Convention Centers Dig in to Healthy Catering TrendsSeptember 12, 2019

September 12, 2019

Convention Centers Dig in to Healthy Catering Trends


Attendees have increased their demand for plant-based alternatives and brain-friendly foods. As a result, some chefs today are growing their own produce and herbs.

Healthy is in, heavy is out. That’s the overarching approach to dining nationwide. But is it true at convention centers hosting association planners and attendees? Absolutely.

While “healthy” takes many forms, our experts — planners and chefs — point to the same basic trends: Increased demand for plant-based alternatives; infused water; local ingredients; a higher percentage of vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free and dairy-free items on group menus; the popularity of poke and acai bowls; smaller portions/fewer courses; teas and fresh-fruit juices; and fewer high-sugar drinks and snacks.

All also agree that neither meat nor sweets will disappear. However, meats are being cooked and featured in healthier ways, and traditional sweets are offered alongside healthier nuts, fruits and low- or no-sugar desserts.

These trends play out across all demographics and geographical locations.

Courtney Lohmann, CMP, director of culture with PRA South Florida, says the events industry has seen a huge shift in how dining is handled. “Planners don’t want to serve the same chicken they serve in every city. They want to see authenticity and excitement with their menus.”

“There’s a big push to make the product even more fresh by finishing the dish out on the floor for attendees to see.” James Katurakes, Executive Chef Centerplate

Health and wellness are part of the national zeitgeist, and F&B trends are a reflection of that. “We’ve moved into a realm of brain-friendly foods such as nuts and trail mix to keep us charged up and moving through the second half of the day. I also like that we’re moving to smaller portions, which keep budgets down and attendees from overeating. Allergy-friendly menus are also a must. Eight items cause about 90% of food allergies: cow’s milk, eggs, tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, wheat, soy and fish.”

Though most meals are planned indoors, Lohmann suggests finding more ways to get attendees outside during breaks. “Mother Nature is proven to increase our health, too,” she says.

Emphasis On Locally Grown Foods

The emphasis on locally grown foods is one piece in the larger trend of creating a sense of place. “Dishes have a local taste to them and incorporate more of the story of the destination you’re in,” Lohmann says. “This is honestly my favorite part of the menu now.”

The drive for local also amps up sustainability. “Everyone is trying to be more conscious of what they’re ingesting and using,” Lohmann says. That means bottled beverages are out due to high sugar and plastic. “Flavored water stations should be the norm,” she continues. “I suggest pulling from the local area to add ingredients that make your destination unique. In South Florida that might be water infused with star fruit and pineapple; in New Mexico it might be jalapeno and lime. And,” she adds, “encourage attendees to bring refillable bottles.”

Hardly new, healthy options are routinely part of pre-con discussions along with increased requests for special meals. But before making big changes to a group’s typical F&B offerings and delivery, Lohmann advises being upfront from the start.

“During the registration process tell them that the entire trip will be free from certain allergens in menus. This helps create a sense of ease and may even drive attendance. If you’re going to shift in a big way — have one day of all vegan meals, for example — tell that story before, during and after the event. Engage your attendees with your menu; talk about why you’re making these changes. You’ll find that engagement with the change is much higher.”

There’s long been a perception that healthful menus increase costs, but experts say this is changing as demand in the marketplace increases. In addition, they’re finding that more groups are willing to pay increases in favor of health. Yet there are ways for planners to mitigate costs; smaller portions is one.

“Healthy menus should begin with portion size and what you’re serving,” Lohmann says. “At home, do you serve yourself three 6 oz. portions of protein at dinner? Probably not, so why do it at events? Most attendees take a portion of everything on a buffet. So first, reduce how many options you provide. Second, reduce portion size and serve meals on smaller plates. Doing this, you can serve higher quality food items and still hit budget.”

Deborah Sorgel, M.Ed., CMP, DES, manager, meetings and expositions at Kellen, says vegetarian and vegan options are no longer a discussion but an expectation. She adds that planners whose events include many international attendees, especially from Asia, should plan for a significant number of vegetarians. “With one large group, I stopped counting vegetarian requests under the ‘special diets’ category a few years ago and started ordering for about 20% vegetarian.”

Attendees request many types of diets these days. “This year I had my first request for ‘Halal,’” Sorgel says. “This is the dietary standard as prescribed in the Qur’an. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the venue knew of it and was prepared to accommodate it. I don’t expect it will be the last time I see that request.”

No industry, it seems, is without some demand for healthy food. “I’ve been surprised to see how much action oatmeal bars are getting from men who might have been ‘meat-and-potatoes’ guys all their lives,” Sorgel says. “Boomers are watching their cholesterol, fat and sugar, which isn’t new among conferences with high female attendance or among health-care professionals, but it is new to me in the manufacturing sector. Those mostly male groups might still be heavy on meat but they’re watching their carbs, too. There’s no one-size-fits-all standard anymore.”

Sorgel is also seeing increased desire for more complex plated luncheon entrees. “Roast chicken with generic veggies and starch gives way to poke bowls, which are easily prepared for a variety of diets by adding chicken, fish or tofu. They’re healthy as well as trendy. And rather than two meats and a fish on buffets, I’m seeing vegetarian options replacing one of the meats.”

Moreover, she says, attendees don’t have to be vegetarian 100% of the time to favor vegetarian options at conferences. “I offered a poke bowl/plate to a group of health-conscious nurses and had great feedback. I’ve also used this as an action station at a publisher’s reception in Chicago and it was the most popular station at the event.”

Sorgel acknowledges healthy dishes can impact budget. “Many healthy options require additional preparation to make them desirable. Fresh fruit is healthy and not too expensive, but sliced fruit is more attractive and desirable. Yogurt and fruit are healthy in individual plastic containers but fresh-fruit parfaits in pretty glassware are more desirable. Some groups are willing to pay more to have that.”

As for portion size, Sorgel says, “We need to look at whether we’re overfeeding attendees, which isn’t healthy. I had instances this year where cookies and ice cream at breaks were barely touched because attendees had finished lunch just 90 minutes before. People don’t need to eat every two hours. Next year, I may offer only beverages with bagged snacks on a consumption basis. I hope there will be some interesting options available.”

The Cutting Edge

One question to consider is how planners should intersect with trends. “Meeting professionals are sometimes not on the cutting edge of trends,” Sorgel says. “While we may see them coming, it often takes a while before demand becomes high enough for us to make a change. For general group satisfaction with the menu, I want to rise with the wave, not necessarily be in front of it.”

Chefs today are well aware of the emphasis on healthy and local. Many grow their own produce, have beehives and harvest fresh herbs on-site. The Javits Center in New York City is proof that on-site farming can succeed even in the densest urban area. Javits is constructing a 1-acre rooftop farm, and its green roof is already home to birds and bats as well as bees from which chefs harvest honey.

Mariam Karim, vice president, guest experience at Javits, notes the center’s catering staff has many ways to meet planners’ requests for healthful options in addition to on-site gardens. She says chefs are using cauliflower for pizza crusts and other typically breaded items, and providing such options as immune-boosting soy wild-berry smoothies, poke bowls, snacks featuring protein vs. sugar, house-made chia seed “pots” for dessert and hydration stations featuring herbal, fruit and vegetable infusions.

Perhaps most interestingly, Javits is combining F&B trends with tech trends. The center launched Sally the Salad Robot, a robotic vending machine available at all hours that creates fresh salads and protein pairings on demand for the center’s staff, based on their touchpad choices.

One byproduct of the increased demand for healthy dishes is that it has stoked creativity among chefs. Karim says chefs at Javits are preparing an ever-widening variety of healthy options, “from vegan sushi to dairy-free, sugar-free desserts.”

The Need to Be Creative

They’re also offering meat and traditional sweets in creative ways. “Lean red-meat salads with whole grains and fresh greens can provide needed fuel if a client doesn’t want to eliminate meat from the menu, and many planners now add crudités, fresh fruit and nuts to cookie breaks to give attendees healthier choices.”

There are multiple factors in the popularity of healthful eating, but Hans Lentz, executive chef at Hawaii Convention Center, thinks one is our unprecedented access to cooking shows, tutorials and chefs. “Guests are increasingly discerning about what they eat when they travel and how their food is prepared and presented,” he says. “And meals have become more than just meals; they’re an experience. Attendees expect the meal to tell a story, authentically connect them with a sense of place and be presented in a way they can share with others at the table and through digital media.”

While Lentz says Hawaii CC has always offered a variety of tastes and nutritional and dietary preferences, there’s now more interest in these dishes. He says demand for vegan, vegetarian, gluten- and dairy-free options doubled to nearly 10 percent of event menus.

“Our team has done such a good job of innovating in this area that attendees will order non-meat dishes because they’re so attractive,” he says. One example: The center’s Paradox Burger. “It’s gluten-free and vegan and incorporates an array of spices, quinoa and lentils for a balanced, protein- and fiber-filled burger choice — that also happens to be incredibly tasty.”

Lentz also highlights infused waters, fresh juices and continued focus on local. “Our first choice is always to look locally for everything from fern shoots in salads to sea salt and algae in our poke. Not only are these options fresh from the farm, ranch or ocean, they support our local economy and are better for the environment as they don’t require shipping. This reinforces the deeper story and experience of each dish.”

For example, he continues, “If we have a luau-style menu reflective of a Hawaiian barbecue, we can create salads and sides that incorporate local fruits and vegetables like our ‘ulu, breadfruit and taro. We’ve also created fruit-juice bars for breaks. Attendees can still stop by and grab a cookie, but they have enticing alternatives like a juice bar and fresh-made acai bowl.”

Linda Arcangeli-Story, CMP, also a manager, meetings and expositions with Kellen, agrees that increased demand for healthy options drives creativity and innovation. “Farm-to-table and fresh local ingredients are center stage and we aren’t just working off the same menus at every venue. Food has become a true art and focus of events. You’re seeing chefs’ creations rather than cookie-cutter menus.”

She says asking chefs to create something off the formal menu is popular, “giving them the freedom to come up with something specific to your attendees.”

Among the changes Arcangeli-Story has made in response to current trends is ordering traditional sweets for only about a quarter of her attendees. “If it’s included in the package that’s fine, but I try to lower the numbers, adding fruit and cheese stations along with standard sweets. And I’m not getting push back from my organizations,” she adds.

Among her groups, increased dietary requests are significant. “In the past you’d have maybe two people; now it’s half your attendees. There are so many requests you have to be conscious that when you accommodate people you aren’t costing the association dollars, as some of these are preferences rather than allergies.”

But increased awareness of allergies has driven another trend: Transparency and labeling of ingredients. Arcangeli-Story says that impacts a planner’s job — but there’s an upside. “Having to have everything labeled and making sure each coffee break includes almond or soy milk, etc., means you have to pay a lot more attention to detail. But that increases your creativity when planning, which makes it a more exciting process.”

Creating delicious, healthy dishes often begins with education. Patrick Kehler, executive chef with Aventura Catering, an Aramark company, the food-service provider for the Phoenix Convention Center, says, “We’re educating our team on healthy eating at home and in the work place. This knowledge carries over to client conversations and when preparing food.”

The Phoenix CC has its own urban tower garden producing various types of greens and herbs, including the center’s signature “chocolate-mint leaf lettuce.” And though requests for healthy and diet-restricted dishes are not new, Kehler says, “The standards for these have been elevated. The quality of food must improve daily.”

Kehler thinks healthy food can actually decrease F&B costs because “cooking these items requires little to no costly additions like cream and butter.”

Like the other chefs, Kehler builds menus “with plenty of healthy meat options for clients to choose from. The heavy options are there but fewer people want to leave a convention stuffed and uncomfortable.”

His menus include cauliflower steak, lots of vegetables, salads and whole grains. There are sweets for breaks, too, offered alongside nuts, seeds and veggie chips.

But for Kehler, customizing is paramount. “We meet with clients on a more intimate platform to find out what they really want and adjust our menus to give them the ‘wow’ experience. Customizing special requests and meeting with chefs give clients a sense of partnership. Each event involves working together to make sure each guest gets healthy — or comfort — foods.”

The Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida, has an aeroponic garden where chefs harvest approximately 850 plants a week. The center’s house-grown plants include sprouts, microgreens and herbs offered to groups as a “farm-to-table” option.

James Katurakes, executive chef with Centerplate, says one trend he’s seeing is increased interest in ethnic cuisines including Korean barbecue and Pho noodles. “Noodle soup has been extremely popular in the last couple of years.”

He lists grain salads and artisan items as trending, with artisan foods providing that desired sense of place. “Our clients are wanting a more unique, authentic approach to their food. I don’t see that trend going away anytime soon.”

No ‘Standard’ Buffet

Like others, he says the standard buffet is no longer “standard.” It includes gluten-free and vegetarian items routinely. He also points to the growing need to meet complex dietary requests. “People are no longer just vegetarian or gluten-free; they’re vegan and gluten free or vegetarian and kosher. That provides a challenge in finding products and preparing dishes for those with several restrictions, but we’re also seeing the market change.”

Katurakes says healthy, fresh foods have long been available at prices comparable to other foods. “However, when we get requests like non-GMO or 100% organic, the price does pick up, and that’s due to supply and demand.”

Just as planner’s roles are impacted by food trends, that’s true for chefs, too. “Planners want chefs in the dining rooms ‘finishing’ the product,” Katurakes notes. “There’s a big push to make the product even more fresh by finishing the dish out on the floor for attendees to see.”

That deeper connection to the food is something Matt Smith, CEC, CCA, executive chef with Levy Convention Centers at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Ohio is seeing as well. “Attendees have always talked about wanting to eat healthfully, but now we’re seeing guests who have invested real time and thought into what this means for their lifestyle,” he says. “Event planners and guests want to know more about how we source the food. They’re excited to learn that we work with local growers, artisans and boutique purveyors who prioritize organic ingredients and think deeply about the environmental impact of their products.”

The definition of healthy options continues to expand. “On average, 5% to 7% of our attendees express some type of food preference, allergy or intolerance. It’s not just the traditional dairy, nuts and seafood,” Smith says. “More and more we’re seeing attendees avoiding sulfate/phosphates, carbohydrates, MSG and gluten. We’re long past the days when we could just take the protein off a plate and double the vegetables for a guest. We put just as much creativity and care into the preparation and presentation of these specialty orders as we do every other dish so these attendees can also have a terrific experience.”

Smith’s boxed lunches, for example, are a far cry from traditional. “Attendees are absolutely blown away when they open up the lunchbox expecting the standard plastic-wrapped sandwich and chips and instead find our Ploughman’s Lunchbox featuring moringa-ricotta, honey, berries, hard cooked egg, smoked turkey sausage, pickled pearl onions, seven-grain wafers and chia seed dusted kale chips.”

But, Smith notes, “The majority of attendees still eat traditional meat diets. Through smart planning and good relationships with event planners, we can offer amazing food to guests with every possible dietary preference.”

Does that come with a price tag? “Planners,” Smith says, “understand that catering to the specialized needs of their attendees results in greater guest satisfaction and engagement, and this is well worth the small additional cost.”

Certainly F&B trends come and go. But after all is said and done, is healthy, fresh, local convention food really a trend? It’s probably better described as today’s norm, and planners, chefs and associations are embracing it. | AC&F |

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