How to Get the Biggest Bang for Your Dining Buck

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“Higher satisfaction with the dining experience wins over residents and family members. They in turn are more likely to recommend a community.” - Vivian Tellis-Nayak, PhD

Over the last few years dining has finally started receiving the attention it deserves as a driver for occupancy growth. Research, such as a recent study from Western Kentucky University, “Influence of Satisfaction with Services on Assisted Living Resident Satisfaction,” shows mealtimes are more important to residents than apartment and facility characteristics. Consequently, dining makeovers are being implemented across the country as a means to overcome the tough economy.

I talk to senior care executives from across the country who have worked diligently to implement “culture change,” offer more choices, provide better quality food, and improve service at the table. They report seeing improvement in their marketability, but are now consulting me because something is missing. Despite all their hard work they are still not getting the marketing results they wanted from their dining overhaul.

When I ask them to describe what happens during a typical mealtime, I notice tell-tale indicators of why their new dining programs are still falling short of goals—and resident expectations: Staff is not showing up on time, they don’t seem to have pride in their work, and they rush through their duties with minimal resident contact.

Feedback I receive from family members supports this assessment. Sons and daughters of residents call dining rooms zombie feeding stations”- Daughter: It’s a Zombie Feeding Station - and question why their parents seem to be completely left out of food and nutrition decisions - Reader Letter: Dad and the Mystery Mush.

Families report staff members are kind, but service is impersonal.

These dining programs are missing the mark because they are not building relationships at the table. Increasing satisfaction to the point residents and family members brag about your organization to their friends requires creating true community—a sense of belonging and being valued felt by everyone who lives and works there.

How do you make that happen?

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Teach your staff why their behavior matters.
Family members who write to me are usually quite specific when describing the shortcomings they see in senior care dining rooms. “Nobody greets [Mother] when she comes to the dining room,” “Nobody takes the time to ask about [Father’s] day,” “Nobody notices when someone needs help.”

But when I teach servers how important it is to connect with residents in the dining environment, and why, staff behaviors change. They begin to greet people at the door, spark conversation, and relate to residents as human beings, rather than tasks to be completed. The connection-building behaviors that start in the dining room ripple out through the organization, creating community in a profound way that leads to more referrals.

Make your dining staff feel valuable to your organization.
How are your servers treated on the job? In many, perhaps most, senior living communities, dining staff is “low man on the totem pole.” The work they do is sneered at as beneath the dignity of colleagues working outside the dining room and servers are ignored until something goes wrong. No one acknowledges or respects the fact that servers are the face of the organization during the most important time of the day for residents.

Everyone in your organization, not just servers, must understand what is a stake here. The way servers are treated determines how they treat residents. If you think you can discount the importance of dining staff—or let your entire team disrespect them—and still deliver attentive, personal service at the table, you are fooling yourself. You are also wasting your three best chances to positively connect with your clients: breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Expect and support consistency.
A Kind Dining® student once commented, “If management helped us every day the way they do on the days surveyors are here, things would be different. When surveyors are here, everybody comes to the dining room to help and everything goes smoothly. The rest of the time we’re left to fend for ourselves.” I believe her.

The thing is, we can’t just do our best on the days surveyors are in house. Every day residents, family members, and friends are watching your dining service. What they see determines whether or not the company is rewarded with the strongest marketing available—referrals.

Train, value and support your serving staff like the precious marketing asset they are and they will, quite willingly, attract new residents to your community.

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About the Author
Cindy Heilman, MS, DTR has over 30 years of experience enhancing hospitality and food service quality. She is CEO of Higher Standards, LLC, author of Hospitality for Boomers: How to attract residents, retain staff, and maximize profitability, and creator of Kind Dining®