The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted every aspect of the hospitality industry, including how people regard food and beverage service. Once in-person and indoor dining and drinking becomes common again, planners will still face a new reality full of cautious attendees — at least for a little while — and altered expectations.
On the service side, safety is likely to still be at the top of everyone’s mind. “When you think about the food and beverage service, it’s always been about your quality of food, the service you’re able to provide and the location you’re at,” says Chad Lambie, national director of training and client experiences at HUNGRY, an office and events catering company. “Now, one of the biggest things people are concerned about is safety. That will become the new norm. Things people didn’t think about before, they’re paying attention to. They recognize if a server doesn’t wash their hands after they touch something contaminated. They notice if a server isn’t wearing gloves.”
Even the foods and drinks people want may be different. “We’re seeing a duality,” says Dewey Losasso, corporate executive chef of Bill Hansen Catering in Miami. Since the beginning of the crisis, most people have been sitting at home eating comfort food. Those heavy foods still sound appealing to many folks, “but people are getting more concerned about that COVID weight gain. And they have nothing to do, so they’re Googling ‘What’s healthy to eat during a pandemic?’” Because of that, many people are also interested in eating healthier and losing weight. These are just a few of the trends to watch for in a post-coronavirus world.
Is the Buffet Dead?
Most planners agree that the beloved buffet is long from dead. But it’s likely to be managed differently for a little while. “I think people still want buffets,” Lambie says. “There’s a social side to what everybody wants, and buffets represent that social interaction. I don’t think the old buffet will come back, where everyone can come back and touch the food, and pick at it.” What will take its place is served buffets, where staff places food on people’s plates.
Another thing that may become more common is service stations. Losasso has been doing a lot of “short plates” at social events since the pandemic started. “You assemble the food onto a complete, composed plate and hand it to the guest,” he said. “You’re being socially distant, and there’s a Plexiglas right in front of you, and you hand it off to them.”
Wolfgang Puck Catering has found chef stations to be very popular, and Mary Cline, regional director, catering sales, East Coast, thinks that will continue even post-pandemic. All of these high-touch options are an opportunity to show hospitality and give people a memorable experience, she notes. As chefs are serving, they can answer questions and discuss what they’re doing. They can explain to guests what is in the food, which can help address concerns about allergies and dietary preferences. “Instead of saying buffets are dead, we’re saying, ‘This is an opportunity to be in front of you and serve you,’” she says.
One thing that is likely to be coupled with the buffet for a long time is the Plexiglas shield. “Many rental companies have promoted their new buffet guards,” says Abby Borden, a freelance event producer and owner/principal of Table Set Go in Los Angeles. “The sneeze guard has always existed at a buffet in Vegas or at a hotel but, for events, we may have been more lenient about it in the past, favoring the openness of a grazing station. Once events do return, I anticipate everyone being much more conscious of food exposure and opting in for the guards.”
A Return to Fewer Packaged Items?
During the pandemic, it’s been very common to see food served in individually wrapped packages. Courtney Lohmann, CMP, director, corporate social responsibility for the event planning and destination management firm PRA, thinks it’s unlikely to continue after COVID. “I think everyone will want to return to more standard food operations,” she says. “There are increased costs and then more limitations on everything when [food] has to be in its own package.”
This return to excess packaging is a concern for companies committed to zero waste or reducing their carbon footprint. Lohmann hopes the temporary return to individually wrapped items will drive innovation and give companies an incentive to create truly sustainable packaging choices. “We already have several sustainable options — containers that are biodegradable or compostable — but if you don’t have a compost facility in your area, then these aren’t as helpful,” she points out. In the meantime, one way to decrease waste is to do pre-plated meals and have the caterer top them with reusable metal covers.
Borden can see some items continuing to be well-wrapped, though. “I think that this time has made the general public, our guests certainly more aware of how their food might be exposed,” she says. “I do see a likely move to the packaged hand-out item — like hot dogs at a baseball game, wrapped in foil — rather than the openly passed bruschetta or mini taco.”
Like buffets, bar service is likely to look different and be more staff-intensive post-pandemic. “Rather than have clients walk up to the bar, we’re putting extra staff on board and taking drink orders, and then our service staff goes to a bar that’s away from the guests and will bring them back to the guest,” says Bill Hansen, owner of Bill Hansen Catering. “The bars have Plexiglas and will continue to after COVID-19.”
Adds Lambie, “In the past, there was a lot of using the same glasses when re-pouring. Replacing glasses will become more important,” he says. “We’ve looked at doing pre-ordered drinks ahead of time so people aren’t waiting in a line at the bar.”
Cline thinks consumers will be comfortable normalizing bar service before they’re willing to go back to an unmanned buffet. But the modifications that many companies made during the outbreak are likely to stick around. Glasses will be stored upside down. Garnishes will be picked up with tongs. Bartenders may continue to wear gloves. In line with the trends mentioned previously, Cline sees a trend toward more service — and individualized, customizable packaging — as a way to show greater hospitality. She gives the example of doing passed trays or table service for drinks, and topping each cup with a paper cap. “At a wedding we did recently, the couple got clever and did branded caps with their monogram,” she says. “They made it fun and unexpected, and made it feel positive.”
The beverage market has, in general, been moving to pre-mixed cocktails, including hard seltzer. That accelerated during the pandemic for safety reasons, and because restaurants switched to takeaway cocktails and bottled drinks. But, Borden says, many venues are drawn to this option because it removed the need to pay a bartender. “I hope this is something that only sticks around for the ‘at home’ market, and that we can have bartenders working at restaurants and events as usual for the personal touch,” she says.
One place where Lohmann sees fewer changes and restrictions are at water and other drink stations. “I just traveled for my first event and the beverage areas were still self-serve,” she says. “They are being monitored and wiped down often, but they are still self-serve. I think adding an extra staff person or two to monitor the stations more will be all that we need.”
The forced switch from live to virtual events has been a challenge, but it’s also forced companies to innovate. Some of the new food and beverage programs that popped up during the pandemic will continue to be popular after the pandemic. “The virtual chef experience — the ability to package the provisions and send them to attendees and have them do a cook-along virtually with a chef — is here to stay,” Cline says. Wolfgang Puck Catering offers people the chance to cook popular dishes such as smoked salmon pizza or chicken pot pie along with its namesake chef or other experts at the company.
“Virtual chef experiences are pretty huge right now,” Lambie confirms. “We have a lot of celebrity chefs that work with us. Instead of having an event where everybody comes together and they’re wined and dined, we’re doing that over a Zoom call and all the food is delivered pre-packaged.” People can prepare these easy-to-fix meals while a celebrity chef — such as “Food Network Star” winner Tregaye Fraser and Chris Bassett from “Real Housewives of Potomac” — shares cooking tips and answers questions.
Virtual F&B experiences don’t have to involve cooking. Bill Hansen Catering has delivered prepared meals to remote teams in South Florida so everyone can enjoy the same delicious food while they’re meeting or doing team building. This is something that Hansen definitely sees continuing. “To me, the big takeaway from this whole crisis is that everybody in business has learned how to use Zoom and other technology to become more efficient,” he says. “Rather than driving to a meeting place, sometimes it’s more efficient to do a meeting on Zoom and then have the caterer bring the food in for each attendee at the meeting.”
One thing that’s almost certainly here to stay is heightened attention to safety and sanitation. “I think food service will change in that guests and staff will be much more mindful of the risks of exposure and cross-contamination,” Borden says. “Hygiene and freshness had always been a priority, but now there are other details to consider: The way stations are set up, how food is moved from kitchen to table, who is serving the item and how.”
Cline thinks people will continue to expect to see front-of-the-house servers wearing gloves and masks. There may need to be more hand-washing and sanitation stations in the venue, at least through the end of 2020 or until a vaccine is available. “I think it will be more common for clients to ask, ‘What are your safety precautions?’” Cline says. Planners should query venues and caterers about whether their managers are ServSafe certified and bartenders are TIPS certified. Even off-site, there should be a ServSafe supervisor available. Meeting organizers shouldn’t hesitate to ask venues to demonstrate that their certifications are up-to-date and share their plans for cleaning and safety protocols.
It’s likely that different groups will have different expectations around health and safety, Cline adds. Some people want desperately to get back to “normal.” Others will have a heightened sensitivity to things such as wearing masks and limiting crowds. Planners will need to gauge where their group is on that spectrum and communicate that to vendors.
Lohmann agrees. “Currently, many health and safety recommendations are just that: recommendations,” she says. “The provider is going to ask you how the group is feeling and what their comfort level is. As the planner, we are looking for you to help us understand how we can ensure your group feels safe while they are on-site.”
In the future, venues will likely need to be more mindful of the service pathways, Borden says — and event managers will need to stay on top of that. “Are guests wandering freely through the space? How will lines be managed? Will they have assigned seating and, if so, what will their food service be like from there? How often will a server interact with them? Is there an opportunity for technology to be integrated — ordering from your phone or an event app? All of these questions can be answered in working closely with an F&B consultant or their caterer.”
Organizing this may be more time-consuming, but it isn’t all bad. “On a lighter note, I think servers will be relieved to see planners placing more space in between tables for them to move around without needing to squeeze through chairs,” Borden says.
Lohmann sees one positive development related to food and beverage coming out of the pandemic. “The stagnant menus of the past will be gone and replaced with far more creative and interesting items. I think availability of food items will vary greatly in the coming months and years. We need to work with our chefs to be creative with our food choices, and be willing to look at different options based on what’s available.”
“I think with us also staying local to our regions for the time being, we have a great opportunity to engage with our local farms,” Lohmann adds. “Have an open mind and let the creativity flow and serve your guests the nutrient-rich foods from the local area.”
Especially as restaurants close and fewer people dine out, Losasso, with Bill Hansen Catering, thinks event caterers will be the ones to provide the creativity and experiential meal services that people are missing. He recently organized a whole fish-carving station with six different ponzu sauces for a small group. Planners that can understand their groups well enough to understand how food and beverage service can dazzle them will fare well.
While Losasso has seen growing interest in healthy foods, Cline is still seeing a big focus on comfort food. “I call it the high-carb COVID diet,” she says. “The interesting thing I foresee in the future is what I call social media, home-cooking fatigue. We’re all at home experimenting and baking, and posting pictures about it. That’s driving this desire to experiment a little more, whereas people might have gone to foods in their comfort zone before. I think after experimenting at home for months on end, and having limited options available, people are going to be looking for some new and different things. They will have a higher perceived value for higher-quality experiences and higher-quality foods.”
After the extended hardship associated with the pandemic, people are going to be looking for more than comfort, Cline thinks. They’re going to be looking for joy. Events that can offer that through food will be the real winners. C&IT