving each space a distinct identity and brand story.
“If you were to walk into one of these spaces, it would feel very normal, like the way you’d experience a restaurant of that type that was not in a senior living campus. And I think that’s the real magic,” he says.
VARIATIONS ON ALL-DAY DINING THEME
All-day dining is quickly becoming the norm among providers—but they’re choosing a variety of ways to implement the concept.
LCB Senior Living’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 mealtimes is available at all times,” says Ted Doyle, vice president of marketing and communications. “It’s all part of maintaining independence and choice.”
The Everyday Gourmet program has been in place for more than six years, but LCB has recently focused on refining the dining experience by sending leadership team members to Disney’s hospitality training school. That training is then passed down to dining associates so they can offer residents a true restaurant-style service.
Sunshine Retirement Living operates its All-Day Dining program a little differently. Dining rooms are open all day, but there are standard meal periods when full meals are served.
Residents can get food between meals by ordering from a separate “always-available” menu featuring six to eight items that associates can easily prepare in 5–10 minutes, such as soups, sandwiches, salads, or burgers. Those items are also available during mealtimes. All-Day Dining has been available in all Sunshine communities since the end of 2020.
Of course, “all day” may mean different things to different populations. At Merrill Gardens, most communities offer Anytime Dining from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. However, some urban communities have started to keep their dining rooms open later in the evening to accommodate local preferences.
Merrill Gardens takes the opposite approach in its new Truewood brand middle-market communities. Dining services in those communities are limited to make senior living more affordable. “Our focus is on providing three nourishing meals a day in a flexible, relaxed, and comfortable way. We focus more on quality, and less on customization,” says Nick Olla, vice president, special projects.
GRAB & GO, TAKEOUT, ROOM SERVICE
Take-out, grab & go and room service meals became a necessity during the pandemic and are likely to remain popular for the foreseeable future.
The recently revamped on-campus convenience market has been a big hit with residents of Asbury Methodist Village in Gaithersburg, Md. where dining services are provided by Sodexo.
The Shoppe was moved to a more central location on campus and redesigned with a relaxed modern vibe. Offerings include salads, sandwiches, frozen entrees, beverages, and fresh produce. A seating area just outside the space provides a place to relax and eat.
Another successful change at Asbury was the adoption of reusable to-go containers. As the pandemic ramped up in March 2020, disposable containers became difficult to obtain. Asbury decided to invest in reusable containers from OZZI.
When residents are done eating, they place their empty container in a re-usable and washable bag and hang it on their doorknob for collection. The containers and bags are washed and sanitized after every use.
Mark Whalen, director of dining services, estimates that the containers saved Asbury about $70,000 in disposables.
KEEPING SOCIALIZATION STRONG
Despite the convenience and relative safety of takeout and room service, residents should be encouraged to dine in community venues as much as possible for their social well-being, providers and experts say. Most communities actively encourage residents to continue social dining, while others impose delivery fees for room service during non-pandemic times.
Nevertheless, to-go food has become the preferred dining option for many residents as a result of the pandemic.
As senior living communities adapt to changing conditions and new generations of residents, it’s a fair bet that dining itself will always be a cornerstone of resident experience. After all, it provides more than sustenance to those who take advantage of its social and emotional benefits.
“With all the trials and tribulations we’ve had to contend with over the past two years, we’ve strived to make our dining experience as much of a comfort as possible,” Olla says.