Dinner a popular, complex meal
Six out of 10 operators who serve dinner report that their dinner daypart has remained static in the past two years. Sixty-four percent of operators expect their dinner daypart to remain the same in the next two years.
Colleges and long-term care/senior living facilities tend to have the most varied menus, according to The Big Picture, at least when it comes to lunch and dinner. When asked to compare their lunch and dinner menus, 67% of long-term care and senior living operators and 55% of college foodservice providers said their lunch and dinner menus tend to be completely different.
Conversely, hospital programs are more likely to “recycle” their lunch menus at dinner, with 54% of operators saying their lunch and dinner options are almost identical. When it comes to schools and corporate dining, dinner is an unlikely option; 93% of schools and 76% of B&I operations do not offer an evening meal.
Eric Eisenberg, corporate executive chef for Swedish Health Services, has a sensible explanation for why this Seattle health system doesn’t vary its lunch and dinner fare. “If you are a patient, your sense of time is very skewed,” Eisenberg says. “Meal periods don’t relate to time of day in the hospital. They are more aligned with how the patient is feeling and what they want at that time. That’s also why we serve breakfast all day.”
Eisenberg adds that similar reasoning dictates that retail menus also be the same. “Staff are also in their internal clocks based on work hours that do not say that lunch happens at lunchtime or dinner at dinnertime.”
However, that equation can change, at least on the retail side, based on work schedules, says Joy Cantrell, executive chef at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center, in Burbank, Calif. “Because we deal with nurses on 12-hour shifts, they need a different option for dinner,” Cantrell says. “They do not want to see the same meal they ate at noon.” Providence’s employee cafeteria features grill, sandwich and pizza stations that stay open for both meals, and a build-your-own salad station that is open only for lunch. “Then we rotate out the hot food stations,” Cantrell says.
The same approach works for colleges and senior living locations, where customers are often enjoying both lunch and dinner on campus several days a week.
When it comes to senior living venues, dinner is the most important meal of the day, with 45% of total meals at an average retirement home or CCRC being served in the evening. But that’s not because older people don’t eat breakfast, according to Sam Austin, executive chef at Claridge Court, a CCRC, in Prairie Village, Kan.
“In most senior living communities, residents get one meal per day as part of their maintenance fee,” says Austin, who offers a continental breakfast each morning. “Our seniors are pretty active, and they can prepare meals in their own apartments. They tend to take their one meal at dinner, so it’s more communal.”
But universities are where dinner is a growing business, with 40% of them saying their dinner counts are higher now than they were two years ago. On average, only 26% of total operators say their dinner counts have gone up in the past two years. Many college directors attribute this increase to the daily habits of their student customers. Forty-five percent of colleges anticipate the dinner growth trend to continue in the next two years.
“A big reason for the shift is the students’ lifestyle—they are staying up into the wee hours,” says Jill Horst, director of residential dining at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “The dinner meal period is actually seen as the second meal period of the day. Our late-night meal period continues to grow at a rapid rate. More and more students use this meal period as their dinner meal, and they want a full meal, not just grilled items.”
Val Brown, director of dining services at Utah Valley University, in Orem, has seen a 10% increase in dinner business. “We feel that this is, for the most part, due to more classes being scheduled later in the day and a significant increase in evening and weekend classes,” Brown explains.
Orlynn Rosaasen, director of dining services at the University of North Dakota, in Grand Forks, says, “We have experienced an increase in both dinner counts and late-night counts but also in breakfast counts. A good percentage of this can be attributed to the flexibility built into our unlimited access meal plans. Students can access the dining centers multiple times without the worry of running out of meals for the day or the week.”
Rosaasen speculates that students are entering the dining halls more frequently during the day but eating smaller meals, because “even though the meal counts have gone up, we have not experienced a proportionate increase in food costs.”
31: The percentage of total business that the dinner daypart represents for those operators who serve this daypart. Nursing homes/long-term care/senior living operators report that 45% of their business comes from the dinner daypart, which is a higher percentage than the other two major segments that serve dinner—colleges at 34% and hospitals at 20%.
57: The percentage of operators who strongly agree/agree that restaurant trends influence the development of their menus. Operators in B&I (76%), colleges (66%) and hospitals (63%) are more likely to strongly agree/agree with this statement than schools (51%) and nursing homes/long-term care/senior living (48%). Locations with $5 million or more in annual food and beverage purchases are significantly more likely to strongly agree that restaurant trends influence menu development (37%) than operations with smaller purchases (11%).
Similarity Between Lunch, Dinner Menus Vary by Segment
The difference among segments is especially clear when it comes to the similarity between lunch and dinner menus. Nursing homes/long-term care/senior living (67%) and colleges (55%) are significantly more likely to have completely different dinner and lunch menus than hospitals, which are significantly more likely to serve identical menus for both of these dayparts (54%). Most schools (93%) and B&I operations (76%) do not serve dinner.
For Most, Dinner Growth Stagnant
Six out of 10 operators who serve dinner report that their dinner daypart has remained static in the past two years. Operators at colleges (40%) and those with annual purchases of $5 million or more (55%) are significantly more likely to have seen an increase in their dinner daypart than healthcare and senior living operators (22%) and those with lower annual purchases (23%). The average increase in dinner business was 23%, while the average decrease was 19%.
Sixty-four percent of operators expect their dinner daypart to remain the same in the next two years. However, colleges are significantly more likely to expect an increase in this daypart (45%) than healthcare and senior living operators (30%). Also, contract-managed accounts are significantly more likely to expect an increase in their dinner daypart (49%) than self-operated locations (28%).
Healthy Dinner Items to Grow
Salads/salad bars will be one of the three fastest growing center-of-the-plate dinner categories in the next two years, one-third of operators contend. Four other categories were selected by one-quarter of respondents: chicken-based hot entrées, vegetable/bean-based hot entrées, cold/hot sandwiches/subs and fish-based entrées.
Vegetable/bean-based hot entrées have significantly higher growth potential in self-operated locations (28%) than contract-managed accounts (14%). The same holds true for those in the Northeast (45%) when compared to the remainder of the country (20%).
Operators in nursing homes/long-term care/senior living are significantly more likely to expect no growth in any dinner category (43%) than colleges (11%) and hospitals (18%).