As we enter the second half of 2021, senior living occupancy sits at a record low of 78.7%, which is the same total as Q1 of this year. Yet that number from National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC) doesn’t tell the whole story and leaves a lot of room for operator optimism.
That’s because the low occupancy was due to new community openings. Demand, in fact, remains high. And a robust dining program is one of the keys to unlocking that demand. Here are four ways that operators can use their dining program to rebuild occupancy.
Drive brand recognition through the dining experience
An operator’s census won’t recover without an occupancy strategy, which must be developed around the most important components of daily resident life. That places dining at the center of that strategy, says Karen White, director of marketing with Culinary Services Group (CSG), and thus as a major focus in an operator’s sales and marketing campaigns.
“When you have Google reviews, food is a topic that always comes up,” White says. “It’s one place where you can distinguish yourself if you have an outstanding menu.”
While every area of senior living is important, dining is the one with which residents are guaranteed to interact three times a day, if not more when you include snacks and desserts. A strong dining program can be the cornerstone to attracting and retaining new residents, White says, yet many communities don’t actively market their dining program in marketing materials or on their website.
“If people find your food interesting and unique, you can set yourself apart from competitors and build a reputation for yourself,” she says. “What we find is that a lot of companies don’t market their dining program on their website or through materials that they are giving to prospective residents. I say it’s a good idea to include dining in your marketing.”
That would include content, photography and printed marketing materials, White says.
Include dining on community tours
Dining matters to residents for many reasons, but dining should matter to sales and marketing teams for one major reason: the sensory experience. Food engages a person’s senses of smell, sight and taste, and hence memory. An operator who includes dining as a standard portion of community tours will find new ways to activate these seniors and their families.
“We always encourage our clients to include a meal on the tour,” White says. “Sit down, have a meal, even meeting the chef or chef manager, because especially in these residential communities, a lot of their day focuses around meals. ‘What’s for dinner?’ You would want that to be part of your tour, but it’s not a common practice.”
An executive chef, White notes, should not just be preparing menus. She or he should be a community ambassador. That starts at the tour, White says.
“I think this is not common because some operators are not proud of their dining experience,” she says. “So if you’re able to offer an outstanding dining experience, you should offer that in your tours to residents.”
Boost dining experience while keeping costs low
When occupancy is down, operators feel a pressure to keep costs low. Often that equates to limiting new partnerships or outsourcing, but there is also a temptation to cut costs by reducing food quality, White says. The right partner can improve food quality while lowering many commonly associated dining costs.
On average, Culinary Services Group clients saw a $43,800 savings annually on raw food costs.
“That’s part of the beauty of working with a food service vendor,” White says. “We work with group purchasing organizations that help us negotiate our lower costs on high-quality ingredients. And because we’re a high-volume food vendor, we’re able to procure lower costs on ingredients. We strive to be good stewards of our client’s investment in us and provide the highest quality possible within the budget. We know that low quality food can actually harm census numbers, so we need to balance quality with cost appropriately for our clients.”
Outsource dining services to capture a range of other benefits
While the cost savings on food cost is significant, many CSG clients find that the cost savings related to outsourcing their dining program to the company is far greater. In fact, the average client sees a $79,000 reduction in other dining expenses not tied to food cost, White says.
“If you’re outsourcing, we build custom menus for residents and build menus that help reduce waste in the kitchen and also utilize inventory you have on hand,” she says. “For example, if you’re doing vegetables or a piece of meat, you can make what’s left over into a stock to use for soup. Those are some of the ways that using a food service vendor will help you with the cost savings piece.”
The company offers two main contract styles: one for full service and the other for management and procurement. Both include training and support for all dining staff, with CSG handling all hiring on its full service contracts.
“We try to hire for the community’s culture as much as our own,” White says. “You get access to all kinds of things: a whole network of registered dietitians, all of our culinary experts.”
Another major benefit: inspection-ready kitchens.
“We pride ourselves on the amount of deficiency-free kitchens that we have,” she says. “If the state comes in and you get a deficiency on a food-related tag, we forgo our management fees until it’s fixed.”
This article is sponsored by Culinary Services Group. To learn more about how Culinary Services Group can help bring your dining program to the next level, visit culinaryservicesgroup.com.