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How a senior living FSD finds staff—and incentivizes them to stay

FoodService Director recently spoke with operators across the country to see how they’re handling today’s labor challenges. One was Moe Memmolo, general manager for dining services at Taylor Senior Living Community in Laconia, N.H. Read on for his thoughts.   Senior Living Staff Cafeteria

FSD: What’s your short- and long-term outlook for staffing, and what’s the most significant challenge to staffing?

MM: Laconia is part of what’s called the Lakes Region. It’s a seasonal enclave with many vacationers, a summerlong concert venue and an event called “Bike Week.” This all means competing with even more employers, many of whom can afford to overpay workers for a couple of months. It’s hard for younger people to turn down the temporary work, so it’s a unique challenge to attract staff. We have been able to assemble our core staff, but it’s been hard to fill some entry-level positions.

What hiring channels/platforms do you tap to find the best candidates?

We use most of the typical electronic platforms—Indeed, CareerBuilder, Craigslist—plus the state of New Hampshire job site. We also host job fairs held on-premise at Taylor and at the Glendale’s Manchester headquarters. We go out to local high schools and tech centers to dispense flyers and post job opportunities. We also partnered with the local community college ... We can approach the college to find both dining and nursing personnel, so it’s a win-win.

When it comes to finding staff, are there challenges to getting them to come work for a senior living community compared to, say, a commercial restaurant?

I’ve found that culinary-trained chefs want to spread their wings and prepare upscale and innovative meals. So some don’t think that senior living is conducive to doing that. They want to flex their culinary “muscles.” While we do provide menus to serve modified diets, we strive to provide residents with dynamic, innovative meals. I tell culinary-trained people that there are opportunities here to spread their wings. I often see burnout with some veteran chefs, where eventually they see senior living foodservice as being attractive to them. They view it as a nice opportunity.

While your obvious emphasis is meals for residents, are you able to build a reputation among the local residents as a destination stop for meals—and, as a result, alter your staffing needs?

Our executive chef is building a reputation in the local community, in essence raising the profile of our menus and saying, “Come dine with us.” He hosted a lecture on foraging mushrooms, and nonresidents attended the event. This adds credibility to the Taylor Senior Living/Cafe Services program. And, by extension, that has an impact on staffing needs, but it’s too early to provide specifics. The headline is that many senior living communities across the United States can work to build the same local reputation with the right approach.

What is your impression of artificial intelligence, and how do you think a technology like robotics might impact staffing in the future?

Based on what we do, we’re in the relationship business—clients, residents, team members—and it’s all about building relationships. The personal approach is how we will continue to be successful, so AI is not something we’ve thought about.

How are you engaging staff to incentivize and, ultimately, retain their services?

We offer benefits, vacation time, sick/maternity leave and more. One intangible approach I abide by is showing a genuine appreciation for staff, which has been very motivating. Rewards programs are effective but also superficial. Genuine caring for employees goes a long way. That sometimes means coddling and other times means a kick in the butt. I’ve learned that you have to treat people the way they want to be treated, not how you think you should treat them. Working side by side with them, getting down in the trenches—that’s a motivating factor too.

You worked in the commercial sector. How does noncommercial foodservice serving senior living differ from your past experiences—and the labor dynamics?

At Taylor, for us a Monday is just as busy as a Friday night—it’s very linear, and we don’t have the peaks and valleys that a retail restaurant experiences.

Do you provide special training to workers to handle/disarm a potential threat or crisis?

We have partnered with the local sheriff on active-shooter training, showing videos and having discussions on the best techniques to handle potential incidents.

How do you handle cliques or groups in the workplace?

I do look out closely for that type of thing. Getting to know staff, hopefully we can avoid that. If we can minimize that, great. If I hear about cliques forming, I make a point to announce that it’s not acceptable behavior. When we have in-services, the first thing I declare is, “Why are we here?” The answer is, to serve residents, so if we get off that path, then we suffer.

What has been your greatest staffing success story this year?

I see our team taking more ownership in their jobs, and that can be a challenge when a new foodservice team comes in. We like to empower people to encourage them to make the best decisions based on the needs of residents. We encourage them to not be afraid to make mistakes—we don’t want them walking around on eggshells during their shift.

What sacrifices have you had to make dealing with a shorthanded workforce?

If we know ahead of time that we are going to be short, [we have] a deep support system with floating managers available from another community or school. We are fortunate to have that support system. If it’s a last-minute thing, we look at it like a puzzle and put the pieces in place, have the coverage in the key areas. It’s a community effort—cooks and managers all stepping in to wash dishes when we’re in a lurch.

What kind of menu ideas do you implement that build excitement?

On menu innovation, we call it “monotony breakers.” We have our regular and seasonal menus, but we like to execute “action cooking” events, such as a taste of New England, where we offer a signature local cuisine culled from the six New England states. It’s a scenario where cooks and managers are out in the dining room interacting with people, and it’s great for team morale.

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