One of the things that I enjoy most about speaking with senior living community operators and chefs is hearing the passion in their voices.
From food to technology, operators in the senior living space prioritize the health, nutrition, dining experience, and well-being of their residents above all, and this is evident in every decision that they make.
I speak with dozens of senior living community operators every week, and the same question is often asked: what meal plan program brings the most benefit to my bottom line, my chefs, and my residents?
It’s a difficult question to answer, as every community is different.
In addition, there are tools beyond the meal plan that can help you learn more about your resident’s dining preferences and bring more value to the food experiences at your community.
However, let’s review the two core meal plan types:
Option 1: Meal Credits
On a meal credit meal plan, residents’ meals are based on a number of meals (fixed or unlimited) and often dictated to residents in the following fashion:
“You will receive X meals per day included in your rent.”
“All meals across the community are included in your rent.”
Some communities offer all-inclusive dining packages, which means that residents get all meals at all dining venues included, without any additional charges. This may be built-in to the monthly rent cost that the resident pays, but the resident still enjoys the luxury of a payment-free dining experience.
One advantage to operators with this package is the low-maintenance aspect of this meal plan. No billing charges are accrued and no tracking needs to be done to ensure proper month’s end reconciliation, making mealtime and billing periods a worry-free process.
The core disadvantage with these meal plans is that many operators feel they are losing money, because residents essentially get a free-for-all, and can choose to eat the most expensive menu items every day without additional charges.
To combat the disadvantage that operators feel comes with these meal plans, using a POS to start managing the meals and instituting upcharges is a good place to start.
The first thing to decide is: what is the definition of a “meal”? I’ve seen menus vary from simply including a button the POS that says “Breakfast”, to a robust meal construction that would have a breakfast meal determined by 1 protein, 2 sides, 1 starch and a juice or coffee. Regardless of the menu detail you’d like to include, the POS can bundle the items together as a meal and deduct a credit from the resident’s account.
Once you determine your definition of a meal, you can decide what items will warrant an additional charge. For example, if a resident wanted to add cheese to their regular breakfast meal above, their inclusive meal can still deduct with a $2.00 upcharge for cheese being tracked (and either billed to the resident’s room charge account or paid using an alternate payment method). Simple changes like this help operators ensure they remain profitable, even while utilizing a meal credit program.
Option 2: Declining Balance
Declining balance meal plan accounts are becoming more common. With these accounts, residents are allocated spending dollars (i.e. $450 per month), which are to be used on food throughout the community on a monthly basis. Often times, these dollars expire at the end of the month, or they can be sent to a rollover account with an alternate expiry date.
These meal plans provide residents an A La Carte dining experience, where they are in full control of their spending and item selection. For example, one evening, a resident may order the fettucine alfredo for $12.00 and a coffee for $3.00, and the next evening, they may order a salad for $9.00.
The core advantage to these meal plans for residents is the control that they have over their spending. It’s not an “all-inclusive” meal plan, but the amount allocated usually allows for the resident to enjoy a large percentage of their meals within the community. They can decide what they spend their money on and when they spend it. They can choose more modestly priced meals some days, and splurge on other days. Many communities also allow for declining balance dollars to be used for resident family members or guest meals, bringing another added bonus.
For operators, declining balance programs provide immense value from a tracking perspective. Because most communities that use declining balance have comprehensive A La Carte style menus so that they can accommodate their resident’s needs and wants, the reporting data they can capture from the system is detailed and valuable – helping to cater a more curated menu.
With the competitive nature of the senior living industry, chefs utilize their menu to give themselves an advantage and draw residents in, so data on your resident’s dining preferences is critical.
In addition, a charge account is almost always offered nowadays. This allows residents to seamlessly charge to their room across the community – from the salon and spa, to the dining venues. This type of account ensures residents never need to worry about carrying payment methods with them and helps promote additional spending. When a resident runs out of their declining balance, or is ordering an item above and beyond the meal credits, they can simply charge to their room, and have a statement printed at the end of the month to be added to their monthly rent. Talk about convenience!
Regardless of the meal plan that you choose, there are technology tools to help you with menu and meal management, to ensure you are continuing to provide a diverse menu that sets you apart from your competitors. These tools include:
- Data analytics – showing your most (and least) popular menu items, busiest times of the day, average transaction sizes, most popular add-ons and upgrades, most profitable items, and more
- Automated menu scheduling – so you can plan your menus in advance and market the menus accordingly
- Self-serve kiosks and digital menu boards – enhancing the dining experience by providing graphical representations of your food, drawing guests to specific items
- Kitchen display systems – streamlining your kitchen efficiencies and providing valuable data on your meal prep times
- In-room ordering – to allow residents easier access to your delicious menu items, while allowing them to use their declining balance, meal credit, or credit card to pay for their meal
As I mentioned before, the resident experience is everything.
Food is a major highlight of every resident’s day, and it is often one of the reasons that your residents have selected your community.
So, analyze the right meal plan for your community – and put the right technology tools in place to help you continue to foster an exceptional resident experience.