Dining can be seniors housing’s ‘secret weapon’ rather than an annoying expense
By Harris Ader, Senior Dining Association
A senior living community’s kitchen is its secret weapon. It can bring in revenue well beyond your resident meal plans. It can expand your reputation and generate good will in the outside community and among key influencers. And, of course, it can make your residents happy and bring them closer to their families.
Too often, however, kitchens are seen as an expense rather than as a revenue source, just a place to churn out three meals a day. It doesn’t have to be that way.
You have a choice: keep on running your kitchen as you always have, or unleash the entrepreneurial spirit within your organization and use it to enrich the lives of residents, guests, employees and people throughout the larger community.
Physically, of course, there’s no real difference between your kitchen and any other professional kitchen, be it in a restaurant or a catering operation. In fact, these other settings should be giving you ideas for making better use of your own kitchen.
Go out of doors
The first mistake we make is to assume that the value of our community’s kitchen ends at the front door. But why should it? There’s literally nothing a caterer can do that we can’t.
Be a caterer. Work with senior centers and Meals on Wheels. Look for small, private school lunch programs and large, public school functions. Get in touch with churches and catering halls. Work with pharmaceutical reps to cater lunch-and-learns that they hold for doctors in your area.
If you’re especially adventurous, you can even run a food truck!
Your external operation, however, is more than just an outside revenue source. When families look for seniors housing, they get advice from doctors, church communities and others. By catering church events and medical lunch-and-learns, you make your community the first choice that comes to mind.
You’re the first to come to mind, that is, as long as they know it’s you catering the church events, school meals and lunch-and-learns. In other words, don’t skimp on branding! Every box and wrapper should be professionally designed, and every van should be labeled clearly and attractively.
Expand your horizons at home
Back home, there are a variety of creative ways you can use your kitchen to generate additional revenue and strengthen the community. For instance, if you’re on a flexible meal plan, make sure your residents have a high-end option. Not everyone wants lobster or filet mignon night after night, but a few might, in which case your profit goes up.
Choice is also key for attracting guests. Help your community become a more inviting place for residents’ families by offering full menus rather than fixed meals and fixed fees. Some family members are going to spend more than they might have, and some are going to spend less. Either way, offering a range of choices turns your community into a homier environment.
Alcohol also helps make the experience more intimate. Offer a choice of quality wines and beers for mealtimes and cocktails for more informal visits. You don’t need dramatic markups to get the benefit from alcohol sales; instead, use alcohol to help create a more restful and cheery environment. That way you encourage more visits, making your community a happier place for everyone involved.
Your kitchen should also be available for internal catering. Your residents will want to have private events and celebrations in private dining rooms or their apartments and houses. You make these events more special when you cater them, and you open up a new income stream. Consider offering themed dinner experiences or high-end food-and-wine pairings as well.
While you’re at it, don’t forget your employees.
They’re busy like everyone else, and they will often be happy to let you do the cooking. You can offer them breakfasts, lunches and dinners, of course, with small menus, but you don’t have to stop there.
Offer take-out meals and meals to cook at home. Uncooked pizzas and pies have become big business for good reason. They give people the opportunity to enjoy a home-cooked meal or dessert without the hassle of having to prepare it themselves.
Don’t forget holidays, either. Take the creativity you put into resident meals during the holidays and take it one step further, offering both cooked and uncooked take-home meals to your employees.
For you, of course, employees' meals are also a creative way to make use of leftovers, but they shouldn’t always be leftovers. Instead of hewing strictly to your bottom line, use employee meals as an opportunity to boost morale and generate good will throughout your community.
Do your homework
If all this sounds exciting, it is. If it sounds easy, you’ve got the wrong idea.
When you become creative with your kitchen, it becomes a business like any other, and you have to treat it as such.
What are your food costs? Your paper costs? Your labor costs? What will you be spending on disposable? What will you buy for your catering operation, and what will you rent? Will you provide flowers?
Keep your accounting straight for both internal and external catering. Whenever you have income you’re also going to have expenses. Make sure you keep close tabs on them; they will show you whether you’ve created a valuable new income stream or an expensive distraction.
How to make it happen
This approach to making maximum use of your kitchen may seem alien. It will definitely require a change in philosophy for many communities.
When you take this approach, your chef or your director of dining is no longer just an employee — they become an entrepreneur. That means they must think creatively, and they must be willing to takes smart risks. Give them the latitude they need to move forward and the training they need to act wisely.
There are resources available to make sure you know what you’re doing when you get creative with your kitchen. The Senior Dining Association offers webinars, chats and live trainings to get you up to speed in this area and many others. We will also gather this March in Charlotte, North Carolina, for our 1st Conference and Expo.
So, take a hard look at your kitchen and ask yourself if there’s more you can be doing with it. Chances are, the answer will be yes.
Harris Ader is the founder and CEO of the Senior Dining Association, a professional organization dedicated to increasing professionalism, consistency and creativity in the senior dining industry.