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Choice dining: What does it look like from a production perspective?

Published 3/19/12

By Michael Spector
Senior Vice President of Culinary Services, CareOne


Imagine that you were making the move to a senior living community and management said, “You must eat one meal per day in our dining room, seven days a week, and you can choose to either dine at 4:30 p.m. or 6:00 p.m. every night…but choose carefully because that will be your allocated time slot from this point forward. Oh, by the way, if you choose to pass on eating in our dining room, your meal credit will still get used.” Not too appetizing of a proposition, don’t you think? What and when people eat matters more now than ever.

Choice and flexibility are the words to watch in today’s senior living retirement communities —and the future ones. When selecting a retirement community one of the main focal points is food and the total dining experience.


Menus are being created using local ingredients, chefs are recruited from culinary schools and the restaurant arena and, most importantly, residents want to get to know the chef. Large formal dining rooms are being replaced with cafes, bistros, pubs, smaller casual dining rooms and other specialty venues designed to offer variety and choice.


Casual dining has taken over for formal; jackets are no longer required for dinner in most communities. Cafes and bistros are now significant parts of the offering, as well as ice cream shops, coffee shops and more. The days of knowing we will serve 200 residents tonight are coming to an end, and being taken over with a no-reservation model. Come when you want, eat what you want, and bring who you want.

Perhaps the residents will now go to the community general store for a banana and a container of juice in the morning or pop in to the café for toast and eggs. They might bring a friend to enjoy a burger and fries in the café at lunch and skip dinner that evening. The same resident the next day may choose the dining room because their favorite menu item is featured or because of a great buffet.


While each community produces food uniquely, as choice becomes greater, the venues will need to undergo change.The ability to rapidly adjust production levels will become critical to long-term success.


To assist with food cost and production efficiencies, these changes in dining will necessitate a need to adapt to a practice that the restaurant industry has been doing exceptionally well for years, the utilization of leftovers and menu engineering. The unknown aspect of choice must spark us to creatively think utilization versus pure production. More a la carte offerings, items that also cook-up and finish quickly, along with items that can be pre-seared, cooked and finished to order, versus small batch or large batch, which yields leftovers, will produce great results. When you contemplate what you might have cooked to answer the needs of a main course and leftovers to utilize, you will be on the right track to creating an efficient menu.


Software will enable the use multiple meal plans to meet the needs of those being served. One meal per day will be replaced with a declining balance, and in some cases, dining may be something residents do not have to partake in at all.Simply put, they can dine when and where they want. The use of historical trends within the community, which will be collected and analyzed by the software, will become critical in production planning.There will always be surprises in dining patterns that will be difficult to trend. In this case, the use of leftovers for daily specials in a manner that does not make it obvious that the item is left over is another good method to use up food.


From the executive chef’s point of view, reviewing past resident selections for items is a critical component when figuring out what will be desired for a meal. Other options include: Offering specials to use what otherwise would have been leftovers or waste; having a Saturday evening outdoor BBQ; Sunday brunch versus a la carte from kitchen and themed meals help to remove menu and location fatigue.A “cycle-menu” works, but constant adjustments to reflect menu changes will help in keeping residents interested in dining. Setting up a station in the dining room occasionally, putting out a small salad bar or incorporating a mashed potato station for the starch of the evening are just a few ideas to decrease monotony.


Some examples of menu items that work very well for a la carte production in our community are: Salmon, which can be prepared in multiple styles, combined with mussels, clams, and a tomato broth to produce a great looking dish that takes 10 minutes. Salmon yields little waste which can be used for cakes or to use in a cioppino instead of a whitefish.Stews of all sorts will always yield leftovers, but these can easily be thinned out and used as a soup one or two days later; furthermore, the concentration of flavors you get actually produces a great leftover. Roast chicken is preferred to breast because of its flavor and moisture profiles; this can be pre-roasted and quick chilled until it is ready to be finished – instead of preparing 30 pieces that you hope to sell, leftover utilization for any pre-roasted can be used in soups and chicken salad, and you will greatly reduce what is cooked and left over by finishing to order.Steaks and chops which can be very costly are best cooked to order, with no batch cooking taking place at all. We try to avoid roasts, and although the leftovers can be utilized, it becomes a very expensive beef stew, so unless you are prepared to sell the stew at your budgeted food cost, whole roast meats can be a financial challenge.


Starches always pose some challenges to calculate, but the possibilities with leftovers are endless: Soups, salads, quiche, brunch stratas and much more. Software with historical analyzers is the most helpful for everything.


All vegetables are steamed or sautéed to order after being blanched and cooled properly to preserve color and flavor. Very small batch cooking is utilized for sautéed or roasted vegetables to minimize waste and be ready for a rush of orders as needed.


It has now become the role of chef and manager to keep the program fresh and ever changing, as the time of a stable cycle is coming to an end and this is where we all need to move. Flexibility in meal plans, use of local foods, resident participation in menu planning, and complete access to the chef are all critical in having a successful program.


Michael Spector
Senior Vice President of Culinary Services, CareOne Management, LLC



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