As corporate and other meeting and event attendees become food savvy, crave variety, and demand a wider range of flavors, unique food and beverage options are now viewed as an easy avenue to please attendees and keep clients coming back for more.
Of course, food and beverage trends depend on the event being held. Cuisine for a convention group is definitely much different than a corporate social event or a board meeting.
“We have also seen a trend to food being a very thoughtful choice instead of just something that needs to be provided.” Kalsey Beach
Kalsey Beach, president and meeting planner at Do Good Events, continues to see an evolution toward ‘power foods’ that increase attendee energy and encourages productivity and attention. “We have also seen a trend to food being a very thoughtful choice instead of just something that needs to be provided,” Beach says.
From interactive dinners to large pop-ups, Cynthia Samanian, founder and CEO of Hidden Rhythm, plans one-of-a-kind events that are designed to build meaningful brand loyalty. Hidden Rhythm’s mission is simple: Spark engaging relationships that build loyalty between brands and their communities with one-of-a-kind events such as interactive dinners and pop-ups that showcase brands to influencers, media and more.
From her event planning experience, Samanian says that as the range of dietary preferences continues to broaden, there is a greater expectation that events will accommodate all guests.
“It’s no longer enough to just have a vegetarian meal as your alternative option,” Samanian says. “More and more, we’re finding that attendees are interested in plant-based options, even if they’re not vegan. Often times, they’re motivated by the environmental benefits of a plant-based diet.”
Indeed, Beach adds that there is always discussion around food allergens and preferences when menu planning. It is important to have a variety of options to accommodate all needs and ensure they are properly labeled for guests. “It is especially helpful if the chef is present during meal and snack times to answer any specific questions that may arise,” Beach says.
Incorporating unique vessels or presentation components when serving food and beverages is paramount for many events. In fact, how the food and drinks are served is almost as imperative as what you are serving.
Consider presenting items in mini stainless pails or baskets, using edible presentations such as a pastry spoon, baby red potato cups or a bacon slice, using lemon grass as buffet platters/centerpieces with different foods on skewers or laid right on the grass. Or combine a comfort food duo like grilled cheese and tomato soup as a cocktail. For example, a bloody mary with a side of cheese, bread, bacon, avocado or a shot glass of warm tomato soup and a miniature grilled cheese, can certainly be memorable.
Samanian and her team love creating experiences that enable guests to connect and engage with their food. Examples of this include DIY chia seed pudding bars, cocktail garnish bar stations and more.
“Whenever possible, we believe in making dining as hands-on and involved as possible,” Samanian says. “With a small group, you have an advantage in creating a more personal experience that connects guests with their food. We’ve found great success in hosting cooking classes or adding an educational element to the dinner that works well in a more intimate setting.”
Ashley Lampe, senior director of catering sales for Wolfgang Puck Catering in Los Angeles, is seeing the trend of food as entertainment continuing to gain in popularity and importance. Lampe is seeing requests for chef action stations, foods that spark conversations or are photo worthy, as well as foods that boast a local focus.
“Dietary restrictions, green initiatives — including eco-friendly, no waste, plastic-free, refillable water bottles — also are prevalent,” Lampe says.
According to Andrea Correale, celebrity caterer and president of Elegant Affairs Caterers, Off-Premise Catering & Event Design, today’s meeting attendees are far more food savvy. “They are expecting restaurant-quality cuisine in a catered setting,” says Correale, who has provided multileveled, luxe-catering to notables and brands like Billie Eilish, Bebe Rexha, Mariah Carey, Jimmy Fallon, Ralph Lauren and Jimmy Choo.
Correale says that today’s meeting planners are all looking for healthy and fresh choices, including vegan, gluten-free alternatives and plant-based foods. “Salad bars are popular, but over the top with elaborate selection and choices,” she says. “Event planners should consider exploring: vegan sushi bars; California-style, open-pit barbecues; Impossible Burger bars; and Korean food.”
Global Master Chef Karl Guggenmos, senior culinary adviser at Healthy Meals Supreme, agrees that food for meetings has been undergoing a number of changes:
“Foods in the past have been very predictable, such as chicken breast, steak, salmon steak, along with comfort side dishes like pasta and mashed potatoes,” he says. “Foods are now becoming more focused on a variety of new and revived cooking methods such as sous vide, braising and more ethnic diversity. Seafood has also become more diversified.”
Guggenmos is also now seeing more Asian vegetables, pulses such as lentils, chickpeas, split peas and dried beans, and ancient grains such as bulgur wheat, quinoa and a variety of meat cuts suitable for braising. “Braised or slowly cooked and sous vide foods, such as ribs and chicken thighs, are much more flavorful and moist. We are simply seeing a trend towards more flavors, textures and a more exciting presentation,” he says.
There also seems to be a growing expectation that food at events is going to be high quality, nutritious, provide a wide variety of selections, and be able to accommodate any special dietary need or restrictions an attendee may have.
As Jessica Tosto, assistant clinical professor – MS Nutrition and Dietetics College of Health Professions at Pace University, explains, “You can’t just put out trays of sandwiches and sodas and expect people to be happy they got a ‘free meal.’ I think attendees are much more vocal about how the foods served met or did not meet their expectations, and how it impacted their perception of the event as a whole. There are also so many different diet fads and/or health-related dietary restrictions that people follow — it is very challenging to please every different need.”
Organic, local, sustainably sourced, and farm-to-table foods are also gaining in popularity. When people travel to different locations they often want to experience the foods that are native to the city they are visiting. As Tosto explains, incorporating regional menu items from local producers and promoting the source is a great way to support local businesses and also to help attendees feel like they are getting an authentic, local dining experience.
“It is a lot of fun to create a snack menu that highlights local farms,” Beach says. “Creating interesting signage about the cheese or vegetables, can make it a unique experience for the guests. When the venue allows, it is also well received to highlight local shops — this might be a small bakery that employees disadvantaged youth or another form of supporting businesses with big impact.”
Experts agree that while smaller groups allow for more intimate touch points, simply due to the nature of the size of the event, larger groups can provide a similar element as more of a ‘showpiece.’
“Farm-to-table, locally sourced foods are probably more suited for smaller groups as the costs tend to be higher and also local vendors may not be able to support the demand for large numbers of attendees,” Tosto says.
For smaller groups, Correale recommends a chef’s tasting-plate menu and for trend snacks consider edamame, vegetable and herb tonics or pick-me-up shots as well as acai bowls. Unique displays, such as doughnut walls and vertical buffets, are very popular now, as is the ‘grab-and-go’-style of service where items are served in individual portions in a bowl.
The HUNGRY catering company offers a chef experience for clients that is perfect for smaller groups. As Chad Lambie, national director of training and client experience at HUNGRY explains, the chef experience allows the guests to see their food being made and learn about each of the dishes.
“There is a reason there are so many cooking shows on television right now. People enjoy seeing the chef prepare, interacting with the chef, and learning about what makes the dish special,” Lambie says.
Guggenmos says the only issue for large versus small groups is the cooking methods used. For example, short-order foods or dishes are not suitable for large groups as they are difficult to execute and tend to lose quality after being kept in hot boxes or reheated.
“Braised, sous vide, roasted or stewed foods are ideal,” Guggenmos says. “Grains and moisture-retaining vegetables are also better for large groups.”
In addition, Samanian adds that cheeseboards and ‘grazing’ boards are very popular for larger groups as they make it easy for guests to pick and choose what they’d like to eat. As a bonus, these boards are visually beautiful, which inspires guests to take photos and share the board — and possibly the event — on social media.
Lambie also sees ‘build-your-own’ meals as very popular right now for groups of all sizes. “With so many dietary restrictions it becomes very difficult to please a large number of attendees,” Lambie says. “Build-your-own gives the attendees the choice and control over what they are eating and how healthy they want to eat. Healthier food options will not change. If anything, people are going to be getting smarter about what they are putting into their bodies and this trend will continue. The old days of attendees only being given the choice of beef, fish or vegetarian are gone and people will continue to want control over what they are eating.”
When it comes to breaks or refreshment services, today’s meeting planners recognize that groups no longer just want healthy foods as was the trend two years ago. While they are still requesting the high-energy items such as hummus and vegetable shooters or energy bars, they also seek a sweet-and-naughty element such as truffle lollipops or chocolate-dipped pretzels.
For snacks between meals, Asian-type foods such as tapas, tempuras, shawarma, as well as mini burgers, pickled vegetables/fruits, Keto bombs and similar low-carb, low-sugar snacks, are currently trending.
“Low-carb brownies made with dried beans, avocado/no flour and maple syrup are the newest trend,” Guggenmos says.
In addition, healthy snacks that meet all dietary restrictions are being mixed in with the more decadent options, such as a great trail mix but also a delicious brownie. A snack like feta and watermelon is also very popular.
“We are seeing a lot more healthier options being served, that are delicious,” Lambie says. “There are more people today on specialized diets than ever before, and healthier options allow more people to enjoy the dishes.”
As a meeting planner, Beach strives to make the food and beverage found within the snack breaks more of an experience for the attendee such as a build-your-own trail mix bar.
“Consider energizing snacks that encourage mindfulness and productivity,” Beach says. “You can also incorporate branding into the snack moment. Consider having sponsors support a snack break and then branding the napkins or coffee cups with their logo. And elevate your water or coffee. Consider making the water station a hydro station with infused waters and adding gourmet enhancements to the coffee bar.”
In fact, when it comes to drinks, today’s guests want to be entertained. They don’t want the regular soda products. They want drinks such as lavender flavored soda water, cucumber infused still water, a garnish such as muddled blueberries and mint or classic cocktails with a new twist.
So what does the future hold for food trends and to what should meeting planners pay attention?
“Proteins will come more and more from non-animal sources. Side dishes will feature a variety of new ingredients, such as ancient grains and new sources for sweeteners,” Guggenmos says. There will certainly always a swing back to the past. Comfort food such a macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and pasta will always be around. However, they will be made from a healthier source.
Guggenmos says we will also see a lot more pulses. Bone broth, collagen, more exotic fruits, vegetables and greens, especially kale, will be a common occurrence. And processed food will hopefully be a thing of the past.
In addition, the ‘small bites’ reception trends are still very popular and are expected to continue to be a sought-after trend in menu offerings. These ‘small bite’ options include minimal portions presented in smaller, more interesting shaped vessels and can be paired with a signature cocktail, or local wine or beer selection for each food station.
Lampe adds that classics and comfort foods have remained popular over the years and will remain so. “The influence of international cuisines with the ability to explore will bring variety and excitement to events,” Lampe says. “Local, sustainable and menu balance are here to stay.”
Industry professionals expect the plant-based trend also will continue, especially as more players in the space, such as Beyond Meat and Miyoko’s Creamery, become more popular. “The greater trend will be towards sustainability, not only in the agricultural and food production space, but also as it applies to food waste,” Samanian says. “Companies such as Imperfect Produce will continue to grow in popularity as consumers become increasingly aware of issues in the food system.”
Lambie says foods will always be evolving and changing. “New chefs bring new ideas and it sparks innovation and creativity,” he says. “I think we will always have our ‘classics’ that people grow up with and love, but we will keep adding new ideas that expand our pallets. We are seeing so many talented chefs from around the world that are bringing family recipes and new dishes from their home countries. Specifically, countries that have not been in the forefront of cuisine. I think people are much more open to trying new foods than ever before and they are going to discover they are delicious.”C&IT