Original Publication Date: March 2013
Compression Dining: Proven programs that eliminate overcrowding at peak periods and lead to both cost savings and improved resident satisfaction
Senior living communities frequently suffer from dining bottlenecks when residents come to the main dining room in a compressed time frame. This causes pressure on both service and food quality. Furthermore, it contributes to resident dissatisfaction and increases unnecessary staffing costs.
- A community is suffering from compression dining when 50-70% of residents dine in the main dining room within a 30 to 45 minute time span
- Communities faced with compression dining have 15% higher food costs from waste (as much as $120,000 to $300,000 annually) and 33% higher service cost
- Implementing a reservation system reduces crowding and increases service quality
- Adding alternative dining facilities like a café or a pub helps to reduce crowding and gives residents more options
- To erase end of month pressure, stagger expiration periods for meal plans so that only a third of them are expiring at any given time
Challenges of Compression Dining
A community is suffering from compression dining when 50-70% of residents dine in the main dining room within a 30 to 45 minute time span. Many residents naturally want to dine during the most attractive time window. However, it is nearly impossible to offer attentive, personalized service and high quality, cook-to-order menu items when the kitchen and service staff are overwhelmed by a rush of residents, all seeking to eat at the same time. These natural rush hours can escalate to even larger crowds at the end of the month when residents are trying to “use up” their meal credits and around holidays when residents often bring guests.
To combat this problem, senior living management often pursue misguided coping strategies, including: adding additional service staff, extending dining hours, and reverting to pre-cooked buffet style meals. These responses only exacerbate the inherent negatives: lower food and service quality, higher costs, and resident satisfaction problems. Compression dining lowers food quality because it is difficult for a kitchen to meet high standards when it is rushing to meet demand. Also the prepared foods that often find their way onto buffets are inherently less appealing to guests and lead to increased waste. Adding service staff to meet peak demand only increases pressure on the kitchen while inefficiently raising labor costs. The additional service staff is only helpful for a short period; afterwards multiple people are getting paid while having little to do. Perhaps the most insidious problem with compression dining is that it makes residents unhappy. There is nothing positive about bad food, poor nutrition, long waiting times, rushed service staff, and higher costs.
Disputing Conventional Wisdom
Expanding a dining room is not a solution to compression dining. A larger dining room may ease crowding, but all other problems (poor food quality, increased costs, low resident satisfaction) are exacerbated by larger dining rooms. The dining room is like a highway. The tables are like lanes. The kitchen is like a toll booth, creating a bottleneck, especially in leading communities where chefs cook to order. Adding tables and service staff (without also expanding the size of the kitchen and the cook staff) usually just increases the volume of concurrent demand and complicates the dining bottleneck.
Annual food costs at typical communities range from $600,000 to $1,500,000 annually. All communities experience some food waste, but the cost of waste is much higher at communities that are serving lower quality, “cook and hold” food. To remove pressure on the kitchen, many communities that get overwhelmed at rush hour gravitate to “cook and hold” food (e.g., stews and casseroles). However, it is hard to predict appropriate volumes of these foods vs. higher quality items like strip steaks which can be cut and cooked to order without any waste.
Hence, communities are faced with a double negative, lower quality food items and higher costs due to increased waste.
Staffing costs are also higher because communities have to hire enough servers to manage the glut of residents that arrive in the peak window. Before and after this window, extra staff is underutilized.
Reservation systems are the foundation of a well- managed dining room. While a reservation system is not the sole solution to compression dining, it is the core basis that can be combined with other initiatives to create an efficient, high- quality dining experience. Senior living management should consider requiring a reservation for parties of four or more.
Reservations are especially important for large parties and around holidays. All that is needed to get started is a reservation book and a phone number that staff are prepared to answer during published hours of operation.
Every server and host should be trained to answer the phone and accept reservations.
Reservations should be taken so that a maximum of 20 to 25 people are seated in any given 15 minute window, with diners seated evenly across pre- determined sections.
Before introducing a reservation system, communities must first prepare residents with comprehensive communication. This communication plan needs to include:
The meetings and communications about the reservation system should address the most common arguments against reservations with well-prepared responses. Communities often start by suggesting reservations for all parties but only requiring them for parties of four or more, around holidays, and if a resident is bringing a guest. Those who come without a reservation simply need to wait until a table is available. A variation to this approach is that communities set a time window that requires a reservation, often between 5:00 PM and 7:00 PM, but allow “walk-ins” outside that window.
Extended dining hours, while seeming to be a good idea, increase labor costs by requiring staff to work overtime. Some communities seek to alleviate pressure on peak dining times by extending operating hours. This strategy is usually unsuccessful and ultimately leads to higher costs. While some residents may appreciate the later or earlier hours, the majority will still seek out the prime dining time. Perhaps even more importantly, it will cost an average community $100-$300 per hour to remain open longer, about $100/hour even if only a small staff stays longer, and up to $200-$300 per hour for a full staff (manager, 3 waiters, 2 dishwashers, 2 cooks).
Engage Residents with Benefits
Senior living management finds that they have the best success in introducing reservations systems to residents when they talk about them in practical terms:
“If you could save up to 15% of your overall food budget with better planning, would it be worthwhile for you to take that step?”
“Imagine that every day your spouse came home for dinner with a different number of guests at a different time, expecting an excellent meal. Would you be better prepared to host them if you knew how many people were coming and what time they would arrive?”
Effective Take-out Programs Alleviate Pressure on Dining Rooms.
Take-out programs are a vital part of the strategy to improve operations in the main dining room. However, many communities eschew them because they believe that they diminish opportunities for residents to socialize and get out of their residence. Some communities even stigmatize take-out meals, calling them “sick trays.” Yet, take-out dining should not be viewed as anything less than a core element of an overall hospitality program. Senior living communities should operate like hotels, making it convenient for residents to eat in their residences if it is what they desire. Furthermore, properly structured take-out programs help reduce the overall cost of dining service and eliminate overcrowding, while offering residents more flexibility. Servers who typically have down-time in the late afternoon can package the required cold items needed for take-outs, fulfilling as many as 60 take-out orders in 60 minutes. Every 15 take-out meals ordered allows a community to reduce one server in the main dining venue.
Implementing a reservation system reduces crowding and increases food and service quality:
- Make it as easy as possible to place a take-out order. Always answer the phone and have a script.
- Prepare the take-out meals to be delivered in 15 minute periods. Every 15 minutes the kitchen staff should be able to cook about 15 meals.
- Communities should strive to serve one-third of dinners in take-out form.
- Bring the take-out orders to “pods” within buildings so that residents can easily retrieve their orders without having to really go out into public. This system makes it easier for residents, too.
- Allow residents to call as late as possible for take-outs. Cooking and serving of take-out meals during the early service time greatly improves food quality and therefore increases the usage of take-outs. Communities that only cook and serve take-outs before service have lower satisfaction with take-out meals and consequently lower usage.
Specials! Specials! Specials!
Specials or any kind of incentive that draws people into the dining room are perhaps the most popular resident-focused solution to compression dining. Communities should offer different kinds of specials such as a free appetizer, drink, or dessert or a premium entrée that is only available at lunch or outside of the peak dining window. This makes residents feel like they are receiving an extra benefit while helping to more evenly distribute dining times.
Stagger Billing Cycles
Communities should structure their meal plans to expire in thirds throughout the month. This is an easy tactic that reduces crowding problems. Residents often find that they have extra meal credits or balances at the end of each monthly cycle. This is especially true in higher-end communities, where the residents tend to eat only 24 to 26 meals per month because they eat out more. If everyone’s cycle ends at the same time, the dining room is faced with a continuing monthly glut of demand.
It is also important to have a reasonable up-charge for guests. Residents tend to invite guests to use up extra meal credits and around holidays. If there is not an up-charge, guests tend to inundate the dining venues and restrict resident access. Also, especially if there is a meal credit, guests tend to eat more and order more expensive items. This results in full-time residents being crowded out and facing higher costs because other residents are bringing in numerous guests without paying an additional fee.
Additional alternative dining venues like a café or a pub help to reduce crowding and gives residents more options. Many communities have successfully diminished compression dining problems by opening an alternative dining venue such as a café or pub. For larger communities and those that are near full occupancy, an alternative dining venue is often an attractive option. Communities that pursue this route should ensure that the new venue is unique, with eclectic food and different menu choices to siphon off crowds from the main dining room. If possible, the alternative dining room should be located such that meal service can be prepared from the existing kitchen.
For communities that are not yet ready to invest in opening up a new location, they can reap some of the same benefits by creating an inviting lounge area next to the main dining room where residents can congregate, have a drink, and sample some lighter food items. Coffee and dessert areas may also work, but they are not as effective because residents often want to remain in their seats for their final course.
Mini Case Study
A continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in the Midwest was experiencing numerous problems with its overall food service, including some food quality issues and a compression dining challenge, particularly around holiday times. The community has 192 residents in its independent living “neighborhood” (plus an additional 135 skilled nursing residents). Its main dining room can host a maximum of 48 guests at any one time. The CCRC also faced some complaints that the dining room was not “friendly”, not because of poor service, but because residents sometimes felt unwelcome at certain tables.
The CCRC wanted to upgrade its overall dining experience without introducing too much change to the community all at once.
To improve food quality, the CCRC shifted from largely offering pre-cooked meals to a cook-to-order service. This change required them to take a different approach to seating. The first thing they did was move to hostess seating. Hostess seating solved two major problems, the first of which allowed them to manage the workload among servers. It also helped to gain more control of the dining room, eliminating a prevailing sentiment that certain “cliques” of residents lay claim to certain tables or sections of the dining room. This was the main cause of some residents complaining that the dining room wasn’t friendly.
One of the interesting challenges that the hostess-managed seating introduced was resetting expectations about how residents placed orders when seated as a group. Residents had been used to coming to a certain table whenever they wanted to, ordering as they arrived, and “saving seats” for their friends. The food and beverage manager instituted a policy where everyone in a group dines as if they are in a group, just like a restaurant.
All groups wait at the table until their entire party arrives before ordering. It took about a year for people to get used to the change.
The community has also started encouraging more reservations. First, they moved to require reservations on holidays for four or more people. They still do not require reservations for individuals or small groups. Reservations are not required for non-holiday times, just strongly encouraged. They are considering requiring reservations for parties of four or more at all times. Residents have been accepting of making reservations when they need to. However, on a day-to-day basis, it is still not regularly implemented. Residents seem to prefer to simply meet ahead of time and ask to be seated together when they all arrive.
The CCRC has slowly made changes that have dramatically improved the overall resident experience. Despite residents wanting food quality and wait times to improve, they didn’t necessarily want to change the practices that led to the problems. This CCRC has smartly balanced a desire to upgrade and revamp its overall dining program with respect for the comfort that many residents found in the old dining routine.
It sometimes takes a while to transition to new systems, and the approach should be guided by the nature of the community. While they have still not fully moved to a reservation-based system, they have been slowly changing the overall dining management and structure. It is important to make sure that a community has all the right people in place before making a full transition to required reservations. Also, when trying to introduce new rules or entice residents to change their behavior, offering special incentives like a free drink or appetizer is often effective.
To learn more about how your senior living community can benefit from Life Care Services management, call 515-875-4755 or visit us at https://www.senior-living-management.com/. Where experience is everything.