Picking the right food and beverages for events has always been a bit of a minefield for planners, with questions about how much to order, what to order and how to appease people with different needs occupying more than a little mindshare. But for the last two years, questions around the safety of food service and availability of ingredients have made the F&B portion of the event even trickier to navigate.
Mealtimes can also be one of the most fun parts of an event, providing attendees with memorable experiences and a casual setting in which to connect with others. COVID-19 has created many challenges with food service, but there are many ways planners can cope, and return eating to the enjoyable experience it should be.
The cost of food and service is a chief concern today. “The budgets that I’m working in were developed prior to this whole supply-chain issue, so the increase in budgets year after year is pretty small,” says Lauri Byerly, events & program coordinator for the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association.
One way to save money is to simply buy less food. “We’re telling our clients to dump some basic break food and save the money to do more meaningful lunches and dinners,” says Mary O’Connor, president of Mary O’Connor & Company, an event planning firm in the Chicago area. In general, Americans are eating less than they did 10 or 20 years ago as they become more mindful of their weight and health. Providing them with smaller, higher-quality offerings fits with the modern ethos.
Byerly’s top recommendation for dealing with price increases and tightening budgets is to be flexible with food and beverage options. If your top meal option isn’t available, either because of a price increase or because the ingredients are no longer available, work with the catering staff to find a creative solution.
Flexibility is increasingly important as supply chains remained kinked. “Chefs have to be creative and adaptable with all the food and product shortages around the world,” says Adam Haverland, executive chef at the JW Marriott Anaheim Resort in Southern California. “We are faced with having to substitute product daily, which can be challenging when managing clients’ expectations.” To deal with his challenge, Haverland says planners need to make their colleagues or clients aware of these issues and the impact that may have on their event, such as the possibility of having to substitute products or some items simply not being available. “I think transparency from the get-go is key to creating a good experience,” he says.
In addition to sourcing of food and items such as clean linens, Max Knoepfel, executive chef, food and beverage for the Music City Center in Nashville, points to getting and keeping adequate staffing as a major challenge for venues right now. Another is keeping up with the many mandates relating to COVID-19. The federal government has its own set of requirements, while different localities may too. On top of that, planners may have specific requests to either help attendees feel safe or provide a sense of normalcy. Knoepfel has found that the supply-chain issues have been eased somewhat by buying from local suppliers — including those that are women and/or minority owned, a request that has increased in the past two years. “It’s easier to get an honest answer from them about whether they can really provide things,” he says.
To provide groups with greater flexibility as the size of their events have fluctuated, Knoepfel has sometimes staggered orders and purchased from two different vendors. If the size of a group suddenly changes, it might be possible to cancel delivery from one of those companies. Another way that he’s helped groups deal with smaller-than-expected turnout is helping them donate leftover food to local charities, which limits food waste.
Planners’ thoughts on how to serve the food is mixed. The meetings Byerly has planned most recently were small, with only a few dozen people in attendance. There, people were offered a breakfast buffet and seemed comfortable with it. In fact, she sees few lingering effects from COVID when it comes to food service. “There was a time where meeting planners would want to choose something that people weren’t sharing,” she says — meaning things like charcuterie or crudité platters were out. “Now, we’re moving back to what we used to do as far as I can see.”
But keeping food service safe in the face of the ongoing pandemic is still top of mind for event professionals. “As we return to in-person events, we are seeing more and more caterers switch to stations with individually packaged items that are grab and go,” says Roger J. Whyte II, principal at RJ Whyte Event Production in Washington, D.C. “Stations allow for spacing throughout the event, which keeps lines shorter and also helps with crowding. It also allows for a low-touch experience and less grazing, as stations encourage guests to grab what they want and return to their seat instead of crowding the buffet. “Catering teams and event-planning teams have gotten creative as far as room setup goes, whether that be by spreading out tables with a bit more service perimeter then normal, or by decreasing the count at each table and playing with rounds or squares,” Whyte says. “This allows for guests to have more space, but also for the service staff to have space.”
O’Connor has seen a lot of associations switch to staffed buffets or pre-packaged food. In an attempt not to backslide on environmental goals too much, many planners have specified compostable products such as those made of sugar cane or bamboo. She expects that to continue for the foreseeable future, at least for breakfasts and lunches. Keep in mind, though, that compostable products provide an environmental benefit only if they’re composted and no benefit if they end up in the trash with all the other waste. However the food is served, meals are no longer about consuming calories and rushing to the next meeting or session. At dinner — and sometimes breakfast and lunch — “dining has become more about networking than sitting down,” O’Connor says. To facilitate that, many planners are doing small bites that are easy to carry and encourage people to graze rather than sit down for a plated meal.
When remote events exploded in 2020, food-service professionals generated a lot of ways to create foodie experiences for people who were stuck at home. Whyte thinks providing creatively packaged foods for guests who are attending hybrid events from home will continue to be something planners need to think about, at least for a while. “This ensures that both the in-person and at-home experience are equal for attendees,” he says. “It offers a level of comfort to guests who are not ready to return to an in-person experience just yet.”
Groups that are still worried about cleanliness and safety might look for facilities that participate in the Global Biorisk Advisory Council’s (GBAC) certification program, which helps facilities provide the safest, most hygienic environment possible. The Music City Center is one of several venues across the country that has this certification.
“Everybody became a food expert over COVID. My profession has no more mystery,” Knoepfel jokes. Between this increased food knowledge and consumers’ shifting values around eating, chefs are definitely doing some event food that is different than it was even five years ago. Instead of starches like potatoes or rice, Knoepfel is serving a lot more grains, including ancient grains such as quinoa and Kamut. One place those show up is in bowls, which are mix of grains, protein, vegetables and perhaps a sauce. They are easy to customize with different ingredients to adapt to the needs of vegetarians, vegans or those with allergies.
In addition to healthy grains, Haverland thinks fermented foods, yuzu, hibiscus and turmeric will begin showing up more on menus. “I think in 2022, because everyone has eaten comfort food for the past year and a half, they will gravitate towards eating a little more healthy,” he adds. “We will see more plant-based proteins and vegetarian dishes on menus. To-go food will be a popular option again this year, so I think chefs are going to continue to create dishes that hold up well in a to-go box.”
One of Knoepfel’s ideas for serving food in containers is to package hors d’oeuvres in a bento box, so that each person can simply pick up a covered container when they enter a room and eat at the time and place that feels most comfortable to them. He’s done this for both hot and cold hors d’oeuvres.
“Both local ingredients and sustainability are really important issues right now in the food industry,” Whyte says. “I think we’re going to see this carry over into client requests.” Caterers will see more demand to procure local ingredients, serve less red meat and increase their plant-based offerings. Venues will face greater pressure to provide zero waste and other sustainability measures. Given that these trends are here to stay, both groups need to be prepared to present a plan for how they can help clients meet their sustainability goals.
Planners’ shift to buying local has also given them a better sense of the importance of buying what’s in season, O’Connor says, so seasonal food is more important than ever. Knoepfel is seeing this as well. In the non-summer months, when local berries aren’t available, he serves compotes or other preserved fruits with meals instead of fresh items that have to be shipped from far away.
Dietary preferences, food allergies and religious limitations on food remain critical issues to which planners must pay attention. “Top diets continue to be vegetarian/vegan and gluten free,” Haverland says. “Every year, you see more and more people asking for food that falls in these categories.” However, he jokes, “Everyone is on a vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free diet until it’s time for dessert!”
Jackfruit has remained a highly requested item for non-meat dishes such as tacos and chili. Other options for those requesting plant-based proteins are meat substitutes, including Impossible Burgers, “chicken” nuggets and tofu-based sausages. When these products first came on the market, they were often hard to find because suppliers were so overwhelmed with requests, O’Connor says. Many of those early problems have been solved, and today’s products are both more varied, more available and often able to address a wider range of diets, including Paleo or gluten-free.
O’Connor points to fusion cuisine — “think sushi burritos or Korean tacos;” Mediterranean diet-styled plates, which place a greater emphasis on fresh vegetables and less on proteins and starches; and CBD-infused foods and drinks as specific consumables that are trending today. “Americans are more adventurous eaters than ever before,” O’Connor says, and that’s showing up both on plates and in experiences.
“Right now, people are really looking for that ‘wow’ moment,” Whyte says. “When we are creating a menu with our clients, we’re always looking to see what can be activated or expanded on. For example, instead of a traditional table set with individual servings of something, ask yourself if you can display it in a unique way that draws guests in. We highly recommend working with both the caterer and décor vendor to add to the visual experience for guests. In addition, people are generally curious to watch how their meal is prepared. Thinking of ways to bring the chef out of the back and show guests what’s happening is another way to create a unique experience.”
On the alcohol side, the big trend Whyte sees is specialty cocktails. “They’re a great way to kick off an event and greet guests,” he says. “With many of our clients, we know what type of liquor their guests prefer, and knowing that information allows us to create a cocktail that they will gravitate toward. For example, we have an association that is primarily made up of bourbon drinkers, and by creating a bourbon specialty cocktail, we made sure there wasn’t a bottleneck at the bar.”
Canned cocktails, which were once frowned upon as a cheap alternative to mixed drinks, have really taken off during the pandemic. “When you’re paying for beverages based on consumption, those little canned items are great,” Byerly says. They also give the appearance of being more sanitary since they require less handling, O’Connor says.
Groups looking for beer are still interested in purchasing from microbreweries whenever possible. A similar shift seems to be happening in wine as well, Knoepfel says. People are wanting products from smaller or lesser-known wineries, not the typical national brands.
Flavored seltzer continues to be huge, whether it’s the hard or non-alcoholic version. That’s another trend that will continue into the future, O’Connor predicts.
Whether it’s for health, religious or other reasons, an increasing number of event attendees are looking for non-alcoholic beverage options for receptions and dinners. So it comes as no surprise that mocktails continue to be an important offering. “I have seen more requests for mocktails than actual cocktails,” Haverland says.
Aside from cocktails and mocktails, provide water stations instead of bottled water for attendees to keep them hydrated and energized throughout the day. That, along with foods that taste and look great, will help them enjoy the gathering from breakfast in the morning to dessert after the last meal of the day. | AC&F |