In-House Culinary Creates Culture

Food Culture

In-House Culinary Creates Culture

Imagine a total stranger comes to your home and cooks Thanksgiving dinner. He or she chooses to cook whatever they want, but they will not accommodate your family’s favorite dishes, recipes or traditions. Afterward, your family will probably say, “That was nice, but it didn’t feel much like Thanksgiving; it was missing Grandma’s rolls, Mom’s pumpkin pie and Dad’s signature gravy.”

This imaginary example isn’t too far from what happens every day at senior living communities. When billion-dollar contract feeders run your dining program, they are also running (and potentially ruining) a huge part of your community’s culture and unique flavor profiles.

You protest, “But wait! We’ve never had a strong culinary culture.”

Yes, exactly. And that’s our point. Without an in-house culinary department that you control, you are missing out on a huge opportunity to create, influence and sustain a warm and welcoming culture at your community. If you don’t “miss it,” that might be because your community never has really had this culture! Fortunately, it’s never too late to create one.

In this blog, we’ll make the case that having your own in-house dining team will pay dividends in higher quality food, lower costs, much happier and healthier residents, and a cultural vibe that prospects will notice.

Food is culture.

Every community talks about having a strong sense of family: “We are like one big family here.” And, just like any family, food is the focal point that brings people together—literally. That is even more true at senior communities because people are dining together dozens of times each week. People will bond over good food. But they’ll also bond over bad food, and that negativity will spill over into other areas of the community. If the food is mediocre, it will create a dismal dining experience, make marketing and apartment sales more difficult and ultimately poison the cultural environment as well.

By leaving a faceless, billion-dollar corporation to pick your menu, cook your meals, serve your food, and hire your kitchen staff and servers, you are outsourcing an extremely personal and important element to an entity that is not truly invested in your culture or financial goals. Remember, these contract feeders also serve colleges, stadiums and prisons. That’s who you are putting in charge of your culinary culture.

Bring it back home … in home.

Many communities understand the imperative of bringing their culinary programs back home to preserve and even amplify their culture. In fact, if the high number of inquiries we have received at The Culinary Coach are any indication, we foresee a mass exodus away from contract dining to in-house dining in the years to come. In fact, as consumers start to educate themselves, we believe that “in-house dining” vs. “contract dining” will rank near the top of their checklist for which community to choose.

In-house taste and menu variety are simply better.

Contract dining companies have created ironclad agreements between food vendors, suppliers and distributors. For all intents and purposes, the menu is set and decided months in advance by someone who has never stepped foot in your community. Of course, taking advantage of fresh, local and seasonal produce is out of the question. And since they are supplying hundreds of communities across the nation, much of the produce is frozen and/or highly processed. We can’t blame contract feeders for this. They are simply part of what we call the “Industrial Dining Complex,” and like all systems, there is very little room for flexibility, creativity or exceptions.

In contrast, an in-house kitchen is allowed to buy from whomever, wherever and whenever they wish, including contracting with local farms, co-ops, grocers and suppliers. Since they are buying locally and seasonally, they can also purchase food that is fresher.

Moreover, since menus are not set in stone, the kitchen can be responsive to the ever-evolving tastes and preferences of the community. At The Culinary Coach, we create Community Taste Profiles that reflect the wants and desires of each community and then offer a variety of menus to accommodate those tastes. Perhaps your community likes more vegetables, fish and rice and less red meat and potatoes (or the other way around). We have taste profile for that. Tastes differ from region to region as well.

In-house attracts and retains the best chefs and staff.

The profession is called “culinary arts” for a reason. Chefs who have graduated from culinary school are like artists; they enjoy the creativity of developing signature dishes and putting their own flair and flourishes into the cuisines they make. They take pride in their work. So ask yourself this: Would a good chef be content with cooking only the menus set down by their corporate overlords? I think you know the answer to that one. Good chefs select communities that appreciate their talents and give them the freedom to express their gifts. Mediocre chefs won’t care where they end up and will be fine with dialing it in every day, month after month, year after year. Cut the bag, heat and serve.

That “do the minimum attitude” is contagious. If the chef doesn’t really care, will her sous chef, prep cooks or line cooks care? What about the servers or the bussers? You get the picture.

That also leads to greater turnover. While we don’t have hard statistics to back up this next assertion, our personal experience tells us that in-house kitchens are able to retain staff for up to twice as long as contract dining. That longevity makes a difference in both the quality and service that residents receive.

In short, all of this is toxic to the well-being of your culture, and it all starts in the kitchen.

A myth exposed: Contract dining isn’t easier to manage or cheaper than in-house.

Many CEOs and community managers believe that hiring a contract feeder is the best kind of “set-and-forget-it” scenario. The contractor will handle all the hiring, purchasing, monitoring, billing and reporting for you. Well, not exactly. The truth is that contract dining has a lot of hidden fees and conditional costs. If you don’t catch and challenge these costs, they will balloon your expenses. The contract feeder has to be watched and held accountable for mistakes. And that takes a lot of time to do it right and requires training to know whether or not a cost is sufficient or even necessary. The old business adage holds true: “Anything that you choose not to actively manage will end up costing you money.”

Also, when it comes to staffing and policies, your culinary employees aren’t your employees. They don’t answer to you or your HR department. They answer to the contractor’s HR department. If you want to discipline someone, you have to go through your contractor to get it done.

In-house dining can make you more cost competitive.

It is our belief that contract dining costs around $100K more than a well-run in-house dining program for the average sized community. Moreover, the in-house dining program will serve better food, better menu variety and better service. It will also have lower turnover and happier employees. The chef of an in-house dining service will likely be of a higher caliber and will care more about how residents respond to his or her food. That positivity will impact the culture, and residents will notice. They’ll invite friends and family to join them for meals, which in turn can turn a culinary program into a prospecting sales vehicle. All of this will make your community more competitive in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Are you afraid? Don’t be.

Yes, making the transition from contract feeder to in-house culinary department will take some work. But it isn’t nearly as hard as billion-dollar corporations make it out to be. And the rewards and benefits are absolutely outstanding and completely worth it.  Our Culinary Coaches have a systematic program that can help you make the leap, as well as the flexibility to make it truly your own.

We’ll perform an on-site review that checks more than 120 different metrics. From there, we’ll create an action plan and train your staff every step of the way. Plus, we’ll never leave you hanging. We’re always just phone call away.

Trust us. You can do this.

Executive Chef Shawn Boling is a principle at The Culinary Coach and has transformed dozens of communities into self-operating successes. Reach out to Shawn to learn more about how you can transition from a contract feeder to an in-house culinary department with the help of his team.

Blog post by Shawn Boling and Cynthia Thurlow-Cruver. Contact them at [email protected].