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California hospital finds success courting seniors

Hospital serves up healthy, discounted dinners for community seniors.

Restaurants have long offered discounts for seniors. But hospital cafeterias are getting in on the game too.

Hillside Café at the University of Southern California’s Verdugo Hills Hospital in Glendale now gives seniors ages 65 and up 30% off their purchase during dinner hours. The discount is available seven days a week from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. and offers older adults a new, inexpensive option for healthy dinners and plenty of socializing.

The café had recently expanded its hours in an effort to better serve evening visitors of patients. The change was well received, but it didn’t generate the foot traffic that the hospital was looking for. “The senior discount was a way to attract community members to come to the hospital for dinner, even though one would not typically think about going to a hospital for dinner,” says Clinical Nutrition Manager Stephanie Wood, RD.

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The discount also provided an opportunity to help older adults in the community better meet their nutritional needs, which can be challenging. “Most people have a natural appetite decrease with age, so it is even more important for older adults to optimize the nutritional value of their meals,” Wood explains. The offerings at Hillside fit the bill, with “mindful eating” menu items available at the entrée, soup, salad, bar and prepared food stations. “These meals offer options for people who are looking to eat healthier, whether that means cutting calories, lowering their fat or sodium intake or incorporating more fiber into their diet,” says Wood.

Guests can choose from entrées like chipotle and orange grilled chicken with pinto beans and Spanish rice, baked herb tilapia with corn succotash, or tandoori chicken breast with seasoned couscous and roasted vegetables. Soup options include country lentil and orzo, chickpea and tortellini, or Azteca chicken and vegetable. And instead of the usual hot dog or cheeseburger, guests can opt for mindful grill items like the Cubano summer burger plate or meatloaf marinara sandwich plate.

Even with an abundance of healthier options, those looking for more traditional fare won’t be disappointed. California club sandwiches, Kansas City barbecue ribs with macaroni and cheese, bratwurst with sauerkraut, and vegetarian chimichangas with tomatillo salsa are all on the regular menu rotation.

But tasty meals at a great price aren’t the only reason seniors are flocking to Hillside Café. “When we started the senior program, we did not realize how wonderful this offering was going to be for seniors looking to socialize more frequently,” Wood says. “We’ve had positive feedback not just about the price, the convenience and the healthy choices, but also how older adults in the community appreciate having a place to gather and see others in a social setting.”

Often big groups will come in for dinner when the café might otherwise be quiet. “It creates an environment where our older customers do not feel rushed or hassled, and they can talk freely with other people their age,” Wood says. The community-oriented ambiance seems to encourage guests to make new connections too. “Sometimes the groups will invite other seniors who are dining alone to join them, or groups will combine and continue to socialize,” says Wood.

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USC Verdugo Hills has made an effort to publicize the discount with fliers and email blasts, and word spread even further thanks to stories published in the local papers. But the biggest attendance driver seems to be word of mouth. “People who come to Hillside Café for dinner will invite friends, who then tell their friends or colleagues,” says Wood. “It’s a tight-knit community wherein a recommendation from a friend or a neighbor can go a long way.”

The hospital isn’t yet able to say for sure whether the program has yielded an increase in sales. But repeat guests seem to be a testament to the discount’s success. “Anecdotally, we can say we have seen an increase in foot traffic,” Wood says. “We also have a group that meets regularly once a week to have dinner.”

That’s partly because Hillside Café offers delicious food at a great price, of course. “However, the most positive feedback we receive has to do with the café community that has grown as a result of the discount,” says Wood. “The groups continue to thrive, and we are happy to continue hosting them and provide a means for them to create and maintain friendships over a good meal.”

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