Dining Management and the C-suite

C-Suite Dining Management

Dining Management and the C-suite

Cynthia: Hi. This is Cynthia Thurlow, and you are listening to Cosmic Soup.

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Mike: Welcome back, Cosmonauts, to another exciting episode of Cosmic Soup, which is, as we all know, the senior living podcast to end all senior living podcasts. Today’s show is dedicated to members of the C-suite, specifically those who might be open to some ideas on how to manage their dining programs more productively and more effectively.

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Mike: Here to offer some objective insight and perspective if VP of Culinary and Operations, Scott Daniels, and everyone’s favorite branding and marketing guru, Cynthia Thurlow. Hey, Cynthia. Hey, Scott. Welcome back. Glad to have you both back in the Soup today.

Cynthia: Hello.

Scott: Well, hello.

Mike: Awesome. Really cool to be able to talk about this topic. As you all know, we are on the same page with dining, quality of food, and things like that (in the senior living industry). We’re going to, I think, take a different approach on this one, though. Cynthia, we’re going to be talking about dining management and the C-suite today, right?

Cynthia: Yeah. I love this subject because kitchens and dining areas are intimidating. If you’ve never worked in a restaurant, if you don’t feel comfortable in them, there’s a lot going on in those places, and so good food starts at the top.

It starts with the C-suite, setting out the vision. What is your vision for your dining program? Then being present, buzzing through the kitchen, and Scott is going to talk a lot about that. Also, setting forth the vision.

Bad food lives in the dark. What I mean by that is it lives where people don’t talk about the food, or people aren’t creating safe spaces to have conversations and say, “What could we be doing better?” It’s not a criticism. It’s just, let’s have open conversations and shine light on how are we doing and then constantly improve.

I’m excited to have Scott here because Scott is an expert at culinary. Here he is.

Scott: Good afternoon.

Mike: Buenas tardes. Scott, I think this is really cool to have you and Cynthia both on this episode because there’s some really good information and some insight that you both offer. I think that both of you have an approach that is a little bit more non-confrontational and really more educational and informative.

Scott, you specifically spent a very long time working with contracted dining and working with members of the C-suite and being able to see how their interactivity affects everything. You had some ideas that you wanted to share, some insights you wanted to share, about what kinds of things that the C-suite can do to maybe affect their dining program.

Scott: Absolutely. Just to tie into what Cynthia had mentioned, typically for the C-suite the career path doesn’t typically get routed through the dining department – not directly. Very rarely do those who sit in the C-suite work or manage directly the dining department.

Therefore, what happens is (what I’ve seen in my 20+ years in senior dining) those individuals become uncomfortable in the C-suite. They become uncomfortable with an area of the operations that they’re not comfortable managing or don’t necessarily know all of the ins and outs.

That creates, as with most individuals, fear of the unknown. We want to try to strike that fear down and talk about how to be successful in the C-suite managing your dining department.

Mike: I think that a lot of us who have been in management roles or leadership roles, one of the first things often that we want to do to kind of just establish the precedent of how we want to approach it by starting our plan is really kind of taking a look at the team we have, right?

Scott: Correct. Yeah. You have to have the right team in place. I think what often happens, and I’ve seen it time and time again, is the C-suite will hire management for their dietary department and they hire individuals that are similar to themselves. When I say that, I mean they’re hiring individuals that might only have seniors background. Might only have health care background.

Typically, a continuing care retirement community, life care community, really operates more like a hotel, operates more like fine dining and hospitality rather than a hospital environment or a skilled nursing environment. I think that’s the first mistake we make.

Not that there’s anything against managers that have worked in senior living or healthcare. Not at all. You need those, too. But if you want to drive your program, you need to look at individuals that have a greater hospitality background. Not dining, but hospitality.

They kind of are one in the same, but hospitality is more resident-centric and focused. I think that’s a critical component to having a successful dining and hospitality operation within your retirement community.

Mike: Yeah. It’s definitely, I think, an overlooked factor that diversity of background is extremely important. I think we’ve all fallen into that trap at times. You’re just like, “I just want to get the most experienced person who knows this industry.”
It’s like a quick fix, right? You just want to plug and play. Then you get turned around and bit in the backside because that person might be just repeating things that you’re trying to get away from, but that’s what they know.

Cynthia, you’ve had a lot of experience observing the way that things go. Your passion has always been, “Man, just give them good food. Why is this so hard to give them good food?” Right?

If there’s one mantra that I know that you have it’s, “Give them the F’in food!” [Laughter]

Cynthia: [Laughter] Yeah, well, the history of senior living dining is institutional.

Mike: Yeah.

Cynthia: It started in the ’60s and ’70s. Sadly, that perception or that approach to dining doesn’t work anymore. However, it still exists. Some attitudes still exist that way.

It doesn’t cost more to provide fresh food that’s prepared well. That should not cost more. It just takes a vision. It takes setting the thesis and then taking the steps to follow that thesis. I think, for any C-suite person, really if they just set the intention and the goal first, it’s much easier to follow that by any team, and then also measure that success.

Scott, I’m just curious because I know you’ve been in thousands of communities. What’s the difference that you see when the C-suite is involved in dining and what does that look like versus the C-suite isn’t involved in dining? I’m curious about that.

Scott: That’s a great question, Cynthia. Yes, I’ve seen both spectrums. It’s ironic because the difference is so little between those individuals on C-suites that are actively involved in their dining versus those that aren’t. When I say they aren’t actively involved, what I mean is the individuals, yes, they’re doing their jobs in the C-suite, their administrative roles, but they’re not necessarily fully engaged in the dining department.

What do I mean by fully engaged? Are they walking through the department every day? Do they know the team players? Are they opening up doors, looking in walk-ins, checking the cleanliness of the operation? Do they know the team?

Are they walking through the dining room during meal service? And if a hand is needed, are they jumping in? It doesn’t mean they need to be helping, but just picking up a pitcher of water or a coffee pot and walking through the dining room, talking to the residents.

It does two things. It shows the residents, number one, that you’re actively involved in the community. But it shows the team on the dining side that you’re engaged with them, that they feel important, that that role is important. It’s so critical.

Those communities where the administration is involved in dining, they’re much more successful. When I say they, meaning the dining department is much more successful. They’re respected. There’s a mutual respect. They understand the trials and tribulations, as well as the team in the dining department understands all the other tumultuous times that are going on in the rest of the community outside of dining.

Let’s face it. Oftentimes, within a retirement community, each department kind of silos itself. But they all have to work harmoniously to make the residents safe and happy. It doesn’t take much. Grab a cup of coffee. Walk through the dining room.

Walk through the kitchen. Lead by example, though. Make sure you have the right shoes on; if you have hair, make sure you have a hairnet; because you want the staff to look at you as their leader, not just as some executive walking in the kitchen that doesn’t have to follow the same rules.

Be in the know and jump right into your dining department.

Cynthia: If I were a CEO, I would get some really cool kitchen shoes, a cute little beanie hat to cover my hair, and I would get a cute little chef jacket that says “Chief” on it or something. When I buzz through the kitchen, it would be really fun, and people would say, “Hey, Cynthia is here.”

Scott: I had a CEO at one community that I oversaw that would actively, monthly – and it wasn’t based on a schedule – just randomly (but he’d make sure that he did it once a month) go into the kitchen. It didn’t necessarily mean that they needed help. But if he saw the dishwasher with some dishes, he’d jump behind a dishwasher for ten minutes and spend ten minutes with the dishwasher.

Again, they weren’t in the weeds, but he just jumped in to show that he was part of the team, wasn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves, and that that did two things. It showed mutual respect that he had for that team member, and it gave the team member also the respect to this person that they were actively involved; they just weren’t some suit sitting in the office in the front of the building.

You got to know this individual. This administrator got to know all the team members’ names. He knew a little bit about each one of them that he could have a conversation with. It drove the department from a staffing perspective, meaning you didn’t have all the people quitting as easily and calling off.

There was a mutual respect within the community that each team member (throughout the building), not just in dietary, was respected. That goes a long way today, especially today, but always.

Mike: Yeah. There’s always something to be said for boots-on-the-ground leadership. I have always engaged in that kind of activity myself. I really do expect it, honestly, (as an employee) out of the people that I work for to go in there. They don’t have to get in there and be in the trenches every second of every day, but what it does is it drives the awareness and it leads to higher crew morale that you’re not asking people to do things that you yourself wouldn’t do.

Once we’ve established then having your proper team in place – if you’re a member of the C-suite and you’ve gone in there, you’ve seen the operation, you’ve got the right people, the right leaders, the right management to carry on the vision, as you said, Cynthia – I guess, then, Scott, the next question is how do the finances tie into the dining program and how you could just keep track of all that?

Scott: I could tell you what I’ve seen so often, and it’s unfortunate. The finances don’t necessarily predicate or dictate the operation. They’re working in arrears, so you have numbers.

Somebody has put together a budget, but they haven’t tied all their operation into the budget:
• What their meal plan is.
• What their offers are.
• How many dining venues they have within their community.
• Necessarily what their budged labor is.

Have they encompassed everything going on in the food world today? Obviously, supply chain is an issue, but before that. I’ve seen issues where the budget didn’t warrant the food that was deemed required for that community.

I’ll just use simple math. The menu is $10, but the budget is $5. Well, they’re never going to be successful because it doesn’t align.

Going back to hiring the right team, you’ve got to have somebody managing your dietary department that understands the financial component of the dining department. That individual (he or she) needs to be sitting at the leadership table with the C-suite and making decisions and have a voice in how that department operates.

Whoever you hire, if you hire the best person in the world and the finances aren’t aligned and you’re not willing to change so they can align with the business, it’s going to be a failure through and through. What happens when people fail? They’re not going to stay. They could be the best person. But if you give somebody a handful of pennies and the expectation is they’re spending dollars, it doesn’t work. So, you’ve got to make sure that you understand your finances.

Cynthia: I love this subject because, as a CEO or a COO of say a life plan community that has 350, 400 residents, independent living, what do you think my PPD should be? What should it be to provide quality food, if you were just to throw a number out for CEOs out there?

Scott: We don’t want to throw numbers at something we don’t have a budget for. What I would tell you in today’s economy, strictly talking about food, but not the labor or the indirect, from a quality – now, again, we have to define quality – with today’s food costs, you’re looking at a PPD rate upwards of $10. That’s quality. That’s in a nicer CCRC.

Again, that all depends on the meal plan because, obviously, with the independent component, meal plans are across the board. It could be two meals a day, three meals a day. It could be an a la carte spend down, so that’s a challenge. But if you look on the assisted and skilled side for good quality at a nicer community, $10+ to get where you need to be.

Now, you’ll have people that’ll say, “Oh, we can do it for a lot less,” but as I vision quality, and I think you vision quality in dining, $10 to $12.

Mike: What should be included then in a food cost budget?

Scott: That’s negotiable on the independent side, and that’s a whole different topic. We could have a conversation around meal plans, how to develop meal plans, and build meal plans.

On the assisted living and skilled, which is three meals a day, typically within a food cost budget, it should be the meal, what’s provided with the meal: the entrée, choice of entrées, choice of fresh vegetables (not frozen), fresh starches prepared freshly, a selection of beverages (nonalcoholic beverages, obviously, for the assisted and skilled in the meal plan), and typically snacks are included. You can include anything you want in a food cost as long as you break them out and you understand where they’re falling within the bucket.

I find, oftentimes, that they’ll just throw out a round number. “Oh, our food cost last month was $13 a person,” but they didn’t break that out into nourishments, snacks. Some communities will add supplements to that, which typically (on a GL ledger) they would be broken out more on the healthcare side. You really have to understand your budget and how your GL codes are built and broken down so you can better understand where your finances fall.

It’s often said (to the foodservice director and the chef), “You have a food cost issue,” but nothing is broken down, and oftentimes it’s not the food cost. It can be floor snacks and supplies that are running rampant, you know, feeding the building, the employees, potentially going home with individuals. That’s not really necessarily a kitchen food cost challenge. They’re tied to it through controls and tracking, spend downs, and such that everybody on the team knows how much money is being spent, but there are so many variables, and that’s part of understanding (from the C-suite down to your leadership) how that’s all broken.

Mike: I also have seen instances where those financial reports aren’t shared in a timely fashion – or ever. [Laughter] As somebody from the C-suite, would it be prudent then to say that it’s a good idea for them to not only be involved in it but to have those active meetings and financial sharing planning sessions?

Scott: Absolutely, Mike. In my opinion, the communities that share the most also share in the greatest success. Oftentimes, food service directors or chefs might not have a super strong background in finance. There’s the opportunity to have your financial department within your C-suite conduct trainings for those key players within dining. Have sit-downs every month. The budget should be shared each month with variance reports, you know, variance to actual to budget.

Then, as with all departments within the community (not just dining), a variance report should be then provided back with reasoning why there are variances. I don’t mean just over budget variances but under budget variances, too. Oftentimes, management will think that just because somebody comes in under budget, that’s a great thing. That might be detrimental, in many cases, because you might find that a chef might be cutting corners with food and driving satisfaction down. Yes, they’re coming in under budget, but what is happening to your satisfaction?

The residents are paying their monthly bill, and part of that is food. Now, a big question I have – and you never get a straight answer – is when you ask the C-suite, “If a resident pays $4,000 a month to live here, how much of that is for dining?”

Oftentimes, you can’t get an answer for that. It’s not an avoidance. It’s just, they don’t know, and that comes back to building the department and understanding where the funding comes from the department and how much there is allocated to that line item.

Cynthia: I have a dream. Here’s my dream.

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Mike: For the record, folks, Cynthia has a lot of dreams. But let’s just talk about this one.

Cynthia: Here’s my dream for every C-suite professional in senior living. Find the money to put in your dining program because you couldn’t have a more important department in your community, other than safety and regulations and health. But dining is the most important department of your community, and we’ve seen money get found in the capital budget.

For instance, maybe you don’t need a new covered garage for the residents to park in. Maybe your residents would just really rather have fresh, healthy food.

Or sometimes what we’ve seen is that there are some roles in the organization that could be eliminated. I’m not being specific about any particular role, but a lot of times what we see in nonprofit life plan communities, larger organizations, is there are some middle management people or roles that could be eliminated and not noticed. In other words, put the money in your dining program and figure out how to get the other parts of your jobs done.

Scott: Well, if I add to what Cynthia just said, typically when a potential new resident comes into a retirement community and they’re dealing with the sales and marketing team, one of the top three questions always is around the dining department. If that’s one of the drivers for potential residents, we need to make sure that we’re making it a driver for our other financial decisions as well.

Mike: Well, yeah. The dining department needs to not be an afterthought like, “Oh, hey, I have this much money left to spend. Let me figure out how I can feed people.”

Early in your planning stages, if you’re a new place that’s building up, then start planning and budgeting for your dining department, for your labor, for top-tier employees. Then if you have a budget meeting or a budget refresh that comes up every couple of quarters, every year, every few years, or whatever your period is, plan for that early in the budget rather than trying to use whatever dollars are left over.

Cynthia: Mm-hmm.

Mike: Scott, what tools and resources should you have in your toolkit, as a member of the C-suite, to be more fully engaged in the operations?

Scott: Great question, Mike. I think the number one tool – and it’s not a physical tool – is being open-minded, not being so focused in on, “I have somebody that manages that department. Therefore, I don’t have to touch that department.” Being open-minded is the number one tool.

Now, when it comes to physical tools, you need to walk the department daily, every other day, front and back. That’s a tool, belief it or not. Letting your team see you.

You oftentimes see administrators and C-suite individuals walking the halls, talking to residents, checking on nursing. They should treat the dining department the same way.

Now, to make those walks and those engagements easier, there are a couple of things that they can take. There are simple checklists, pocket checklists, that they can take that basically memory joggers so they can pull it out.

They can say, “Oh, I should look at the floors in the walk-in,” or “I should maybe pick up a thermometer and ask one of the employees or team members to show me how to calibrate it.” Let’s face it. Food safety is so critical in any community, any restaurant establishment.

Walk around and look at personal hygiene. Visually look. This checklist can say, “Check fingernails. Go look to make sure people’s fingernails are clean.” It’s simple basics.

What happens is, once the team sees that you’re following some kind of protocol – they don’t know that you necessarily have a cheat sheet – they know that there’s consistency in place, that you’re checking on things. You’re not just taking the word when the dining manager comes to the morning meeting. “How’s dietary doing today,” and the dietary manager says, “Everything is great.” Well, maybe it is, but maybe it’s not. If you take that walk, you can see first-hand.

Talk to your residents in the dining room. I question how often do the C-suite individuals actually sit down and dine with the residents or go to the break room or the employee dining area, sit down (periodically), and have lunch with the dining team.

Cynthia: I love that.

Scott: You’d be amazed how much information you can glean out of individuals when you’re breaking bread with them. Don’t be afraid.

Financially, how many of the communities out there are using a spend-down document where you’re tracking, within the dietary department, every dollar spent? Every invoice is tracked at the kitchen level, not at the finance office level. They know, “Hey, listen. Our budget allows for $5,000 of food spend this week.” They’re tracking it starting on Monday (or whatever the first day of their weeks is).

They get close to the end of the week, and they say, “Hey, listen. We’re at $4,000. We’ve got to be careful to make sure that we’re buying only what we need; not to go over that.”

I would tell you that the tools are critical. You have to understand the tools. And if you don’t know them or have them, there are so many resources to find the tools that you need to be successful.

Mike: Yeah. Culinary Coach obviously has access to all of those tools and can provide ideas and a pathway towards success, we’ll call it. Illuminate that pathway, Scott. That’s what you’re there for, right?

Scott: Sure. What we do as the Culinary Coach part of 3rdPlus is we’re a partner consultant. We’re not a consultant that comes in and says, “Here’s everything you’re doing wrong, and here’s how you fix it,” and walk away.

We partner with communities. We do train. We provide them with the tools and resources that they need to be successful. We provide C-suite training.

It’s shocking. Most people in the C-suite are highly educated. But because dining is something they only do typically outside of work – you know, they go out to dinner – the fear is there. So, we try to break down those fear barriers and work with them to better understand their business.

This is what I oftentimes think. A lot of self-op communities are so fearful of dining that they immediately want to go to contract services. Not that that’s bad for everybody, but if you have the basic tools and understanding, you can manage your own department, save money, and provide better quality of service.

Mike: I’m glad you brought up contract dining because, on the next episode of Cosmic Soup, we’re going to dig into the meat and potatoes of contract dining.

Let’s wind this down. How about some closing thoughts from each of you on today’s topic of dining management for the C-suite?

Cynthia: Well, my last tip for the C-suite is to taste the soup. [Laughter]

[Laughter]

Cynthia: Buzz through the kitchen. Taste the soup. Taste the sauce. Look at the food. Eat it. If it tastes good to you, that’s awesome. If it doesn’t, then there’s room for growth.

Scott: And ask questions. When you’re walking through, don’t hesitate to ask anybody in the dining department questions because you’re going to put them on their toes. They’re going to have to provide answers. Along the same lines, the more questions you ask, the stronger your knowledge will get of your dining department.

Mike: Awesome. Great food for thought. See what I did there, Scott and Cynthia?

Thanks again for being here. Always cool to have these conversations with you. I’m looking forward to the next episode where we take today’s topic one step further and discuss ways to manage your contracted dining service.

Scott: Thank you very much, Mike.

Cynthia: Thank you, Mike.

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Mike: Of course, a huge thanks to all of you out there in the real world for listening and hanging out with us here in the Soup. Make sure you tune in next week to hear Scott and Cynthia dig into the multicourse smorgasbord of contracted dining. Trust me. You don’t want to miss that.

In fact, you don’t want to miss any of our episodes, so make sure you subscribe on your favorite streaming platform. If you’ve got questions, comments, or ideas, shoot us an email to [email protected] Now go cruise through that dining department and we’ll talk to you next week on Cosmic Soup.

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