Maximizing the dining experience is a priority in the world of senior living. Communities continue to look for ways to enhance services and increase venue options, but challenges remain—How do we efficiently and cost effectively service our dining programs?

Space planning is like working on a puzzle, a puzzle that has more than one correct solution. And when it comes to the design of dining venues in a senior living community, the kitchen is a big puzzle piece that needs to connect to many other pieces.

As stated by Troy Hart, president of SantaFe Senior Living, in the Maximizing Value – Centralizing Core Operations article, “Every step you can save an associate delivering food saves 25 miles of walking over the life of the building (3 feet per step X 3 meals per day X 365 days a year X 40 years all divided by 5,280).  That 25 miles represents wasted associate time, delayed resident service, a less fresh product, a more costly monthly service fee and a missed opportunity.”

Sometimes saving steps means adjusting the size originally intended for the space. In the case of The Grand Lodge at Hillcrest Country Estates in Papillion, NE, the goal was to centralize the main production kitchen in order to service the bistro, ballroom, independent living fine dining, assisted living dining as well as private dining and a chef’s table. “In the end, in order to access all of the dining venues from the kitchen we needed more square footage allocated to this space. While the size of space is larger, the result couldn’t be more efficient. AG really hit a homerun on this,” describes Jolene Roberts, president and CEO of Hillcrest Health Services.

Hillcrest also implemented a POS system to support their elevated designing experience. This is technology not currently used in their market. “Residents are going to have a customer point system that gives them a lot of choice in their dining,” says Roberts. While the previous design methodology was focused on “only so many meals a day” and the need for residents to “plan their day around meal times,” the new methodology promotes a more vibrant lifestyle. “The residents have dining options from 7am to 8pm. They now have the choice to dine based on their lifestyle. The production kitchen is a critical component to supporting this level of choice efficiently.”

Due to the more vertical building configuration of The Terraces at Bonita Springs, this same centralized dining goal was addressed differently in order to maintain efficient operations and service delivery.

“Reducing the distance from the kitchen to the service areas for all levels of care was a priority,” Hart says. “Assuring that all levels of care were connected to the food preparation areas served to enhance the dining experience and provide the associates the greatest opportunity to create a very consistent dining experience across all venues. Some very simple outcomes are that we are much more able to keep hot food hot and cold food cold and deliver the same great dining experience for our skilled nursing residents as we are for our independent living residents. We also keep all interconnectivity with the kitchen and the dining rooms in the ‘back of house.’  This speeds delivery, keeps resident spaces cleaner and makes the whole process much more efficient for the associates.”

For the Arthur B. Hodges Center at Edgewood Summit in Charleston, WV, this new building required a separate kitchen due to the distance and size of the current kitchen.  Site constraints for this building posed space planning challenges. Serving pantries and an activity kitchen in the memory support area were integrated in order to maintain the food quality and support efficient service delivery.

“The most challenging aspects of food service is the dailyness of it,” Hart says. “Jim Antonucci, Executive Director of The Village in Gainesville is a Culinary Institute of America Trained chef and NBD PhD in Environmental Gerontology.  He always says, ‘you’re only as good as your last meal.’  And he is absolutely right!  Operationally we have to gain every advantage we can to make the resident dining experience as predictably exceptional as possible. Good design doesn’t assure a great dining experience, but poor design, or design compromises certainly can make a great dining experience more difficult for our dining associates to deliver. It can also add needless cost due to transport and redundant staff requirements during high demand periods.”

No matter the site size, number of floors or other building and programming constraints, space planning for food service is a complicated puzzle. The priority is providing choice and an exceptional dining experience. The priority is the resident. You need to work with a team that understands those priorities throughout the design process, a team that will work the plan, the puzzle, until they achieve your operational and service delivery goals.