An elegant table setting at Pines Village in Valparaiso, Indiana

Senior Communities Invest in Dining Innovation

It’s a marketing tool that pays off with satisfied guests and engaged employees.

Dining is a bright spot in the day for people at senior- and independent-living communities. It’s also a marketing opportunity—a chance to promote dining excitement and become a community of choice.

Fresh formats and creative ideas are hallmarks of the foodservice directors and chefs who cook up delicious meals every day. For Traditions Management, a 20 community operation in several states, and Pines Village Retirement Communities, Inc., in Valparaiso, Indiana, dining is front and center. 

Traditions and Pines Village recognize investing in innovation is more than a great way to build buzz about a dining program. Yes, an enjoyable meal experience pleases guests. But it also builds loyalty among the culinary staff and sends a message to the public and area healthcare providers that their operations are committed to quality.

Traditions Management crab cakes plate

Right at home: At Traditions, meals like this crab cakes and potatoes entree, are tailored to people living in each community.

‘Regular food for regular people’

At Traditions, Executive Chef Fred DeBiasio staff conducts regular culinary chats that focus on residents’ desires. There are 20 chefs, one at each of the corporation’s 20 communities. The chef says they assemble a library of recipes, including some based on residents’ family favorites. “We adapt grandma’s recipe to serve 120 people.”

Different customs, cultures and foods play into the menu because “We create regular food for regular people.” This means the recipes in Fort Wayne, Indiana are different from the recipes in Lexington, Kentucky or Columbus, Ohio. 

To satisfy its 1,800 residents, Traditions upholds culinary excellence by hiring chefs from restaurants or country clubs. Then DeBiasio makes sure they’re trained, get top-quality foods to prepare and state-of-the-art kitchen equipment, including TurboChefs, CombiOvens, air fryers and induction cooktops.

Their kitchens run a four-week cycle menu, plus an always-available menu with two soup choices, four salads, five sandwiches and five main courses that change based on seasonality.

State-of-the-art equipment at Traditions Management's kitchen

Kitchen care: At Traditions, every chef starts with top-quality kitchen equipment.

Dinner reservations make it personal

Pines Village follows a similar approach on finding guest favorites and providing a special feel. Executive Chef Frank D’Agostino is always on the lookout for food trends and new flavors to add spark for the community’s 125 residents. However, Michele Murphy-Wise, the Vice President of Nutrition Services and Community Education, points out many guests prefer comfort food favorites.

Because residents have a choice of preparing meals in their apartments or being served in the dining room, it puts an emphasis on presentation, seasonings and dining atmosphere. The success shows in the numbers: They serve 45 breakfasts, 30 lunches and 110 dinners daily.

Feedback on potential menu additions is gathered through an annual survey and a menu committee that includes residents, the executive chef and the dining room manager. In the meantime, D’Agostino delivers freshness by custom cutting whole chickens and preparing garden vegetables daily. During the pandemic, Pines Village also moved to a dining room reservation system, which has allowed more cook-to-order, grilled and flat-top cooked foods, instead of a traditional steam table. 

“It affords us the time to do custom cooking, and it’s going over well with residents,” Murphy-Wise says. “We plan to continue some version of that even when COVID restrictions lift.”

Chocolate-covered strawberries at Pines Village

Fresh and inviting: Pines Village calls on fresh ingredients and inspiring presentation to help its food stand out.

Getting the word out

As part of the Valparaiso area for more than three decades, Pines Village is well-known. Even so, community outreach is an important marketing tool. Its food is showcased along with 41 other restaurants at Taste of Valparaiso every year. In 2019, the chef’s chicken and wild rice soup tied for first place in an annual community soup fundraiser, with proceeds benefiting childcare scholarships for working families, as well as local food pantry and hot meal programs.

In addition, Pines Village is the local provider for the Meals on Wheels program, preparing 250 meals every Monday to Friday that get delivered to homes. The community also is the vendor for the Senior Congregate Nutrition site and partners with the Valparaiso Park District to provide 60 meals a day at the local senior center.

Serving our veterans adds to the marketing mix, says Corporate Relations Director Amy Page. Before the pandemic, Pines Village started a free monthly breakfast for veterans. “We did a breakfast buffet that we see as a great marketing tool that also appreciates and honors veterans—they get the opportunity to see our community and taste our food.

Other pre-pandemic events included hosting seminars and national speakers. Showcasing the dining service food led to a lot of catering requests from outside organizations.

Traditions also lets its food do some talking. DeBiasio encourages participation in “Taste of the City” events and cooking demonstrations or tastings at doctors offices or hospitals. “You can talk about food for days, but once you cut into it and taste for yourself, you know.”

Training brings big rewards

None of it works without a steady staff. A dining program that excites residents is one that also engages the cooks and servers. It begins with training and continues with nurturing.

That helps to tame turnover at Pines Village, Murphy-Wise explains. Cross-training teaches staff members about kitchen basics, such a prep, storage, stocking and inventory. That knowledge and a robust scholarship program keeps young team members around, including some who work through high school and college.
 
The same is true for DeBiasio’s Traditions team. His chefs get four weeks of training. Cooks get two weeks. Servers get one. “Training gets them buying into the whole culture—it sends a message that we value you and we want you to succeed,”

It creates a bond he calls “training forever.” He encourages his chefs to call anytime, whether it’s with a technical question or just to vent. And DeBiasio enjoys rolling up his sleeves to pitch in when needed. “I love to cook, showing up and learning new techniques—we are all training ourselves to be better.” 

The reward is a strong team, satisfied guests and a community marketing presence that sells itself.

Learn more about how to build your brand and market your senior living dining program as a differentiator in our new guide, Your Food. Your Story.