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Senior dining ditches one-size-fits-all meal plan

Multiple dining plan options that include flexibility and partnering with local restaurants have actually lead to increased revenue at one Pennsylvania retirement community. Here’s how.

One size doesn’t fit all for the dining plan needs of today’s seniors. That’s what Peter Becker Community (PBC) President and CEO Suzanne Owens found out through research, both formal and informal.

“We were finding that some of the people who we were talking to about moving in didn’t want to move into a community because they don’t want a meal plan,” Owens says. “They want flexibility to be able to cook or go out.”

It’s true; many senior dining professionals are finding that the baby boomers coming into retirement communities now are different from their predecessors. Their sophisticated palates and desire for many options makes them hard to please when it comes to dining. PBC, located in Harleysville, Pa., addresses that need by offering a couple of informal cafes and one “white tablecloth” venue and a signature buffet, along with special chef’s table events.

But the meal plans were one area that was becoming a glaring weakness in the eyes of prospective and existing residents. Even seniors who are impressed by the food at PBC were turned off by “feeling trapped” by a meal plan that encompassed every meal for the foreseeable future.

“A mandatory level felt like a waste to them if they didn’t use it,” Owens says.

“We had a one-size-fits all dining plan that was $350 a month,” according to Josh Crandall, general manager of dining for Cura at PBC. Cura is a member of the Elior North American family of companies.

Crandall and Owens even found that some residents were choosing to live in the cottage area of the community, not because they wanted to, but because the meal plan wasn’t required for cottage residents. 

So recently, new meal plan options were introduced after “we did our homework with surveys to figure out exactly what residents wanted and looked at other communities,” Crandall says. “What we came up with, we hadn’t seen at other communities.”

The plans now offer nine dining packages (three for cottage living and six for apartment living) that offer a base package with $100 dining dollars per month, which increase in increments of $50 to $450 in monthly spends. Each dining package features rewards such as discounts on purchases, restaurant exchange, gift card allowance, annual birthday meals, guest meals and special events, as well as complementary fountain beverages and coffee.

These incentives have proven to be very effective, making the decision to spend more on a meal plan “worth it” to residents, because who doesn’t like getting points and perks? The restaurant exchange plan allows residents to use some of their dining dollars for gift cards from local restaurants. The IT infrastructure was reworked so, for example, if a guest is on a plan that allows a free soft drink, that will be reflected at the register. 

When the new plans were introduced, the budget braced itself for setbacks (as much as a loss of $50,000 in revenue). Happily, that wasn’t the case.

“We actually have more revenue than before; we didn’t think people would go up with their plans, but they did, and those who wanted less have the option,” Owens says. “Everything we feared, we were actually able to accomplish better. Some future residents are even asking to get on the meal plan before they move in.”

Residents also have the ability to change the plan throughout the year, another way to avoid that “locked in” feeling. Couples must have the same meal plan, to avoid letting one person choose the more expensive plan and the other getting by on the lowest plan and sharing.

“Open enrollment throughout the year lets them can scale up and down if they are traveling or going home for the holidays,” Crandall says. “Our accounting team is letting us do this with the hopes that they’re not constantly changing.”

Once residents get settled in, they typically find they want more food from the Cura chefs, not less.

“I think residents, when they first move in, think they are going to cook a lot more than they actually do,” Owens says. “We show them that we have the convenience and quality and they end up cooking less.”

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