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Best Special Event: Telling stories through residents' lives with food

Best Special Event: Telling stories through residents' lives with food

Each year Food Management honors operations for excellence and innovation in our Best Concepts awards program. Read more on this year’s winners. 

Every Menu Has a Story is a special evening meal event featuring a custom-designed menu that is based on a story from the life of a particular resident of the community where the meal is held. The program was developed by Senior Living Communities (SLC), which operates 10 luxury retirement communities in five states. 

“Food is a thread in the social fabric of our lives,” says Harris Ader, vice president of dining for SLC. “Through Every Menu Has a Story, we are trying to be respectful of our members’ lives by integrating their experiences, stories and legacies into that social fabric through strategic menu planning and execution. Simply put, we are highlighting our members’ experiences through food.”

The goal of the program is to create personal connections that build a sense of home, Ader says. “Members who feel at home are more willing to refer, which makes it a more critical indicator than satisfaction.” 

To better measure this result, members are asked after each Every Menu Has a Story event, “Did this event make you feel more at home?” The replies are collected and compared to a baseline from a study performed by research firm Promatura.

“The leading indicator of success is whether or not our members feel at home,” Ader explains. “By creating that sense of home, we expect to see a lagging indicator of increased referrals.”

Every Menu Has a Story was piloted at Wellmore of Tega Cay, an SLC property in Tega Cay, S.C., in February 2016 and has since been expanded to SLC’s nine other retirement communities. The February/March event was themed around love while the April event is all about adventure and the May event celebrated “April Showers, May Flowers: Tragedy to Triumph.” June featured tales of courage and July will highlight members’ teacher pet stories.

The stories are solicited from residents at the beginning of each month through a prompt that includes sample stories from the facility’s director of dining services and executive chef. The residents submit stories that include who, what, when, where and why details to help spark the chefs’ creativity. 

From these narratives, the chefs then compile a list of tasting notes that can inspire the menu.

“Every Menu Has a Story is designed to be a blank canvas for the dining team at each community,” Ader says. “While the tasting notes provide a framework, the chefs have free range to make the menu of each unique story their own. Instead of choosing obvious food selections, the menu will be a creative endeavor that is inspired and infused by a particular member’s experience.” 

The printed menus each include pertinent tasting notes that demonstrate how the chefs were inspired while allowing for residents to connect with the featured story, creating a three-sided emotional connection among the resident, the dining services team and the other residents, helping generate a sense of home.

The event menu replaces the regular dining menu for the evening it’s held, which means no extra labor or food costs. Otherwise, the only other costs for the event are the printing of the special menus and decorating the dining room to match the theme and story. Every Menu Has a Story is financially justified in its marketability to prospects, Ader says.

“With the influx of new competition into virtually every market we serve, we hope to use programming such as Every Menu Has a Story to create meaningful, differentiated marketing content for use in the future,” he explains. “Throughout 2016, we will be filming and cataloging our members’ stories for use on our blogs and various social media venues.”

He sees it as an extension of the advances already made in the industry.

“This is an incredibly exciting time for dining in the senior living industry,” Ader says. “From food as entertainment to local and sustainable sourcing to health-conscious menus to 24-hour dining, the dining aspect of the senior living industry has been reinvented in recent years to match the high-quality demand of restaurant-style dining. However, the one component missing in every one of these endeavors is an emotional, personal connection. That is where Every Menu Has a Story finds its new, innovative footing in an already innovative industry.” 

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