There are so many options when deciding what is best for an entire community. For example, determining the right type of services for the community and changing them as the population changes will be the key to whether the dining program is outstanding or just serves meals. Understanding what flexibility the community can offer will only enhance the meal service, and it can be as simple as allowing a customer the option to sleep in a little before breakfast.

Identify Facility Customer Needs

Before considering dining options, it is important to take a step back and determine what types of customers are being served by the community. The most frequent customers in senior living are independent living, assisted living, health care (nursing facility), short-term rehab, and adult day care.
Each of these groups has different needs and different expectations.
Most health care residents lived through the Great Depression, while incoming independent living residents and rehab patients are more and more likely to be baby boomers.
Knowing this can impact the service style. Start with the understanding that the more resident/patient types there are, the more certainty there is that one type of service will not provide excellent service to all.
As the process begins, first examine the existing dining system. Take a good look at whether the residents appear to like it or if they were conditioned to accept it because there was no other option.
Next, concentrate on what can be done with the current layout of the dining system and plan for the future. How can the physical design of the community support ways to meet the desires of current and future patients/residents?
This table describes service options, along with a brief description and notes to consider when deciding on additional dining venues. Any one of these can be combined with others. A chart outlining equipment that will be needed for each dining option is available.

Program Options

Changing the type of service the facility offers, or where it is offered, doesn’t mean that everything changes. The amount of food produced won’t change, nor will the number of customers. Food costs shouldn’t change.
Staffing levels usually remain the same, although staff will do their work differently. Duties may change, but each staff member will still have a group of tasks that fills his or her work day.
When considering the change to “open dining,” one recent senior living community client raised a very common question: “How do I get people to the dining room early when I have to get all my residents up by 7:00 a.m.?” The response to this was: “Why do you have such urgency to get everyone up by 7:00?” That response was: “Because they have to have breakfast early to meet the time frame for dinner.”
But when she was reminded that there were five residents sitting around at 6:30 a.m. and how, if at least beverages and cereal had been offered to those who wanted it, breakfast had really started at 6:30 a.m., thus relieving the later morning breakfast rush by accommodating early risers.
In the end, the spark lit, the client embraced the concept, and structured mealtimes are now a thing of the past in that community. This example shows how the thought process needs to change so that the benefits can be understood by all.

Get Staff Support

The biggest change—and challenge—is how staff perceive the impact that changes will have on them. The buzzword is culture change.
An important component for dining services is nursing staff understanding that food service is a component of patient/resident care.

Involve Everyone

Nutrition status is a component of the same care plan that addresses medical and social care. The dining aide, hospitality aide, cook, and other staff members often have difficulty seeing themselves as part of the resident/patient care team.
Changing mindsets is a culture change challenge that needs to be met. Planning changes so each group understands the full impact on them before implementation goes a long way to getting their support. This includes making as many changes as possible at the same time so staff are not always wondering, “What next?”
During the consideration of options and plan development stages, keep everyone in the loop and explain options, and then plans, to the entire community. Take advantage of the change as a reason to address issues and areas that may not have been accounted for. Turn staff into marketing ambassadors by allowing them to feel like they are part of the process.
There are many ways to provide dining service. These should be a starting place with thoughts and recommendations to help a company move toward its goals. Stay aware of how the center’s customer base is changing, and be ready with a plan of change to meet their needs.
The age-old business proverb, “What was good enough to get you there isn’t good enough to keep you there,” should be the mantra for modern-day dining services.
Wayne Toczek, chief executive officer of Innovations Services, Norwalk, Ohio, can be reached at (419) 541-7288.