Creating a 5-star hospitality experience is essential for happy residents and staff. Aaron Fish, Founder and CEO of Trestle Hospitality Concepts, explains the importance of simplifying the programs.
We want to make sure that our residents feel welcomed in the dining rooms. They want to be a part of this community and we can use food to create that.
Josh Crisp is a senior living executive with more than 15 years of experience in development, construction, and management of senior living communities across the southeast.Learn More ▶
Lucas McCurdy is the founder of The Bridge Group Construction based in Dallas, Texas. Widely known as “The Senior Living Fan”.Learn More ▶
Consistency and long-term success won't be there unless you start laying a foundation of good processes, procedures and training.
Aaron is a BTG Ambassador.
Check out Aaron’s podcast, Tips From Trestle: The Senior Living Food & Hospitality Podcast.
Become a BTG sponsor.
Welcome to season six of Bridge The Gap, a podcast dedicated to informing, educating, and influencing the future of housing and services for seniors. Powered by sponsors Accushield, Aline, ProCare HR, Hamilton CapTel, Service Master, Patriot Angels, The Bridge Group Construction and Solinity. And produced by Solinity Marketing.
Welcome to Bridge The Gap podcast, the Senior Living podcast with Josh and Lucas. A great topic on today centered around hospitality and dining in the senior living industry. And we have a good friend of ours, a Bridge The Gap Ambassador, Aaron Fish. He is the owner of Trestle Hospitality. Welcome to the show.
Thanks guys for having me. Glad to be here.
Aaron, we have loved getting to know you over the past couple of years. You've been an incredible Bridge The Gap Ambassador. You also are your own host of your own podcast on iTunes and probably all the other players that are out there. We've enjoyed watching your growth there. You are very passionate about our senior living industry, specifically related to kitchen, dining, and hospitality. Give us an overview of the variety of topics that you speak about on a day-to-day basis. And then we're going to dive into the topic at hand, which is, don't overthink it.
For me, it's really looking at understanding. We've got to be really good at food and we've got to be able to bring food and not look at it as a separate part, like a silo of our operations, but it needs to be a part of that full community experience. Right? And I think a lot of times operators get in over their heads thinking, "Well, we've got to make sure our food is good and we've got to really focus on that." But they look at it as kind of its own little entity. And a lot of our operators and executives in the industry, they don't necessarily come from a hospitality background, right? And so they feel like it's foreign, and so they look at it in a different way. And so I think if we get in and really embrace it and understand that it's a way to connect with our residents, it's a way to have multiple touch points every day with our residents. I think it's a huge opportunity to not only create huge satisfaction, but also kind of help close that back door from an operations and marketing standpoint.
I love this topic. I wish we had a whole day to talk about it because there's so much to unpack, but there is just so much variation in senior living communities, and I actually love that. I was thinking back when we were talking about doing this show and talking about food, "Don't overthink it." And I can remember early in my career having a community and we were so focused on high quality and high service that we defined that as it had to be super fancy. And I remember my wake up call. I was at breakfast one morning with the residents and I had this older gentleman that said, "Josh, you know what? We absolutely love the food, but why do you have to make it so fancy all the time?" And he said, "It's nice occasionally, but my whole life I've gone to the kitchen, had a casual breakfast, and I had good food, but I didn't have to have it feel like I was at the Ritz Carlton." And he said, "I'm just waking up. It's a little bit too much for me to walk into this every morning." He said, "Could we just do this a little bit occasionally?" And that was my first thought of like, you know what? We really have to understand what our community is about, what our residents want, what they need. And so I feel like that parlays really good with what you have been talking about.
When we start talking about hospitality in the senior living space, everybody goes to that five star, high level, five diamond AAA resort model. It's necessary, right? There is a market, there is a place for that. There are residents that want and expect that, but I think the vast majority of operators who are really successful doing this, they understand where they're at, right? What market are they in? What do their residents expect? What is that basic resident profile? And how do we create that five star service level that meets them where they're at? Right? And I think you can really get lost in doing too much, when really if you kind of get to the basics of we want to put great food on the plate, we want to make sure that our residents feel welcomed in the dining rooms, they want to be a part of this community, and we can use food to create that. I think you can have a really huge impact on the success of your operation and kind of how residents see you by doing that.
You hear all the time from people that are in the industry, whether they're operators or just in the industry in general, people around the industry, and they're like, number one complaint at every community is the food, the dining. There's nothing you're going to be able to do about it because the seniors are always gonna gripe around the food topic. I see you shaking your head right now on the zoom, that seems like that should not be the case. Unpack a little bit of why that isn't really the case or shouldn't be the case.
One of the things that I learned in my many years of getting beat up in resident food committees was listening to the residents, right? And then making sure that you hear what they're saying and that you're trying to execute that. And what they're really looking for, for the most part, is they want consistency, right? They want to know what you're going to offer them, that you're going to meet what they're asking for, and that you put that on the plate in front of them all the time on a consistent basis. I had one resident who was just constantly always complaining about all these little things. And the more I sat with him and talked with him and really started communicating and opening up that dialogue I learned that there were some outlier items that were really bothering him. But what his main concern was is that one day he would come into the dining room and the food and quality would blow him away, and then the next day it would be subpar.
And there never was kind of this consistent execution. And so by kind of looking back into my hotel days of, "Well, what did we do there to be consistent?" And it was putting the right processes in place in the operation, making sure that you have ongoing training that your staff understand basic customer service touchpoints and just kind of doing all of the basic fundamental items when it comes to good hospitality, you really can make a huge impact with your residents. I turned that dining operation around from a high 60, low 70% satisfaction to upper eighties over the course of two or three years by simply just being consistent and listening to the residents and meeting their needs on what they're looking for.
So consistency and listening to the residents, those are some points that I just picked up on. A lot of our listeners do not have huge regional resources. They're smaller operators, or maybe they're single owner operators. They're probably overwhelmed by a lot of things, dining and food services, one aspect of the many plates that they're spinning, no pun intended. What would you say would be an easy way to be able to, or maybe the first steps to evaluating your dining program and getting some systems processes put into place to get you back on track? If you're one of those that are sitting there thinking, my residents are always complaining about food, how do we get this on track to deliver the right program for our market and our community budgets?
I think it starts with looking at how the processes in your kitchen and in your dining operation are working, right? Because what you find, especially with these smaller operators, is that they'll hire a great chef or they'll get a great dining operator and then they just really, truly lean on that person and their experience. Well, that's great while you have that person, but we all know turnover happens. And so when you lose that person, you're basically starting from square one, just like you would with your nursing operation or with maintenance, you've got processes and tools and everything in place. You have to do the same thing with your dining operation. If you kind of just leave it to this, it's a creative operation and you trust the chef, you're going to get some really great experiences. But that consistency and that long-term success won't be there unless you really start kind of laying a foundation of good processes and procedures and training.
Lucas, I know you spend a lot of time in the communities helping people reposition from a construction standpoint, it seems like dining, kitchen, food in general, that whole experience is such a huge focus of even what you do and working with the designers in the kitchen and dining teams too. Correct? You see this a lot.
Yes, I do. And that's a great segue, kitchen design, even from just a development standpoint, what have you seen as far as best practices go when you're laying out the functionality of a kitchen in a new development?
As an operator, as a developer, you have to look at how can I be flexible with what I'm putting in my kitchen, right? You need to be able to change your menus, change your products, you know, kind of move and flow with the trends and being able to create a kitchen space that allows you to have a really good flow, has the right equipment to do a la minute or scratch order cooking is really important, especially now as we kind of start to see the demographic shift a little bit. In the past, everything was built out institutional, and you had all these big pieces of equipment to make large batches of food. Well, we need to be able to cater to these individual resident wishes and create menus that are designed around meeting not just their wants, but getting nutrition involved and really understanding how do we market ourselves with our food program, that it's not just three squares a day, but it's really truly, we've got choice and flexibility and we can meet you in your dining journey, wherever it might be taking you.
Well, I didn't want to derail, but I was wondering in that flexibility, it seems like the industry has changed so much over the last several years. We know there's even more change going on. And how much does the actual equipment selection with that design play into your ability to flex as changing demands happen?
When I'm working with operators and designing kitchens, I really kind of go to more of a, "How do we design this to be more like a traditional restaurant?" Because that's where you're going to get that flexibility. A lot of times people will want to get these really big pieces of equipment that have like one purpose or maybe two purposes. And having equipment such as Combi ovens and things like that where you can pre-program menu items and you can really kind of help alleviate some of the burden on the staff so that way they can really spend time making sure the ingredients are right. They can really focus on executing those recipes well and really paying more attention to how they're building plates and how they're building their food. I think it's really important to understand that. And with that kind of design, you get menu flexibility, right? Like you may want to add items, you may want to add a new program, maybe you've got a nutrition program you want to roll out or something. Having that universal kitchen that lets you do just a little bit of everything allows you to change your program without having to spend tens of thousands of dollars to upgrade equipment.
Knowing where you are, what type of community, what residents preferences are, the flexibility, the design, the equipment, all things. When you think of senior living, there's so many costs that we don't have a lot of control over, but it seems like the dining department, the food, and a lot that goes into all the world that you touch, there's a lot of opportunity to have great financial impact because we know how important everything is to the bottom line as our industry continues to have the operations get crunched. What do you think is the biggest opportunity for operators when it comes to the dining department or dining division to be able to have meaningful savings without compromising quality?
It's kind of a double-edged sword, right? Like we know it's a huge expense center when you look at food costs, and especially with the way food has increased over the last 12, 24 months with inflation. But I think part of the mistake we sometimes make in our industry is we look at it just as an expense, and there is opportunity to really drive some additional revenues with your food program. Just by looking at creating a really great employee meal program or employee menus around that, you can increase your revenues by four or five, $6,000 a month with the right program and really getting employees to buy in, let alone family members and residents who want something more than just their normal meal program. And so I think there's a ton of opportunity there, not just for new developers, but operators who are currently existing to say, "How can we monetize what we're doing? How can we put a profit mindset on our food program so that way we can help drive additional revenues," which will kind of help with some of those NOI pressures that we're seeing in the industry.
Wow. I think that is such a valid point. You basically have a restaurant in your community that is open 365 days a year for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Why not monetize on that? And if you can have a high quality enough food program, think about it, I'm just thinking about myself. How many nights of the week do I carry out home to my family because we are rushed and coming in from practices, and I guarantee you these huge centers with so many employees, potentially, what a courtesy and what a service that could be in addition to a revenue stream, so a great idea!
That employee meal program becomes not just a revenue generator, but it's also an employee satisfier, right? The convenience, the quality, just making life better for them. Being able to grab dinner on the way out from their shift is such a huge impact. It saves them time and stress and it hits home I think when you do it right.
Josh, we shouldn't have recorded this before lunch today, because now that's all I've got. Food on the brain. All right. So Aaron, talk to us as we are going to wrap up the show here. Talk to us about your experience of being a BTG Ambassador.
It has been really great. It coincided with me starting my consulting company. And so the ability to reach out and kind of have this cooked in a network of amazing industry partners as part of the ambassador group first off, was amazing. We were having calls and communicating with each other and figuring out how to work together to make the industry better. It's just been a great experience and being able to be a part of that group, it's been a huge benefit to me, not just professionally, but personally. Because I've made so many great friends who are in the industry, and we can just reach out to each other and communicate and figure out, "Hey, I've got this problem. Can you help me with it?" It's great. And to run into them at conferences and, and do speaking engagements with them, it's just been amazing.
Oh, that's great to hear. We love the Ambassador Program and what that's grown and blossomed into. We appreciate your participation in that. Any final words on this topic or encouragement to operators out there?
I think it goes back to where we started, like, don't overthink it, right? Get your basic foundation set and really focus on that. All of the peripheral stuff will take care of itself if you really get back to basics and focus on meeting the residents where they're at, and creating a five star experience based on what they're looking for and what your market is.
Excellent way to end the show. Thank you so much for spending time with us today. We encourage our listeners to check out Aaron's podcast. We'll put that in the show notes and check him out on LinkedIn and that way you can stay connected. You can also go to btgvoice.com, check out this episode and many more. Check us out on LinkedIn and be a part of the conversation. We want to hear how you are handling these very, very challenging times, specifically on this topic. Are you keeping it simple? And I hope you learned a lot from today. Thanks for listening to another great episode of Bridge The Gap.
Thanks for listening to Bridge The Gap podcast with Josh and Lucas. Connect with the BTG network team and use your voice to influence the industry by connecting with us at btgvoice.com.