One thing Keegan Hooks has learned during her many years in the event industry is that food and beverage can be the hidden variable that makes an event highly memorable or criticized. “Even though it only passively supports your meeting success, the minute it’s reduced or removed, the overall satisfaction of the event plummets . . . ” says Hooks, CMP, senior director of accounts for the event management firm i4D Events and former organizer of the Sapphire Now + ASUG annual conference. “People go for the content, but if the wrapping is broken, they don’t like it.”
When something is that important to an event, it’s critical to get it right. And that means staying up on the latest food and beverage trends so you’re delivering a culinary experience in line with the needs and values of modern consumers. The days of delivering three plated meals and cookies at the break are long gone.
“A lot of our events are very technical education events, so you have to keep people awake in the afternoon,” Hooks says. “Giving them sodas, brownies and cookies kill the brain.”
In addition to being interested in more healthy food options, many consumers are looking for inventive cuisine that’s beautifully presented, easy to eat on the go, and served with flavorful alcoholic or non-alcoholic drinks. The caution to getting too wrapped up in food and beverage trends is that certain selections might not be appropriate for every audience.
“A meat-and-potatoes audience is not going to like kombucha. So how do you mix what baby boomers want to eat and millennials want to eat and have a good meal for everybody?”
Tracy Stuckrath, CSEP, CMM, CHC
“With all of these things, you still have to think about who your attendee is,” says Tracy Stuckrath, CSEP, CMM, CHC, owner of thrive! meetings & events in North Carolina. “A meat-and-potatoes audience is not going to like kombucha. There are a lot of stories out there about millennials and what they want from meetings, but as people continue to age and don’t retire, the baby boomers are still there. So how do you mix what baby boomers want to eat and millennials want to eat and have a good meal for everybody?”
That is the million-dollar question, and these tips can inform decision-making around the all-important menu.
Convenience foods are growing in every sector of the food and beverage industry, including events.
“Convenience — the ability to very quickly grab and go or have things delivered or brought to an individual — is a huge trend,” says Andrea Streat, CMP, director of conferences for the International Foodservice Distributors Association. “I’m finding more and more that seated dinners are fading away. We’re constantly trying to figure out how to provide food that is less formal and quick; yet remains memorable.”
The move toward convenience foods is tied to several event trends. Plated dinners mean attendees are stuck at a table next to the same person for a long period. Being able to eat quickly and on the go allows participants to keep networking and learning. It also gives people more time to stand and move around, which health-conscious individuals appreciate.
“As budgets begin to decrease in food and beverage and people want to stay away from moving through a big buffet line, we really want to move toward the market feel,” Hooks says. “Within the market feel we can create menus that have hot and cold options that are more grab and go. As conferences get bigger and space is at a premium, we don’t have thousands of [tables] for people to sit at. I can create a menu and send out one-third of the food at 11 a.m., one-third at 1 p.m. and one-third at 2 p.m. Packaged food helps the kitchen and attendees and stays fresh all day.”
Even when she does buffets for smaller events, Hooks makes the experience as convenient as possible for attendees.
“We try to stay away from one line and create an environment that’s more pleasing. We’ll do squares so people can approach the table from all sides and make it more interactive. It feels better, like you’re not just lining up to dig in a trough.”
Stuckrath is also very interested in the accessibility of food and beverages at functions.
“There’s what is being served, but there’s also how people get to it and get into the room and move through the room,” she says. There are several guides online to planning ADA-compliant food and beverage service.
“We definitely are seeing a lot of people jumping on the vegan train,” says Robin Selden, managing partner, executive chef at Marcia Selden Catering & Events in Stamford, CT. She and many other chefs have embraced new ways to get creative with entirely plant-based foods.
At a recent dinner for event planners in New York, Selden served an all-vegan meal that highlighted a different vegetable at each course. Her favorite was the “corn story.” Guests were served a bowl with a corn cake, a corn rib made from a piece of fried and spice-rubbed corn cob, grilled and dehydrated corn kernels, dehydrated corn dust and truffled popcorn. A waiter then came around and poured a corn “bisque” into each bowl on the table.
Additionally, there was a tomato tartare with colorful heirloom tomatoes, dehydrated tomato chips, avocado, shaved sourdough frizelle that was grilled and drizzled with herbed olive oil and fried basil leaves. The dish, which was assembled in a ring mold to showcase the different layers, was topped with a tomato sorbet.
As more people move to a vegan or vegetarian diet, they’re looking for new sources of protein. That, as well as the general interest in healthy foods, put seeds front and center in many dishes.
“They’re able to add texture to salads or cheeses,” says Paul Pettas, communications director for Centerplate, a hospitality company that includes food and beverage service, premium dining experiences, catering, strategy and talent management and many other services. “The creative use of seeds is something we’re planning to increase in the next few months.”
In addition to using more traditional seeds such as sunflower or pumpkin, chefs are incorporating hemp and chia seeds into dishes.
“While kale is something people still love, what’s taken over that we’re doing tons of is shaved Brussels sprouts,” Selden says. “They hold up really well to salad dressing, and while they have that yummy cabbage flavor, they take on the flavor of dressing or whatever you give them.”
To give the sprouts a different texture, she will fry some in tempura batter and toss them in salads for extra crunch.
Using offbeat citrus fruit such as Buddha’s hand is another trend Selden sees.
“You can candy the peel and serve it as a garnish on a gin drink,” she says. “You’re never going to use it whole, so it becomes a topic of conversation if it’s sitting on the bar. People want to hold it and smell it.”
Pettas also says citrus is very popular.
“We’re seeing more citrus flavors get incorporated in flavored waters. We’re also seeing things like kumquats, pomelo and bergamot in drinks and desserts.”
He sees fermented foods as a trend that will have great staying power in the next few years. Miso and fermented hot sauces are among the ingredients people are using for foods; for cocktails, watch for bartenders to incorporate kombucha.
Another food trend is serving traditional comfort foods at breakfast and introducing breakfast as the main meal. For example, “We’ll make interesting waffles with things like falafel,” Selden says. “Or cool, different frittatas that become almost the center of the plate. They can also include the starch because we’ll make them like Spanish tortillas,” a dish that includes thinly sliced and fried potatoes.
Selden is also a fan of toast, especially in place of the typical brunch buffet.
“Instead of bagels, muffins and a variety of different things, we’ll create everything ahead of time. We’ll do avocado toast with feta and pomegranate, or toast with ricotta and smoked salmon. You have this table that looks so bright and delicious, and it’s easy to eat. There’s not a lot of waiting in lines and dealing with condiments.”
Another ingredient, shockingly, is that some chefs are trying cannabis-laced foods and drinks. Cannabis in unlikely to make it onto the main menu at most meetings or events, but Stuckrath thinks these dishes may start showing up as an option at social events. If they do, it’s vital to label them and be very transparent about what they contain.
“There are two different kinds: one that will get you high and one that won’t get you high,” Stuckrath says.” Chefs are experimenting with infusing [both] into food.”
Some people may not want to try cannabis because it goes against their religion or they have some kind of objection to it. Also, it’s not safe for people with certain medical conditions to consume cannabis.
In general, people are still looking for healthier, more nourishing food at meetings and events. The Mediterranean diet, which includes lots of lean protein, fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy oils and whole grains, is very popular right now, Selden says. Hooks adds that many people are still trying to stick to a diet that’s high in protein and low in carbohydrates.
Food allergies continue to be a big issue for which planners have to deal.
“What we do, because we’re a global audience, is we collect dietary restrictions in the registration process and build our menus so we can feed 90 percent of the people,” Hooks says. “For the remaining 10 percent, we send out a lot of pre-event communications to tell them what we’re going to do especially for them. We help those folks find their way.”
No matter what they can eat, people are looking to venues to invest in working with local farmers and food producers.
“I still think there is a value and interest in things that are local and speak to the region or the location of wherever the event is taking place,” Streat says. “What I do in Florida is feature lots of local honey and citrus.”
Planners say communication is the key.
“Meeting planners need to partner with the chef to understand what’s in season to make the food more nutritious and tasty,” Stuckrath says. Buying local can decrease costs in some cases because out-of-season food doesn’t have to be shipped in from far away.
Another way to cut costs is to decrease the amount of food waste generated at events. That’s something to which planners, chefs and sites across the country are paying a lot of attention.
“Food needs to taste good, but it also needs to look good,” Hooks says. With her grab-and-go concept, “[participants] really want to see the great packaging and displays that are also sustainable. We try to create almost a Whole Foods-like look because what we’re trying to create is a Whole Foods market with flexibility for 20,000 people.”
“For me, in my world, there is a desire to really showcase the artistry of food in smaller portion sizes, along with more experiential presentations,” Streat says. “So chefs actually preparing things, providing details on the food that is being served, presenting it in very interesting and natural ways instead of so much frill and flowers.”
At one of Streat’s recent events, the chefs prepared and served food from Boos tables. The tables — named after a butcher who in the late 1800s pioneered what’s referred to as butcher-block cutting boards — have a metal frame, butcher-block top and are often on wheels. They can be used individually as serving stations or put together to make one long table.
“The Boos tables give a very fresh feeling and lend themselves to that local and modern feel,” Streat says. “To me, it’s very simplistic and clean.”
Stuckrath, who once organized a camping-themed event where people could munch on turkey legs and make s’mores at meal time, thinks it’s “super important” to incorporate the food into the event’s theme.
“What would you eat when you’re camping, or what would you eat when you’re sailing?” Stuckrath asks. “Using the food to enhance the theme is a really cool idea.”
Letting guests play with their food just a little can also be a fun way to “present” their food. At another of Stuckrath’s events, participants could make salads in a cocktail shaker. They piled in greens and other ingredients, added dressing, and gave the whole thing a good shake before placing it on their plates.
In a food and beverage crossover, Selden says cooking with tea is a big trend right now.
“We’re doing a lot of infusions in our food with tea. We’ve braised short ribs in cocoa cinnamon tea. It gives it a very interesting flavor that you can’t put your finger on until you’re told what that is.” She has also served a steamed red snapper with a Thai curry sauce that featured coconut milk and tea.
Tea cocktails are still very popular, Selden says. In fact, tea in general seems to be having another moment (or two).
“Tea is a very big beverage on the market,” Stuckrath says. She likes to do short educational seminars at events where an expert explains the different types of teas and the benefits of each. She has also done classes and demos on how coffee is roasted, how to pair beer and wine with foods and how to mix great cocktails.
Also, cold brewed coffee is a still a big trend. For cold and hot coffee bars, “it’s important to have all the right milks and all the right sugars,” Hooks says. That includes cream, non-fat milk, non-dairy beverages such as almond and soy milk, sugar, artificial sweeteners, stevia and date sugar.
“What we’ve been leaning toward for our events is less soda and more of the healthy alternatives, such as strawberry basil water,” she says.
Pettas, with Centerplate, is seeing the same thing.
“Something that our meeting planners are definitely doing more of is using blueberries, peaches, mint or rosemary in water,” Pettas says. “It’s a way to be seasonal and in line with what’s trending at the moment.”
In addition, there’s still a big move toward replacing bottled water with water stations to cut down on waste.
For people who don’t drink alcohol, mocktails are still very popular as an alternative.
“If you have a signature drink for your event, make sure you have a mocktail version too,” Stuckrath says.
For people interested in alcoholic drinks, wine from small production companies are something consumers are increasingly interested in, Selden says. Beer enthusiasts are still interested in trying local microbrews, and Centerplate is exploring opportunities to make those beers hyper-local when possible.
“If we have craft brewing partners in our local markets, we’re thinking about ways we can incorporate ingredients from our onsite farms and honey from our onsite honeybee hives and make venue-specific beers,” Pettas says.
For cocktails, Moscow mules are popular right now, especially when served in a copper mug. Streat uses the versatile drink to showcase local ingredients, such as honey and citrus for Florida-based gatherings. They can also be made with different types of seasonal fruits, or spirits to give them a themed and flavorful twist.