The Month-End Meal Plan Slam


What’s happening?

Typical of communities on a fixed meal plan that allows residents to use up a set number of meals as desired throughout the month, Dining Services finds themselves getting slammed on the last day of the month as Residents all try to use up their remaining meal credits in any way they can, most often in the form of Guests! Dining Rooms designed for 100 meals per night are now attempting to service upwards of 300+, staffing becomes a challenge and food preparation a veritable nightmare as chefs struggle to keep up. Out on the front lines, wait staff are hustling to take orders and keep Residents from getting upset with wait times caused by the back log of orders and shortages of food.

Of course, this situation would be greatly reduced if Residents were not permitted to use their meal credits toward Guests but for most communities (many of which are faith based), this is a “God-given right” that is not easily taken away from Residents. Quite frankly, it would be a customer disservice not to allow Residents this flexible and hospitable option for their Guests and it is an incentive to expose outsiders to the community as good PR and potential future Residents.

Why it’s happening.

Many folks in Billing and Finance often confuse the monthly billing cycle with the monthly plan renewal cycle. The truth of the matter is, these are separate processes that only happen to coincide in most communities, but don’t have to. Your billing cycle for Residents can be the calendar month but in CARDWATCH™ your meal plan renewals can be virtually any date range you wish. In-house charges can still accumulate for each resident on a monthly calendar basis (in their Resident Charge Account) but since CARDWATCH allows each cardholder to have multiple accounts, their meal credits can be renewed and reissued (for example) on the 15th of the month using a separate and distinct plan account.

That said, you can also create multiple meal plans that each have different start/stop dates but otherwise they possess the identical characteristics / privileges. By doing so, the renewal for each plan occurs on a different day, effectively staggering and spreading out the onslaught of Residents trying to spend down their remaining unused meal credits before are taken away and new ones issued.

A commonly implemented staggered meal plan program consists of 3 renewal dates on (for example) the 5th, 15th and 25th day of each month. Residents are then split into different plans typically by last name or by physical address. As each renewal date approaches, only the 1/3 of residents on that specific plan will be attempting to use up their unused meal credits and thus lightening the volume on the Dining operation.

Case in Point:

John Knox Village in Florida, with approximately 700 residents has broken some of it’s meal plans into two (2) staggered renewal dates on the 14th and the 28th of the month. Before converting, plans all renewed on the last day of the month and Dining Services would experience a “run” on meals on that day, experiencing more than 150 extra meals compared to other days of the month. With the change to a staggered meal plan, John Knox also permitted limited (but generous) roll-over of unused meal credits (in their case Dining Dollars). With these two changes, Dining Services no longer experience any rush on the day before a Meal Plan renewal.

Key Advantages of a Staggered Meal Plan:

  • Improved planning & consistency of staff hours – able to allocate hours more effectively

  • Improved planning of raw food inventory – fewer shortages and less waste

  • Improved Customer Service – able to reduce wait times and improve ability to serve what is on the menu without running out.

Key Benefits of a Staggered Meal Plan:

  • Reduced Costs

  • Happier Residents

  • Happier Staff

Key Learnings:

From all accounts, the transition of a Resident Plan from one form to another offered the biggest challenge for our clients. Clear and advance communication of the pending change is critical as is the inclusion of key residents in the process of change implementation. Some communities enlist a small group of Residents as a “test group” on the new plan to flesh out the issues. Once acceptance is gained by this test group, they can then “sell” the plan changes to their peers far more easily than management ever could. In addition, the use of both staggered plans and roll-over of unused meal credits / Dining Dollars may have been overkill to relieve the month end rush issue. John Knox Village has subsequently reverted back to monthly range plans but kept the roll-over of unused credits/Dining Dollars. Once the roll-over was permitted to Residents, it would have proven near impossible to claw back this privilege without massive resistance.

Side Bar: Other “Resident Friendly” Options

Of course, staggered monthly meal plans are not the only way to take advantage of a user defined date range plan.

Quarterly Plans:

Foulkeways Retirement Community in PA is one of the first CARDWATCH clients to use the date range feature of Plan Periods to set up a Quarterly Plan. As of January 1, 2008, Residents are assigned $1100 in Dining Dollars to use up over a three month period however they wish. The thinking behind this strategy is that Residents will now have more time to use up their Dining Credits or really the equivalent of a monthly plan that allows 100% roll-over of unused credits for 3 months at a time before removing unused credits. Resident reaction has been generally positive so far with the real test coming at the end of March!

Roll-Over Plans

As noted in the case of John Knox Village, allowing even a limited roll-over of unused credits can greatly alleviate the rush of Residents trying to spend down their balance before they are taken away. Running some reports to determine what the average Resident balance is on the last day of a plan period can help you determine how much roll-over to permit initially. Remember that it wise to start low and increase if needed since it will be near impossible to lower this roll-over allowance if you find it is too high. For example, if a plan provides for $300 in Dining Dollars per month and the average Resident Dining Dollar balance at month end is say, $52, start out with a roll-over of $30 or $35 to see if this helps relieve the mad rush, increasing as needed to get the desired result. If you are not using CARDWATCH to manage this roll-over, be sure that the roll-over does not continue to accumulate and build month over month (eg. If your roll-over was $30 in the above example, Residents with $30 or more of unused credits each month could carry forward up to that amount to start the next month at $330 maximum.