Beyond The Buffet Table: What Retirees Are Really Hungry For

When it comes to the dining experience, what do retirees crave the most? We decided to find out. We conducted Project Looking Glass II, a study to learn how marketers can better reach the Boomer and senior markets. (This study, which placed researchers in a senior living community for 31 days, was a five-year follow-up to Project Looking Glass I.)

In both studies, we learned that the dining experience shouldn’t be underestimated in appealing to this market. Here is a taste of our most recent learning:

Insights for Retirement Community Management 

Residents feel that it’s important for you to take the time to eat in the dining room. While you’re there, move around the room and ask diners if they like the food, or if they have any needs that aren’t being met. 



Other Tips:

  • Get fresh. More than half of all current and potential residents see fresh and healthy dining options as extremely important.
  • Watch the temp. Cold food on the buffet is not appealing.
  • Serve up variety. Our participants like having a mix of à la carte menus and buffets. They also enjoy chef’s specials and themed features such as “vegetarian night.” 
  • Meet dietary needs. Residents appreciate menus that are coded with icons indicating no sugar added, low-sodium, ocean-friendly, organic, vegetarian, no dairy, and gluten-free.
  • Foster friendship. Meals are opportunities for socialization, particularly for those who have lost a spouse. Many like large, round, “community tables” that build a sense of camaraderie.
  • Be flexible. Many residents said they enjoy cooking breakfast or lunch in their unit, yet still look forward to having a larger “main meal,” which could be lunch or dinner, in community dining venues. Flexible meal plans were a key selling point – and best of all would be the ability to carry over meal credits for future use. 

Insights for Restaurant Management

The mature market still enjoys dining out, although frequency and preferences change by age. Older subjects indicated that they seldom eat out – or limit their excursions to once a month for reasons ranging from inability to drive to cost concerns. For this demographic, eating out usually revolves around a special celebration with friends.

Younger subjects, on the other hand, reported dining out as many as three times per week. They noted that their appreciation of food has not changed, and that they like the proliferation of healthy options now available.

Advice to Digest:

  • Downsize portions. Several diners said portions are too large for the older appetite. (They explained that they hate to leave anything unfinished, as they were raised during The Depression.) Boomers also expressed concern that larger portions are not ideal for the older diner and contribute to the nation’s obesity crisis.
  • Seat them in a quiet spot. Older and younger Boomers shared that they are beginning to feel a reduced tolerance for background noise. One gentleman explained that he tries to sit against a wall when visiting noisy establishments in the hope that this choice of seat will help absorb the background noise and not interfere with his hearing aids.
  • Keep it clean. Cleanliness can be a deal breaker for this audience, particularly when it comes to dining areas and restrooms. 
  • Manners matter. Management should be aware of the perception among these groups that staff courtesy is on the decline. They would be wise to incorporate some type of “senior sensitivity” into training programs. 

Net Takeaways:

Both retirement communities and independent foodservice providers should be sensitive to concerns of the older market regarding food temperature, variety, healthy choices, service, cleanliness, lighting, and menu print size. After all, as one retiree said, “Food is the most important thing. Some people live their lives around it.”

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