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It’s easy to find a quality food service company in long-term care. But that’s only a start. Experts say the key is to stretch the contracted food service dollar by paying greater attention to what makes most programs excellent: high-quality food and service. For those unable or unsure about taking the leap, here are some soup-to-nuts ideas to ensure your residents come back for seconds.

(1) Remember: The basic necessities come first.It’s not unusual that providers should expect essential things such as clean kitchens, dining rooms and uniforms and  a kind, empathic and patient staff, as well as menu rotations that reflect the location and demographics in the community. So stick to your guns on them, says Ray Costello, founder of SimpleStays.

For Scott Shontz, director of dining services for Healthcare Services Group (HCSG), the best contracted food service comes down to the food itself. 

“A good partner will be able to provide a dining program that delivers culinary and service excellence, while ensuring regulatory compliance that results in positive survey outcomes,” Shontz says. 

The founder and CEO of the Senior Dining Association agrees.

“The most important point about food service is this: Having great food and great choice without increased costs,” says Harris Ader.

(2) Of course, that doesn’t mean one can’t ask their contracted vendor for special enhancements. On the contrary. Costello says it’s totally within reason to ask a vendor to install point-of-service terminals as one way to streamline ordering, for example.

Many facilities today are asking their contracted vendors to match the ambience of fine hotel dining.

“An opportunity to enhance the traditional SNF model would be to incorporate ‘restaurant-style’ service and delivery,” says Shontz. “Having residents greeted by a host upon arrival in the dining room, served by uniformed wait staff, a beverage service, and food delivered in courses can all enhance the overall experience.” 

Other tweaks might include weekly happy hours, exhibition cooking and themed meals. Pubs, bistros, coffee bars, healthy fast casual options, and to-go service are increasingly expected. Some other popular enhancements are special menus designed to satisfy vegans, or those with sensitive digestive tracts.

“One of our residents was on a special diet, needing softer, pureed food and also experiencing a declining appetite,” recalls Debbie Interrante, administrator at Frederick Living in Pennsylvania. “Our team devoted considerable effort to create ‘real’ looking food. Our fantastic chef even created the peas and carrots shaped to look like the real deal.” 

More providers want vendors that can “blend culinary artistry, clinical nutrition, and hospitality,” says Jack Silk, Area President – East, Unidine Lifestyles. 

It “isn’t just about early bird dinners – it’s about the experiential factor,” he explains. “From poolside cooking and hibachi grills to chef’s tasting menus and craft cocktails, discerning residents expect their communities to have multiple retail-style dining experiences beyond the traditional sit-down dining room.”

(3) Ader believes it’s not taboo to boldly ask your vendor for big things when negotiating a multi-year contract. This can include things like an investment to fund capital improvements for rehabbing a kitchen and dining room.

Costello believes vendors have a better appetite for such requests when RFPs are prepared or contracts negotiated. In the end, it’s important to involve the vendor as completely as possible. 

“Having an open dialogue with your food service company about your vision and the environment you are fostering for your residents is a great place to start,” says Shontz. 

“With a mutual understanding, you can then lean on their expertise to make recommendations on how to best utilize the products and services they offer to deliver on that vision.”

Ann Marks, vice president of health and wellness at Frederick Living, depends on her vendor for long-term dedicated support in “delivering training on how to serve food with respect, which protects the dignity of the guest.”

(4) For the roughly 85%  of skilled facilities that don’t use a contracted food service company, there’s plenty of advice on how to work toward delivering a world class program.

Many recommend having the mindset of a dedicated, outside food service vendor in areas such as the quality of service and food, as well as kitchen and dining room cleanliness.

To Ader, the two most critical decisions any facility makes in its food service program are the hiring of the right dining services director and chef. “Look for a chef with hotel experience, and a director who has worked in a nursing home before,” he advises. 

Ongoing training is also critical, “especially for communities with employees that have been around for 10, 15, 20 years,” says Costello. “And rotate these employees to new departments so they do not get complacent.”

Mistakes to avoid

—Failing to follow the ‘Golden Rule.’ Food service companies are universal in stressing treating residents like their own family when it comes to menu selections.

—Taking shortcuts in hiring key staff. Experts advise hiring chefs with hotel experience, and foodservice directors who are familiar with SNFs.

—Skipping big rehab opportunities. Done right, requests for vendors to kick in investments to upgrade kitchen and rehab dining areas are not out of the ordinary.