Restaurant-Style Dining at an Affordable Price

Restaurant-style dining at an affordable price
Offering attractive, modern-style dining may not be as difficult as you think
Restaurant-style dining is a critical component of the culture change movement that is quietly moving into senior living communities across America. It is transforming a once unadventurous and often overlooked function into a competitive differentiator that can build satisfaction and census.

Let’s face it: Food is the way to most of our hearts. Not only is it the cornerstone to recreating the comforts of home, but for many residents, mealtime is the biggest social event of the day. And what is on the menu is just as important as how it is served. A pleasurable dining experience can contribute significantly to residents’ overall sense of health, happiness, and satisfaction with their surroundings.

Traditionally, restaurant-style dining was reserved for upscale assisted or independent living communities, but now even skilled nursing facilities are trading tray service for more personalized waited table service. It is a move that administrators hope will create home-style ambience-and make residents feel like valued customers. In addition, they can market these types of dining service enhancements to attract new residents.

This is an excellent rationale for outsourcing. Partnering with a dining services provider who is an expert at creating imaginative restaurant-style programs is an efficient way for senior living operators to stretch their foodservice dollars by 10 to 15%. First, dining services providers have buying power that far exceeds any purchasing arrangements a facility could make on its own. They also offer proven operational systems, hospitality-based training programs, and culinary expertise that not only increase efficiency and productivity, but improve food quality, service levels, and resident satisfaction. They also bring with them comprehensive corporate support that delivers critical resources-human resources, finance, purchasing, and marketing-that are critical to effectively managing today’s long-term care dining operations.

But perhaps the most enticing advantage to hiring a food and dining management provider is that it allows senior-service facilities to focus on their core missions: providing for the health and welfare of their residents.

Here’s what is possible for today’s dining services:

A well-trained staff sets the stage for success. Once you introduce waited service, residents will have certain expectations. It may be difficult for them to think of the person who just administered their medication as the person now serving dinner, so bringing in a trained, service-oriented staff is critical to achieving home-style or restaurant-style ambience. And a polite and well-trained staff doesn’t have to be expensive.

Young staffers with some experience and a hospitality-focused personality can work to your advantage. These servers can be trained to fit into your particular system without breaking the bank. Creating a professional look for your wait staff needn’t be expensive, either. Uniforms are a great way to set a standard, satisfy residents who may be accustomed to seeing servers dressed in black and white, and save money. By providing a uniform tie and apron and requiring servers to come up with the rest of their ensemble, you can create a professional image while incurring only a small cost.

Attractive food presentation and individualized menus. Some would argue that if food is not delivered to residents on a tray, that in itself is a vast improvement. When meals are served directly to residents, they are certainly fresher and more attractively plated than if they have languished on a cart for several minutes.

From both a financial and waste-reducing standpoint, when residents make their own menu selections (instead of being presented with a tray that contains five items, three of which they don’t want), there is already a savings. Not to mention that by offering residents a choice, you are giving them more control over their lives-and creating happier, more satisfied customers.

Just moving to menu service alone will not create an instant cost savings, though. To maintain or reduce costs there needs to be tightly exercised controls. Conducting resident preference surveys before implementing an enhanced dining program is imperative. Understanding resident preferences ahead of time will allow for more efficient forecasting and food cost management overall. It will also result in less waste and improve satisfaction.

From a labor perspective, waited service conserves resources, too. Instead of sending multiple staffers to each floor to serve meals, there is one waiter or waitress for every 20 to 25 people in the dining room.

Making your dining room a destination. Perception is reality. The first step in successfully creating a more homelike or restaurant-style setting is for administrators, staff, and residents to start thinking of their dining area as a restaurant. Make sure the space is a dining room first, although it may do double duty as an activity room, a movie theater, or meeting location. Creating the perception of a dining room as a “destination” is important. Most residents will look forward to going to an attractive designated area for meals.

Creating a lively atmosphere with the right decor. From floor to ceiling, decor matters. Take steps to warm up the room so that it won’t feel sterile or uninviting. Simple inexpensive fixes, such as installing softer lighting, can go a long way toward creating ambience and eliminating an institutional air. Get creative with embellishments like linens, artwork, and window treatments. Set the table with festive place mats instead of pricier tablecloths.

Festoon the walls with framed artwork created by your residents. Besides being an inventive way to liven up a space, this option offers the flexibility to change artwork and create new looks. Also, there is nothing like colorful window treatments to give a room a finished look-and it is not necessary to go with the custom-made variety, unless, of course, they are sewn by residents in an on-site activity class. Decorating needn’t be expensive to be tasteful and fun.

Dining trends among younger rehabilitation patients. According to the Massachusetts Extended Care Federation, 55% of those admitted to nursing homes now stay less than a month. As more and more nursing homes incorporate rehabilitation units into their facilities as a source of income, an enhanced dining experience is crucial in attracting patients and staying competitive.

The average 60-something rehab patient is very different from the older, traditional nursing home resident. These patients are looking for more variety and perhaps a more upscale dining offering. Many might not even want to eat with residents, so offering hotel-style room service is a great selling point to this set. In this case, even if nothing is saved outright by upgrading your dining program, it is critical in attracting patients and filling beds that might otherwise be empty.

Enhancing the quality of the food and dining function is certainly tied to the culture change taking place in long-term care communities. As modern nursing homes continue to evolve and increasingly bring rehabilitation patients into the fold, it will be even more imperative to implement enhanced dining programs as a competitive differentiator. A dining services management partner can offer a fresh and affordable approach that will help attract both residents and rehabilitation patients and transform an outdated and outmoded dining program into a dining-at-home or even restaurant-style experience.

Richard B. Schenkel is President and CEO of Unidine Corporation, a food and dining management services specialist that focuses on senior living communities, hospitals, and businesses. For more information, phone (617) 467-3700 or visit To send your comments to the author and editors, e-mail

Topics: Articles , Finance , Nutrition , Operations