Convention center food and beverage trends are closely following those seen in restaurants and hotels across the country. Many venues are sharpening their focus on farm-to-table meals that meet a variety of dietary needs. They’re serving healthier foods that are creatively composed and beautifully displayed.
The fact that convention centers are paying attention to trends at all may surprise some people. “When you look at the age-old perception of convention center food, it’s overwhelmingly not good,” says Matt Del Regno, executive chef and general manager for Levy Restaurants at the Huntington Convention Center of Cleveland. “Even the word ‘concessions’ means you’re making a concession to what you’d normally want to eat.”
Del Regno is one of several convention center chefs looking to change this idea. “My goal in life as a chef is to make people want to have all their premier and headline events at the convention center, because our food isn’t just competitive with the hotel, it’s excelling,” he says.
“In Cleveland we focus on being restaurant-minded and thinking about the small scale of things and how we execute that one dish or one order and present it at the same quality,” says Del Regno. “We’re moving away from prepackaged food and going back to doing things from scratch. We’re going back to individual portioning. There doesn’t have to be a huge trough of food out there.”
Kelley Whetsell, an independent meeting planner and owner of Meeting Demands in Brunswick, Ohio, works on the annual Content Marketing World Conference and Expo for the Content Marketing Institute. It takes place at the Huntington Convention Center every year. She’s been very impressed with Del Regno’s approach.
“The chef is willing to get creative with the menu items themselves,” she says. “He really looks to use the latest in food trends that are flavorful and interesting and not the same thing you’re going to get from venue to venue.”
A principle reason convention centers are so focused on overhauling their food choices is that consumers are demanding it. “Overall, people have more of a connection to food,” says Del Regno. “Five years ago people didn’t grab on to the food buzz words like GMO and gluten-free. They didn’t recognize the importance of local farms and humanely sourced product. Now planners are bringing that to convention centers.” And they are responding in kind.
“Our mandate from the county is that we bring a five-star hotel experience to the convention center, and that’s what we’re doing,” says Marcel Martinez, executive chef at the Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center.
So when the convention center hosted the Professional Convention Management Association for a recent meeting, Martinez put together a memorable display. “I visited some of the local beaches and picked up some driftwood and sponges and shells, and drilled holes in them and created a beach scene,” he says. He made a variety of foods that were placed in bite-sized waffle-like cones and served on sticks. On the savory side there was hummus in a curry-infused cone and tuna tartare in a squid ink cone. The sweet cones were coated in chocolate and nuts, and filled with mango lemon mousse.
The creativity doesn’t end there. Martinez likes to put on a “taco truck” meal where fixings are served in Tonka trucks. Another group at the convention center had a James Bond theme for a special event. At their request, he crafted dishes with names that riffed on Bond movies, including Pie Another Day and Goldfinger mac and cheese.
Content Marketing World’s theme color is orange, and every year the Huntington Convention Center’s kitchen puts together a snack break that’s full of orange foods — and not just oranges and Cheetos, Whetsell notes. In recent years they’ve done pretzel bites with beer cheese dip, carrot sticks with red pepper hummus, paprika French onion dip with housemade cheddar cheese chips, orange waffle parfaits with orange cream and orange whoopie pies.
“When you incorporate tastings or things to provide visual interest, attendees think, ‘Wow, this group really put some thought into this,’ ” Whetsell says to explain why the Institute goes to such great lengths with the break. “They’re grateful they’re not getting just a turkey sandwich.”
Christine Couvelier is a president and global culinary trendologist for Culinary Concierge in Vancouver, BC. She gives some insight into the trendy flavors planners may see from convention centers and other F&B providers soon. “Salt is still the new pepper,” she says. “There’s crunchy, flaky and crystal salt from out-of-the-way places, everywhere from Key West to Vancouver. It’s a great way to add a twist to a dish.” She recently experimented with putting merlot balsamic vinegar salt on roasted potatoes with great success.
“Doughnuts are the new cupcakes,” she adds. “Meatballs are the new meatloaf. Mason jars are the new bowls. Deviled eggs are the new comfort food appetizers.”
Waffles are Couvelier’s dish of the year and another food that will be showing up on more menus. “It’s more than chicken and waffles,” she says. “It’s breakfast, lunch and late night.” She’s seen waffles turned into cinnamon rolls and grilled cheese sandwiches, made with brownie batter, topped with tater tots, or filled with vegetables such as zucchini or roasted red peppers. They’re a fun food that’s easy to eat and familiar to everyone.
Vegetables of all kinds continue to be hot items as convention centers move toward more healthful foods. “Vegetable-centric menus are big this year, and next year they’ll be even bigger,” says Couvelier. “Everything from A to Z, artichokes to zucchini. This is veggie cuisine without being expressly vegetarian. We’re not saying you’re not going to have meat on your plate, but veggies are the star.”
Paula Schneider, director of meetings and conventions with the Fairfax, Virginia-based American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery, recounts an excellent vegetable and fruit-heavy lunch that was served at their annual conference at the Los Angeles Convention Center. It started with a market fruit basket, which included a selection of seasonal hand fruit. The main portion of the meal included a vegetable antipasto platter, vegetarian lasagna with oregano panko and sautéed green beans. For dessert, the staff served cannoli with fresh berries.
“The fruits and vegetables were all high quality, and the presentation of the meal was very well done,” Schneider says.
Veggie-focused meals can get very creative. “It’s all about changing it up,” Couvelier says. “You might always have had cauliflower on the menu, but let’s mix it up and do cauliflower rice or purple cauliflower. Purple cauliflower is huge this year.” Another trendy option is vegetable Popsicles made with ingredients such as purple carrots and beets.
Meals packed with vegetables help convention centers meet another important goal: providing quality food for vegetarians, vegans and people on the paleo diet. The need to meet dietary restrictions is important in today’s marketplace, and venues are rising to that challenge. They’re also committed to doing it in a way where everyone will be satisfied with the meal they receive.
“We design all of our buffet meals so we have a vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and dairy-free option available,” says Del Regno. “It’s not just something that’s on the table as a vegan option, it’s something we’ve put a focus on to make sure it’s the best item we can do and it tastes great. It presents so nicely that someone who’s not vegan walks down the line and happily takes it. We have to prepare it for 3,000 because everyone wants to eat it.” Examples include sweet potato croquettes, Tuscan white bean cakes, kale chips or garlic chips with chard.
As interest in sourcing local grows, more convention centers are making an effort to procure meats, fruits, veggies and other products from area farms and producers. The Huntington Convention Center really takes this to the next level with their 100 percent local sourcing policy.
“We have a farm 40 miles from us that grows all our greens year-round,” Del Regno says. “We have more farms that grow our other vegetables. Our pork is Ohio raised and humanely handled. We have certified-humane antibiotic-free chicken.”
The convention center even produces some of its own food onsite. They have bee hives for honey, chickens for eggs and an herb garden. They also keep hogs in a special onsite pen. These animals don’t produce much in the way of edibles, Del Regno notes; they partner with locals to maintain bee hives offsite, and they get additional eggs from other vendors. What the animals do is serve as catalysts for conversations about the convention center’s values and practices. “People see the animals and then ask the staff about it and they can tell the story of 100 percent local sourcing,” he says.
Many convention centers are obtaining LEED certification to demonstrate their commitment to eco-friendly practices. The Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center is one. They received LEED Gold certification in 2012.
Recycling and composting is a big focus for the kitchen. “We use a lot of plant-based recycling materials as to-go containers,” says Martinez. “We have a food digester in the kitchen, which saves it from going to our landfill in Broward County. There’s a recycling program in the kitchen and convention center.”
In addition, they’re working on ways to limit food waste — another big industry trend these days. “We’re preserving a lot of the vegetables that we know we won’t use,” he says. “We’ll pickle them, dehydrate them, make jams, that kind of thing.” These from-scratch items are a big hit for people who are looking to consume healthier foods with fewer preservatives.
Like hotels and other venues, convention centers are revamping their drink menus to stay current with industry trends. “I’m almost shocked to see how much the mocktail has taken off,” says Del Regno. They do a lot of blueberry lemonade for breaks, and their bar staff can whip up custom alcohol-free cocktails for groups upon request.
Couvelier has noticed the same thing. “People are playing with things like cold-pressed juices, lavender, herbs and spices in them,” she says. They may add ice cubes that have been smoked or come in interesting shapes.
The other beverage that’s taken Del Regno by surprise is cold-brewed coffee. “If you asked me 18 months ago if it had legs I’d have told you it was a flash in the pan, but it’s done nothing but take off,” he says. “We’ve gone from just cold-brewed coffee to cold-brew mocktails, like mojitos with coffee instead of rum. It’s not going to work for everyone, but for the right group, when we offer it people are really excited about it.”
The way beverages are presented matters too. “At the morning breaks, instead of doing pitchers of cranberry juice or orange juice, we’ll put them in glass bottles with straws with fun colors or polka dots,” says Martinez.
Waters flavored with fruits and vegetables can be a great alternative to sugary sodas and other drinks. “No one wants to just look at a few gallons of water, so try to do some spa water,” says Whetsell with Meeting Demands. “For our orange break, we do oranges in the water.”
Smoothie bars also continue to be big. For a modern, health-conscious twist, Couvelier is seeing vendors add turmeric, a bright yellow spice that has anti-inflammatory properties and also adds great color to beverages.
Convention centers have traditionally been reluctant to bring in outside food vendors that could take sales away from their onsite venues. But that’s starting to change.
“When we did our site visit at the Los Angeles Convention Center they introduced the idea of having food trucks come in, which we thought was new and different,” says Schneider with the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery.
The convention center’s staff arranged for a different food truck to come every day of the five-day event. Choices were quite varied and included gyros, Korean barbecue, grilled cheese, Mexican and homemade ice cream sandwiches made with fresh cookies. The trucks parked in the loading dock and served food that could be eaten at outdoor tables or taken back into the convention center.
“We had it start during move-in, which is a time the convention center doesn’t like to open outlets because traffic isn’t as high,” Schneider says. Having the food truck available meant exhibitors didn’t have to leave the convention center to grab lunch, which they really appreciated.
Conference attendees loved it, too. “It really hit the market for grab-and-go, and it was very affordable,” Schneider says. Folks also liked the outdoor seating, which gave them a convenient excuse to get out of the building for a little while.
“The only thing the convention center asked was that we keep all the outlets open, which we knew we would have to do anyway,” Schneider says (their event draws around 12,000 people between the participants and exhibitors). “They had lines every day — and I don’t mean that in a negative way.” The meals at the onsite venues were apparently quite good as well, which doesn’t come as a surprise in this new environment of convention center food excellence.
Other convention centers are hopping onboard the food truck trend including the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center, which recently debuted The Cove, a new indoor/outdoor street party event venue perfectly suited for food truck events and other special catering setups. “We’re constantly rethinking our spaces, and this is a venue unlike anything you’ll see at any other convention center,” said Steve Goodling, president and CEO of the Long Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Savvy conventions centers like these that stay on top of culinary trends know that the quickest way to a planner’s heart is through creative cuisine that leave attendees well satisfied. AC&F