Using Food to Form Community Connections

Woman shopping for fresh vegetables at a farmers market

Everyone eats, and using a food program can help your operation expand its reach and visibility.

Every business wants to create a stronger bond with its customers and expand its reach to potential customers. Foodservice can play an important role in helping healthcare operators accomplish this. A change of perspective may facilitate the process. 

“Retirement communities have traditionally looked inward,” observes Neil Prashad, President & CEO of Toronto-based Origin Active Lifestyle Communities Inc. He says this has resulted in self-contained environments that limit opportunities for broader community interaction for both operators and residents. 

“But what if we looked outward as well?” he asks. “What if we opened our service platform to customers outside of our real estate?”

Prashad is one of a growing number of healthcare operators exploring new ways to connect with their customers and their local communities and, in the process, earn additional revenue, generate valuable goodwill and position themselves as a service provider of choice.

Many of the new approaches revolve around food. After all, dining is something people look forward to several times a day, and the increasing presence of trained chefs in healthcare kitchens allows a greater degree of culinary creativity.

A focus on food also helps operators capitalize on three social trends valued across all age groups, but particularly among the younger people at the core of your workforce:

  1. Transparency. Customers and employees alike want to know as much as possible about the culture and business practices of organizations they interact with. Being transparent about how you source, prepare and present your food can bolster your reputation for openness and honesty. 
  2. Social responsibility.  A 2016 study by Cone Communications found 76 percent of millennials consider a company’s social and environmental commitments when deciding where to work—and 75 percent say they would take a pay cut to work for a responsible company. Food provides numerous opportunities to positively impact the community beyond your four walls. 
  3. Sustainability. The ubiquity of environmental news coverage is proof of the passion that surrounds this issue. Demonstrating sustainable food sourcing and waste reduction efforts can position you as a “do-the-right-thing” operator. 

One other reason to let foodservice lead the way in engaging customers and community: food is just plain fun.  

Here are some engaging ways you can you use food to add value to your organization.

Highlight local products

If you use local ingredients, call attention to them. Fairview Lodge, a long-term care community in Whitby, Ontario, identifies dishes made with local ingredients by highlighting them in green on menus. The foodservice department also hosts food expos inviting residents, families and staff to engage with local food suppliers and sample their goods. 

Other ideas:

  • Use local ingredients to create in-season specials and limited-time offers. Back them up with marketing materials—like table tents and cafeteria signs—and train staff to tell the story of the local food sources.  
  • Host a farmers market and open it up to the entire community. Many hospitals are doing this, and it can work equally well in senior living.
  • Take residents and staff on a field trip to a local farm. Invite family members and non-customers to join in, perhaps for a fee. Prepare box lunches for participants to take along.

Outwardly commit to sustainability 

Environmental initiatives that extend beyond using local foods should also be highlighted. Whether it’s switching to more energy-efficient equipment, phasing out Styrofoam or reducing kitchen food waste, it’s important to share your goals and progress with employees and customers. Staff meetings, newsletters and dedicated website sections are excellent vehicles for doing so.

Other ideas:

  • Offer menu items that support the global community. This brings the consumer closer to the source, benefiting the image of your healthcare foodservice operation.
  • Reduce, recycle, reuse: Donate excess food to local charities. Start a recycling program and encourage staff and customers to participate. Work with a local composting company to turn food waste into a soil enhancer.

Give back to the community

Giving employees a personal stake in your philanthropic efforts can make them feel good about working for you. Involve your team in a fundraiser activity (i.e., baking cookies). Give the profits to a charity picked by the team. 

Other ideas:

  • Use the money you raise to make employees’ lives easier: fund an education scholarship that team members can apply for, or establish a pool of money that can be used to pay for emergencies such as bus fare when someone’s car breaks down.
  • Volunteer with your team at a local charity. See if you can sell food at an event to raise even more funds.

Invite the community in 

There are all sorts of ways to welcome non-traditional customers into your space to spend money and get a first-hand look at the quality of your program. For example: Origin Active Lifestyles operates pubs at several of its retirement communities. They’re open to the public and they’re also ideal settings for connecting with family and friends. Origin residents are often joined by family members who “get together in the pub to watch hockey games and other special events,” Prashad says. Sales generate a considerable profit for the operation. 

Origin spas are also open to the public, where friends or family members join loved ones to “get mani-pedis while enjoying a lunch or a glass of champagne.” Prashad points out that non-resident seniors like to use the spa because Origin estheticians are skilled at working with elderly skin. 

Luther Village on the Park, a single-site retirement community in Waterloo, Ontario, invites local businesses, organizations and community members to rent on-campus spaces for everything from corporate meetings to weddings. The foodservice department caters these events, says Director of Operations Margo Blayney. “The profits are reinvested in the community to help offset costs.”

Other ideas:

  • Bring in a local business. Storypoint of Rockford, Michigan part of a U.S. Midwest-based senior living operation, recently brought in a local pottery painting entrepreneur to lead residents and families on a hands-on art project. Consider serving food—sold at a reasonable cost—to help cover expenses at events like these.
  • Enlist your chefs and dietitians to offer healthy cooking and nutrition classes at your campus. 
  • Host a movie night, barbecue picnic or ice cream social for senior living residents and their guests. (Luther Village on the Park has an ice cream cart for such occasions.) Charge guests a nominal fee for any food you serve.

Prashad acknowledges that this strategy can pose a challenge to retirement communities. “You’re inviting outsiders into somebody’s home.” But a little sensitivity—and perhaps a separate entrance—can help prevent potential conflicts. Once they get used to it, he says, residents like new people coming in and expanding their horizons.

Foodservice can be an effective means for healthcare operators to solidify existing relationships and forge new ones. Foodservice directors who help their employers accomplish this will make their programs more indispensable even as they grow revenue and improve the lives of the people they serve.