Introducing Atria Hospitality: Taking Dining Outside Senior Living Walls

Senior living has taken hospitality to new heights in recent years, drawing inspiration from the hotel industry and other sectors to offer top-flight experiences for residents. But one prominent senior living operator may be taking hospitality in a new and innovative direction.

Louisville-based Atria Senior Living is informally piloting a concept it’s calling Atria Hospitality. Although it has yet to be officially unveiled, the company recently offered Senior Housing News a sneak peek at what’s in the works.

The idea is to extend some of the premium hospitality offerings that Atria has developed, specifically in its culinary operations, into the community under the new moniker. It’s a branding play that already is demonstrating benefits for referrals and staff engagement for the provider, which operates more than 180 communities in 28 states and seven Canadian provinces, offering independent living, assisted living, memory care, and short-term stays.

“I haven’t heard of anything else like Atria Hospitality,” says Chad Welch, the company’s director of culinary development. “For me, it really just expresses how our focus in the culinary department is providing an exceptional experience.”

The Atria Hospitality concept developed organically. Residents and family members—some of them dreading the prospect of stereotypically bland and boring senior living food—have consistently been impressed by Atria cuisine, Welch says. One result is that Atria chefs have been invited to participate in competitions and also asked to cater events. It’s not unusual to have as many as 100 such events going on around the country at a given time, according to Welch and his colleague Ronda Watson, senior vice president of culinary services.

While these catering engagements occur around the country, Louisville is one hotspot, considering it is where Atria’s Company Support Center is located. Welch and his team members have been handling some of these events under the Atria Hospitality umbrella, and clients include such high-profile organizations as the Louisville Orchestra and Botanica, the group behind the city’s Waterfront Botanical Gardens. A more formal debut of Atria Hospitality may occur in September, at a large open house being planned for Atria’s internal nonprofit arm and a local senior services organization called ElderServe.

Photo Courtesy of Atria

Photo Courtesy of Atria

So far, Atria Hospitality has limited its scope to food services for events such as these, although for “friends” of the company such as ElderServe, it also has helped more broadly with logistical planning, says Welch.

As for the ultimate reach and offerings of Atria Hospitality, that is currently under discussion. The minimum expectation is that chefs at Atria communities would all be able to represent their local buildings but with the company’s hospitality standards, says Watson.

Those standards are high and the culinary department is in the process of raising the bar further by constructing a state-of-the-art training center and test kitchen at the Company Support Center in downtown Louisville, which Atria moved into in Dec. 2014.

The test kitchen has been a long time in development—“We’re on our twenty-seventh revision,” Welch jokes about the plans—and is ambitious in design. Plans include an interactive space, so that on-site instruction for chefs can be more hands-on, and broadcasting abilities so that trainings and demos can be live-streamed.

“We try to be really surprising and think outside the box,” Welch says of the approach to food at Atria and the philosophy behind the test kitchen.

A hospitality arm that focuses on catering could provide one more opportunity for Atria chefs to show off their skills and deploy the techniques they learn and share at the test kitchen, further increasing engagement among the company’s culinary staff. Other benefits that Atria Hospitality could bring to the company as a whole include positive branding and increased referrals, say Welch and Watson.

“The point of the events is brand recognition and also being proud that we’re able to show off what we do, and our hospitality,” says Welch. He adds that attendees of the events often ask questions along the lines of, “This is what your residents get?”

Direct referrals and move-ins have originated at events that Atria has catered, says Watson. She anecdotally knows of instances of this happening the Northeast, and the company is undertaking tracking on how many referrals come through Atria’s hospitality services in the larger community.

That said, the current plans are not for Atria Hospitality to become a whole new branch of business to stand on its own, or to be a major revenue driver. The events that it has been doing essentially pay for themselves, so the hospitality business has not been either an expense or a profit center, Welch notes.

Whatever form Atria Hospitality ultimately takes, the concept alone may signal another stage in the maturing of the senior living sector. A negative stigma has existed around senior living generally and senior living food specifically, Welch says. Atria Hospitality appears to be the latest step in banishing that notion and also a sign that already people are associating senior living with exceptional dining.

Written by Tim Mullaney