If a company is going to meet, people have to eat — regardless of the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing despite the vaccines. While safety concerns are still top of mind for food professionals, so are ideas for making mealtime a memorable, meaningful experience for everyone involved.
Event planners still need to stay on their toes as they think about catering in today’s world. “One of my favorite sayings is: ‘The only thing that stays the same is that things change,’” says Craig Steffenson, executive chef at the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront. “That is especially true in the food and beverage industry, and more so now than ever.” Constantly shifting protocols around COVID-19 can throw a wrench into plans on very short notice. Regulations and policies vary widely depending on different states and even different cities within a region.
In addition, the predictability of food availability has declined. “Pre-pandemic, we were used to being able to have direct access to ingredients and food products without an issue,” Steffenson says. “Now, with disruptions in the food-supply chain and with distributors having difficulties with staffing and procurement, we are having to work with what is available.” This is leading restaurants and hotels to reduce their menu offerings and do more contingency planning.
Beyond what people eat, COVID-19 has affected how and where people can eat. “The most popular trend right now in our industry is space,” says John Alley, food and beverage manager for the Hyatt Centric Charlotte SouthPark. “With COVID-19, utilizing the same amount of square footage but with new layouts, is a must to leave the door open for new business. Company policies and personal preferences don’t always allow every group to sit as close or operate as they once did.”
But there are some silver linings to the changes brought about by the pandemic. The need for social distancing is leading venues to think about new ways to make events more comfortable for attendees, Alley says. Tables that sat 10 for lunch or dinner two years ago are now seating eight at most. “We were forced to think outside the box; take advantage of the crisis and see it as an opportunity to be creative,” says Miguel Gomez, executive chef at the Andaz Mayakoba Resort. The property, located on the coastline of the Mexican Caribbean, opened a vegan bar that has been very popular, and expanded the vegetarian and vegan options on its menus during the pandemic. It has upped its focus on individualized, personal service, which attendees have greatly appreciated. Beverage offerings have become more varied and include more fresh and natural options, which have been a hit.
While many companies have been forced to downsize their gatherings, smaller meetings and trainings have felt more focused and intimate, which leads to a better, more memorable experience for attendees. “There’s a new intentionality about gatherings,” says Tiffany Richardson, partner and president of Current Affairs, an event production and planning company in Hawaii.
The pandemic has also sped up some healthy trends that were already on the rise. “Sustainability and environmental impact continue to emerge as values amongst clients, and the pandemic has only served to galvanize that. Food shortages across the country and the shutdown of meat processing plants have given new value to buying local,” Richardson says.
“In recent years, we’ve seen more groups requesting healthy menus that include organic options, as well as fermented and vegan foods with antioxidant qualities and immune-boosting ingredients,” says Tori Chivers, vice president of catering for MGM Resorts International. “Additionally, we’ve seen groups looking to incorporate sustainability, including menus featuring locally sourced ingredients and plant-based foods, while also working to reduce and eliminate food waste.”
Adds Gomez, “There has been a shift to care,” he says. “People now worry not only about what drinks and food they are serving at their events, but how they are consciously created and help our planet.” Questions about whether fish are sustainably caught are on the rise. People are giving a thumbs up to sustainable packaging, such as the biodegradable straws made from avocado seeds available at the Andaz Mayakoba Resort.
Here is a closer look at the trends impacting food and beverage service in today’s world.
“In light of the pandemic, safety continues to be at the top of everyone’s mind,” Steffenson says. With that in mind, groups seem to feel more comfortable with individually plated items rather than buffets.
“Plated meals and boxed meals have taken a priority in our industry,” Alley says. “I think the permanent change for F&B is going to be the addition of a bottle of hand sanitizer on every buffet or table side,” he adds. “I think that is something that has almost been conditioned into our line of work.”
Jenna Vallee, director of sales for The Wayfinder in Newport, Rhode Island, says the perception that outdoors is safer, combined with people’s growing affinity to spend more time in natural setting, will keep this trend alive for a long time. “I believe we’ll see the continuation of off-season outdoor dining and more creative outdoor dining options.”
Among the changes Richardson is seeing are smaller dining tables, the elimination of buffets and larger spaces for people to gather in. At some of her events, she’s created “pods” with different styles of seating and arrangements to offer more choices that fit with people’s varying social distancing preferences. “Being able to sit down at smaller tables, stand at high-top tables with no seats and relax in alcoves with lounge furniture enables attendees to find a place where they feel comfortable socializing,” Richardson says. “Open floor plans with casual layouts are important. This also encourages guests to actively get up and move around.” Not having to stay stationary facilitates greater socializing and networking, which is something many people — especially younger professionals, who are looking to make connections in their industry — greatly appreciate.
According to Richardson, there remains a need to manage spots where people tend to pile up — namely bars. Solutions include eliminating and replacing them with table service, or making more bar space available. Hand-washing stations are popping up in addition to tables with bottles of hand sanitizer. Event planners are also adding places where people can get away from others when they aren’t in a seminar or meeting. Measures such as these are not going anyway anytime soon. “The vigilance in safety and sanitation is here to stay,” Richardson says. “The rigorous training of staff and compliance requirement to ensure health and safety at an elevated level will remain, and that’s a good thing. This virus is not the only [thing] that offers serious health implications. So, this pandemic has called all of us to step up our game.”
The divide between groups wanting healthier meals and splurge-worthy treats continues to exist in food service. “In regards to specific foods trends, I am seeing an increase of groups wanting more home-style comfort foods during their events,” Steffenson says.
On the other hand, Richardson says, “Vegan and vegetarian options have been a growing trend, and the pandemic has only spurred more health and environmentally conscious food choices.”
Chivers says we will continue to see trends not only in healthy menu options, but also with health and safety, and how food is served and presented. “With this, we’ve seen an increase in requests for individually packaged foods that limit contact and ensure the safety of both attendees and employees. Our team has developed a wide range of creative micro-portions that are packaged sustainably to ensure guests feel safe while still enjoying delicious catering options throughout their events.”
Vallee is also seeing a boost in requests for plant-based foods and more sustainable food packaging and service ware. Gluten-free meals continue to be a big request, and something planners should consider in their food-service planning.
Groups still seem interested in trying new foods or cuisines inspired by the place they’re visiting. At the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville, Steffenson has added new menu offerings inspired by the low country cuisine of South Carolina and Georgia, Florida’s Spanish influences, tropical flavors and traditional Southern cooking. Right now, people seem to feel more comfortable eating at the hotel rather than local restaurants, Steffenson says. With that in mind, the hotel is expanding its options for locally inspired foods made with ingredients from local farms, “So groups can experience the best of our local flavors and cuisine without having the leave the property,” he says.
Event organizers who are planning to refer attendees to restaurants should be mindful of how they’ve been impacted by supply-chain issues, labor shortages, COVID-related space constraints and mask requirements, and other challenges. “Due to so many restaurants requiring reservations, walk-in service has decreased,” says Vallee, who thinks this will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future. “We could also see time allotments staying in place during peak times,” which may impact groups gathering informally to conduct business.
Today’s food budgets aren’t what they used to be, so chefs and caterers are having to get creative when it comes to delivering the experience that many attendees expect, while still being mindful of COVID safety precautions, Steffenson says. One way to do that is with elaborate food stations for receptions and dinners. “The food-truck scene was big before the pandemic, and many hotels have event set-ups that turn events into an in-house food-truck experience, where items were created on action stations and served individually to the guest,” he says. He hopes to invest in equipment for live cooking stations as well.
Some MGM properties now offer “marketplace pods” that are intended to take the place of traditional buffets. “Guests are served by attendants and chefs with creative arrangements,” Chivers says. “We’ve also created inventive ways to revitalize the seated-meal experience with a ‘one-drop service’ that features a bento box-style meal perfect for lunches with time constraints.”
One advantage of the move away from buffets and toward these higher-touch service options is that chefs have more of a chance to interact with and educate attendees. When there is a culinary attendant plating food, “they are sharing the in-depth details of the dish being served — where it came from, the ingredients and how that dish plays a role in the full-event concept,” Richardson says. This fits well with modern-day ethos of many event attendees, who like to know where their food is coming from and how it was made. “There’s more desire than ever to have experiences that bring guests closer to the source,” she notes. “Food served by the culinary team, and sharing the food’s origin and creation stories, are appealing to guests.”
The health trend that’s become so prevalent in the food space has made its way to the beverage table too. “We’re already seeing a greater interest in new innovations in non-alcoholic options, including beverages that are healthier, lighter and even immunity boosters,” Richardson says.
“Mocktails are increasingly popular with our guests,” Vallee says. That seems to be the case regardless of age, gender or other demographic factors, she notes.
For people who want good, old-fashioned alcohol, “The biggest trend we’ve seen is an increase in requests for craft beers, and American and Japanese whiskeys,” Chivers says. “We work closely with our beverage team to source a variety of top-tiered selections and develop creative ways to present them. Additionally, we’ve seen an increased interest in curated beverage experiences that engage attendees and encourage them to try something new. For example, we offer a build-your-own botanical experience, as well as bottled cocktails and tasting flights guided by ambassadors.”
Steffenson has seen a similar trend toward high-quality cocktail experiences. Many people stuck at home during the pandemic turned to home bartending and cocktail making as a hobby. Their experiments have led to a new interest in infused syrups and locally sourced mixers. Even a simple gin and tonic can become more appealing when all of the ingredients can be purchased from a local artisan producer, he says.
Hard seltzer is booming at events, just as its seen huge growth in restaurants and grocery stores. But hard seltzer doesn’t just have to be enjoyed straight up. Increasingly, bartenders are using them to add extra flavor to mixed drinks, Steffenson says. A vodka soda, mojito or Tom Collins are just a few examples of drinks that can be made with hard seltzer and give people a new twist on an old favorite.
Alley has seen a shift toward bottled and pre-packaged non-alcoholic beverages. It eliminates the need for service and is perceived by some to be safer. “The best part about beverages is that there is always room for creativity,” he adds. “Alcoholic beverages change with the seasons,” so while a warming cocktail and heavier beer might taste good in the winter, it’s a safe bet that interest in refreshing rosés and hard lemonades will pick up as the weather starts to warm.
In general, being creative and changing with the seasons seems like sage advice right now. The next year is sure to throw challenges at planners and attendees. Being nimble and looking for opportunities to offer something new and memorable will ensure that people can still find joy and connection in the face of adversity. I&FMM