Aircraft Carriers & Dining Programs

As a 30+ year veteran in Food Service Management with more than half that time specifically in the Long-Term Care industry, I have all but mastered the fundamentals of managing our complex dining programs.  I have been dedicated to improving the lives of all Residents one meal at a time through a process of continuous improvement.  Yet, of all my time in the LTC industry, there is one thing that is oddly missing…”change”.

The current thinking in LTC dining philosophy and methodology remains largely unaltered for the better part of six decades when the “Institutional Model” was originally conceived.  Despite advancements in equipment, transportation, technology and availability of food that may have made operations more efficient, little of the process itself has evolved.  And, like many culturally engrained processes, the original reasons and justifications for the “Institutional” model in many cases simply no longer apply.

Our Residents today and tomorrow are not the same Residents we had in the WW2 era.  They have evolved not only in their tastes, which have become overall more sophisticated, but also in their expectations.  The Institutional model has trained our residents to expect their food to come from the kitchen fast but to have lower expectations about the quality from taste to temperature.  This is in contrast to their expectations of better eating experiences such as those they might have for a nice restaurant or even a home cooked meal.

The Institutional model of food service management is an old school, operations based and cost centered thinking that all but leaves out the most important element…the Resident!  Protocols and processes are formulated around feeding a large number of people in the shortest time span possible at the lowest cost attainable, virtually without regard for quality of the food to be eaten. While I always strived to produce the highest quality of meals for my Residents, I always knew in my heart that I was able to do a better job when cooking for guests at my own home.  And, while residents may accept this model in a scarcity-based market where choices are limited and providers are few, this will not be the case over the coming decade as the market balloons to accommodate the single largest, and most demanding cohort of seniors the LTC industry has ever seen.  There were over 900 registerd construction projects in the US for 2009 for the retirement and seniors housing projects. With all this new competition all vying for their share of this new market, those who embrace a more restaurant-style, cook-to-order operation now, will possess a unique and powerful differentiator that will attract the residents of tomorrow.  Food is fast becoming a strong value proposition in a market of choices without which a community will soon struggle to survive.

It is important to recognize that change is neither easy nor fast.  It takes 4.5 miles to turn an aircraft carrier…and the LTC industry is a big, ready for retirement, 60 year old aircraft carrier!  Thus, we cannot expect to bring about change overnight, but we must at least begin to “comeabout” and start charting a new strategic course if we expect to offer better quality food while maintaining efficiencies that minimize cost and protect margins…and “yes”, this is entirely possible! We can no longer think we are running “dining rooms” in an institutional setting, but rather “restaurants” in a home-like setting.

The key to creating this new-model formula for success is to cook food as close to consumption as possible. This sounds easy enough, but to change the industry “Cook & Hold” mind set (cook food two hours in advance and hold it) requires the challenge to train, monitor, and hold everyone accountable to a new set of standards. The industry in general only has a 50-60 percent productivity rating. This must change and there are proven ways to do so while increasing food quality and lowering food costs. Whether you are an Owner, Executive or Manager, is it not your expectation to achieve such results?

I have often observed food holding in hot boxes, steam tables, ovens, etc, for more than 3 hours. How do we expect food to retain its quality for that long? Once again, despite the incredible advancements in kitchen equipment designed specifically for this “holding”, the bottom line is that 98 percent of all cooked food items are better cooked-to-order than cooked in advance and held. For anyone who doubts this, simply cook a meal and “hold it” for 2 hours.  Then prepare the exact same meal fresh and taste both meals at the same time.  If you can’t tell the difference you probably  should not be in charge of cooking it in the first place!

In order to be successful in cooking food closer to consumption and not run out of food during service, it takes planning and communication. In order to achieve good production results, Managers, Chefs, and Production Managers, must utilize a production system that is linked, flexible and can be altered on demand. The minimum sets of tools are expandable recipes, order lists, production sheets, and prep and pull sheets. Daily production meetings are critical to inform the cooks on what and how to prepare the recipes.

A Manager must have the ability to track item sales & consumption history to determine popularity, by using the reporting tools of popular systems such as CARDWATCH POS. Without these tools, Managers are either tracking menu item popularity using a painstakingly and largely ineffective manual process, or by simply guessing at production quantities.  In many cases, there is no historical monitoring at all and the cooks make production calls largely based on memory and subjective judgment calls, destined to repeat the same errors over and over for lack of better tools. An old proverb comes to mind here: “For want of a nail…the Kingdom was lost”.

Next up… recipe compliance is not optional. We are the only part of the food industry that allows our cooks to make food the way they like it. No wonder my resident surveys tend to always tell me the same thing: the food (taste & quality) is inconsistent.

When my Dad owned his successful restaurant and a cook told him, “Mac, I’d like to change the sauce and make the sauce my way today”, he would tell them…. “No, you will make it the way our loyal customers expect it. If you want to change it, open your own restaurant”.

As a leader in food service, whether the Executive Chef or Dining Director, you must create the successful recipe… the successful menu, then set the standards and stick with them.  Go to a successful restaurant and see if they allow the cooks to make the soup, sauce or entrees “their” way. If you receive a good meal you expect the food to be exactly the same way on your next visit or you are disappointed. In most cases you might not return. Most of our residents do not have the same choice of dining venues and generally have to eat food prepared by the same cooks in the same dining rooms. When a successful menu item is changed, we are undermining the consistency and the experience of our Residents.  This is not to say that the cooks are bad, it is more so that every cook prepares food differently in the absence of standards, usually to their own tastes or experience. In an environment where you have the same customers every day, this practice is not a recipe for success.

Lastly (at least for the purpose of this brief article), Residents deserve food served by caring, dedicated staff who have been thoroughly trained on proper etiquette and serving techniques whether from the Dining Services Waitstaff or Care Givers. There is a proper way to set a table and a proper way to serve our Residents. Today 70 percent of families do not eat their meals together and a large percentage eat on the run or fast food. Many of our staff are also from a much younger generation with different associations of service than our Residents.  It is our responsibility to train our staff on an old fashioned idea of proper etiquette. Think of your last great meal: the food was exceptional and the service provided made you feel valued and important. Courtesy, respect, patience, personalization, attention to detail and most of all, gratitude are key elements of creating the dining atmosphere your Residents will revere!

Are you ready to begin turning your aircraft carrier?  The first step is to recognize that turning is necessary to avoid running aground. Course corrections are an essential part of any long term business strategy and we cannot ignore warnings simply because we are big and established in our ways(for a lighter look at why it is sometimes important to question your course, watch this video ) .  Not sure where or how to start making your changes?  Every community is different and your success can vary widely depending on many factors from concept to execution. It will call upon your best leadership and communication skills and no doubt it will be a challenging journey filled with obstacles and nay-sayers, but the result will be worth the effort.  Building a strong team to support the change will form the foundation of your change.


About the Contributor:

Mark McKenzie is a 30+ year veteran of the food and hospitality business and has specialized in Long Term Care Food Service since 1992.  Aside from growing up in a family restaurant & catering business, Mark has experience managing food service operations for a number of LTC communities, as well as other institutional organizations such as hospitals, colleges and prisons, corporate sites.  Mark is currently the President of Complete Dining Management Solutions providing assistance to CCRC’s and LTC facilities to bring about positive change in their dining program thinking.