Foodservice as Differentiator for Retirement Communities as Consumer Expectations Evolve

Oct 27, 2023

By: Mandy DeLucia – Concept Development & Client Services


One in six persons worldwide will be 60 or older by 2030. As the largest generation in history approaches retirement, their demands for diverse, nutritious, and personalized culinary offerings are reshaping the dining landscape in and around senior living communities. With the number of options for age-restricted communities expanding far outside the traditional model of retirement homes, modern consumers are active, invested, engaged, and educated more than ever before and are increasingly harder to please.  According to research firm Datassential, nearly eight in ten senior living community residents (79%) have stated that food offerings are important to them.


The Baby Boomer generation, born between 1946 and 1964, has been known for their strong sense of individualism and their desire for a high quality of life. As this generation enters retirement, they bring high expectations for their dining and living experiences as they enter retirement communities. Boomers have redefined aging and retirement by emphasizing the need for quality healthcare, diverse leisure activities and a focus on gourmet, nutritious, and customized dining options. To meet these evolving demands, that sector must adapt and prioritize its food service offerings to stay relevant and competitive, adopting strategies from restaurants and foodservice outside of their industry to remain relevant.


The retirement community industry is experiencing a transformation from traditional assisted living facilities to active adult communities filled with single-family homes, pickleball courts, and HOAs.  Gone are institutionalized cafeterias, one-size-fits-all menus or early bird special casual restaurants. Forward-looking retirement communities must invest in culinary expertise, personalized dining experiences, and the creation of vibrant food-centered communities that meet the needs of consumers who watch the Food Network and have traveled extensively. Operators serving retirement communities often offer multiple restaurant-style dining options, from convenient grab-and-go destinations and casual bistros to more formal dining settings with bars that feel like a social club. These complex foodservice operations mean that operators serving senior communities are experiencing the same challenges as restaurant operators, from staffing to rising COGS with a captive audience who have a sense of ownership and are typically more invested in the execution of the concept.

As a broader range of options are developed for the 55+ age group, these communities and residential centers will need to focus on food to attract new residents.  To remain competitive, providers need to understand the following factors:


Food as a Social Hub

Those entering retirement are sophisticated consumers who view dining not just as sustenance but as a social and cultural experience. Retirement communities must foster a sense of community around food, allowing residents to connect, share meals, and form new connections. Dining together promotes a sense of community and helps combat social isolation, depression, and loneliness that can sometimes accompany retirement.  Casual spaces offering refreshments give residents a third space outside their living areas to socialize. In communities where it makes sense, offering a robust bar program gives residents a place to share a drink close to home.


Culinary Focus with Wellness in Mind

Employing skilled back-of-house staff and using technology or consulting with a nutritionist to create balanced offerings helps to cater to the diverse dietary preferences and health needs of those over 65. Retirement communities must be equipped to accommodate various diets, including vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and other specific requirements. Baby Boomers prioritize health and wellness and expect balanced options that promote physical well-being, while being delicious. They also want to find indulgent, comforting menu options that suit their mood.  A balanced menu with seasonal innovation gives regular users a mix of the familiar and new to avoid menu fatigue.


Customization and Choice

Personalization is key. Food service must provide residents with choices and options, allowing them to design their own culinary experiences. The quality of life in retirement communities is closely linked to the quality of available food service options. A well-executed food program nourishes the body and supports mental and emotional well-being. At the same time, customization gives guests the control they desire without having to cook at home. Including home meal replacement options, delivery service, and catering options for residents can be part of a high-quality food service program that contributes to overall resident satisfaction.


The importance of food service in retirement communities cannot be understated. By recognizing these demands and embracing innovation, operators can not only meet but exceed culinary expectations, differentiating their brand from other senior living communities competing to attract residents by leveraging their modern, sophisticated foodservice programs. Active adult communities prioritizing food service are well-positioned to thrive in this new era of retirement living. They should encourage open communication with residents to address their concerns and preferences, ensuring that food service remains adaptive and responsive to their needs.


In addition to food service outlets, programming can be used to engage residents, such as:

  • Providing cooking demonstrations to teach a cooking skill or introduce a new menu item, allowing participants to do a taste test.
  • Invite residents to participate in creating community-branded products such as sauces or jam labeled with community logo.
  • Treat your operations like a catering company to invite residents to host events in their homes with food delivered from the on-site operations.
  • Start an on-site garden with herbs and edible plants, invite residents to create a club to harvest the herbs and vegetables served during meal time.


Senior living communities that provide consistently high-quality foodservice in a variety of experiences will see increased resident satisfaction and, ultimately, housing values. This success can be a powerful tool when marketing communities to the increasing number of retirees who value quality dining experiences and who have more choices than ever about where and how to live their lives. These demands provide restaurant industry challenges for senior living communities that require strong partnerships with food suppliers and equipment manufacturers, and in many cases, foodservice consultants that can leverage their experience to provide a range of solutions from menu innovation and seasonal menu items to the development foodservice concepts and execution of pop-up events.


To support business growth and stay competitive, Synergy believes that senior living communities must evolve and adapt to the expectations of residents and their families. Foodservice can be much more than a line item in your overhead; it can be a differentiator and an essential part of your strategy to attract and retain residents and drive expansion. The convergence of evolving food service with the unique needs of active seniors will undoubtedly lead to a new era in retirement living, combining the best aspects of on-trend dining, community service, and personalization to create an enhanced quality of life for the largest generation in history.


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