The New Influencers: Why Boomers are changing food service

By Divakar Raju - originally published on

While we tend to assume foodies are Instagramming Millennials, there are other important players leading the charge in the evolution of food culture. Boomers are huge influencers, and they lend their clout to different areas as they retire. According to StatCan, 5,000 Canadian Boomers are retiring each week. A boom that once represented birth and an ample workforce now represents 285,000 people retiring annually over the next seven or eight years.

Boomers represent a unique generation and are approaching their retirement differently than others who came before them. Many are entering their retirement years with bucket lists, exotic travel destinations, and a 60-is-the-new-40 attitude. To compete in the changing market of retirement living, where it used to be simple to get 100 per cent occupancy, retirement centres need to provide something that others don’t to maintain a competitive advantage. Boomers living in retirement homes don’t want to alter their lifestyle because of where they live, and they are pushing retirement communities to step up their food game because they have the purchasing power to match their demands. The want for healthy, tasty, unique and entertaining meal choices isn’t changing, and they aren’t afraid to put their money where their mouth is to get it.

The Health of it All

One of the earliest signs of the generational shift is the awareness residents of retirement homes have surrounding common dietary issues including gluten, salt content, and sugar sensitivities. With this awareness comes generational consumer spending on health. A recent report from Morgan Stanley reveals that Boomers spend 3.4 per cent more on health-related purchases compared to their parents.  It is also expected that this market will increase by 1.04 per cent each year between today and 2060 as  younger Boomers age.

From Farm to Plate

Wanting to remain young, healthy and vibrant involves taking an active interest in what goes into your body. According to Fona International, “Baby Boomers are more than twice as likely as Millennials to prioritize wanting product labels that provide information they can better understand (what they’re eating).” Residents in retirement living want to know the details of what’s in their food, how it’s prepared, whether it’s vegan, dairy-free, grass-fed, free-run or whatever else is relevant to what they’re eating. Whether produce is supporting local farmers can be important in the decision making in terms of what goes on their plates and in their mouths. Because of this, retirement communities are beginning to gravitate towards fresh, locally produced products, and some are even growing at onsite gardens to meet the needs of residents.

Food That Isn’t Hard to Swallow

The move toward healthier, more appetizing meals also applies to residents with disabilities such as swallowing disorders. The advent of the smoothie bowl and other photo-worthy meals belongs in real life as well, as chefs push themselves towards making these meals more innovative and appetizing.  Gone are the days of simply grinding up food in a blender to create a smoothie or vitamin rich shake.  Food molds can be used to provide the aesthetics of a more traditional dish, but with the needed consistency.

Variety is the Spice of Life

If you were given the opportunity to go to your favourite restaurant, and order your favourite meal, each day, each week, odds are that over time you’d get sick of the food and end up hating that meal. Boomers are looking to mix things up, and that includes both the food they eat and where they eat it.  The senior living dining experience was once marked by vast formal dining rooms with banquet-style seating, white tablecloths, and little palpable difference in atmosphere from one meal to the next. The result was something consistent and pleasant but static, limited and predictable. Then came the Boomers.

Long gone are the days of five o’clock dinner times in the same stale room. The evolution of choice allows Boomers to customize their dining experience to their specific lifestyles without compromise. Trends have increased toward multiple venues for retirement residents to enjoy their food, with communities having a handful of options including full-service restaurants, casual quick-service marketplaces, pubs, bistros and coffee and ice cream parlours with extended and flexible hours to help keep the dining experience fresh. While there aren’t a lot of communities that are creating outdoor dining areas, those who are able to provide alfresco patio dining may find that they win the favour of gaining more residents seeking an experience mirroring the life they aspire to in their retirement, sought after Canadian patio experience included.

From the Food Network to the Open Kitchen

There was once a notion that healthy food and the food provided in retirement living is boring and bland. But when retirement community chefs start running cooking demonstrations, tastings and workshops, residents get more excited about eating. Open kitchens, for example, allow for residents to watch their food as it’s prepared. The trend toward open kitchens stems from a focus on transparency in food preparation and diners’ devotion to fresh, local ingredients and made-to-order cooking. An open kitchen also creates a more home-like environment for diners.

Technology to Improve the Service Experience

Boomers make up a decidedly technology-friendly generation that also values good service. By taking advantage of POS systems to provide table-side ordering, not only will the kitchen find out directly what the diner wants, but the wait staff is better able to focus on immediate needs, like refilling wine and water glasses, or grinding that pepper to make sure the meal provided is just right. Paper and electronic based comment cards can help the kitchen and service staff continually improve both the service and quality of food provided.

Brand Loyalty Without Compromise

Marketing companies looking to cash in on the Boomer demographic have realized that this is a generation that values nostalgia, and they’re proud to be loyal to brands they believe in. Whether it’s the jeans they wear, the cars they drive or the fact that they purchase their morning coffee at Starbucks, they support the brands that have earned their trust. If you build them a brand that they love, they’ll want to support it. By creating a destination café that is more than a generic coffee shop, residents will want to go and grab their coffee and will proudly take their guests along when they visit.

Tourism Industry to a Kitchen Near You

Boring, predictable meal planning is off the table as the chefs must evolve with the trends and the dining expectations of a generation that doesn’t want to be told what to eat and when. The Boomer generation does not expect to alter their habits when they move to a senior living community.

While some communities have been eager to adapt and rise to the new opportunities presented by Boomers, others are slower to act. Retirement community operators should follow trends in both food and hospitality-related industries and emphasize variety, choice and the casual, and placing less importance on the formal and tightly scheduled.

What’s Next?

According to a recent article in The Financial Post, “Only a small percentage of younger seniors are opting for some type institutional setting, but a tsunami (of demand) is coming when they hit (their) 80s.” As the industry braces itself for the wave of Boomers in need of housing, they must focus efforts and resources towards appealing to this target audience. Retiring Boomers are interested in the experience. They want amenities like pools, gym, wifi, great food, and a community connection. Preparing for this is crucial.

The industry will need to invest in their future business to keep up with both space available to serve this large influx and unique service demands. Retirement communities like Toronto’s Delmanor has built its vision around meeting these needs and abide by a core mission statement: “To be the retirement living choice of tomorrow; ahead of the curve in a diverse and ever-changing world.” By incorporating multi-level care, live cooking stations, alfresco dining, POS systems, multiple dining options, food molds, and increasing technology in the kitchens they are ahead of the curve and anticipating change. Delmanor and other like-minded companies are leading the charge in the next generations of care.

Today we have an opportunity to expand our services and become cutting edge providers, but in order to do this we need to better understand, survey and meet the changing demands our current and upcoming clientele, and provide a space they’ll want to call home.


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