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Restaurants Trends Extend Influence to Senior Dining

Friendship Village Executive Director David Miller (left) joins Culinary Director Les Johnson in front of the facility’s new bistro concept with its hearth pizza oven.

Some 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day, and as that next wave of seniors approaches retirement years, they’re bringing with them a more food-centric attitude, driving a shift at senior-care and assisted-living facilities away from the extensive buffet lines and toward restaurant-style dining.

An awareness of food trends and the expectation of restaurant-quality meals are pushing facilities to reevaluate their approach to foodservice, says Diana Brokaw, director of healthcare sales at Reinhart Foodservice. Restaurants, hotels and resorts are all influencing factors, as seniors' frame of reference comes from eating at these establishments, Brokaw explains, and it’s up to facility operators to emulate what consumers are experiencing if they want to attract new residents.

“It’s a total shift in the dining culture,” explains Brokaw. “The culinary influence has really come into the senior-living world. Where there used to be a time that immediately when you went into senior living you went on a low sodium diet, that’s not the case anymore.”

Instead, residents are asking for fresh, authentic flavors and are even more aware of local sourcing practices and organic and natural foods. Reinhart  sees a lot of activity in long-term care facilities, Brokaw says, as operators look to upgrade their food offerings, and her company provides several tools to assist with the transition, including Menu Hub, which lets customers design their own menus. Table tents and other visuals are also available to “elevate the overall experience.” Her job also includes talking with customers about plate presentation, in addition to different ways they can provide nutritional meals without sacrificing flavor. 

“Everything comes down to resident satisfaction,” says Brokaw. “Going [out]to meals is now a major social event.”

According to “Emerging Dining Trends in Long-term Care,” a study conducted by Technomic on behalf of the Nutrition and Foodservice Education Foundation, 90 percent of respondents say foodservice is among the most important factors when choosing a facility. 

That number confirms to Les Johnson that a $5.2 million renovation project to enhance dining experiences at Friendship Village of Bloomington is money well spent. 

“Seniors are looking for more diverse foods, not just the blue plate special, if you will,” says Johnson, Friendship Village’s chef and culinary director. “They’ve been frequenting restaurants and are looking for that level of dining.”

Friendship Village

Designed by Tremain Architects of Minneapolis, the new bistro area at Friendship Village offers a casual spot to dine. 

The project included the creation of a second dining venue, a major kitchen expansion with gourmet equipment and more prep and storage space, adding a hearth pizza oven and other upgrades including a full bar—liquor license forthcoming. The main dining room menu reads like that of any full-service restaurant: beef tenderloin with a wine demi-glace; lamb chop with mint jelly; grilled salmon with lime-honey cilantro. 

The majority of menu items are made from scratch and made to order, and like Johnson, Friendship Village’s chefs and cooks have restaurant backgrounds.

“In the ‘80s it was serving to the masses,” says Johnson, who after working in restaurants was the culinary director at two other senior care facilities before coming to Friendship Village 19 years ago. “That’s not the case anymore. People are a lot more educated in culinary practices,” and foodservice now involves catering to individual residents’ likes and dislikes. 

The restaurant-style approach extends to the waitstaff, who Johnson said are trained in hospitality and aren’t simply serving food. Friendship Village also hired David Miller, who spent 12 years on the management team at the Saint Paul Hotel, including the last five as general manager, as its executive director in November. Miller says he’s using that background to help elevate the overall experience.

“My focus is how are we making what’s coming out of the kitchen and the surroundings commensurate with the service, making sure everything is on the same high level,” says Miller.

The recent upgrades give Friendship Village a competitive edge, Miller continues, and have the facility poised to impress not just seniors and baby boomers, but their families who might one day be looking for their own assisted living home. 

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