Appendix 12. |
Food and Beverage Requirements.
Care & Feeding of Your Guests
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You don't always have much choice when it comes to catering meals. If you're staying in a full-service hotel, and serving your meals in the banquet rooms, you'll use the hotel's food service staff. If you're eating in a restaurant, clearly outside catering is not an issue. But perhaps you have chosen an unusual venue for your meeting. One planner arranged a dinner in a museum hall dedicated to Titanic memorabilia: The menu was straight from the ship, the waiters were really actors, but the food came from an outside caterer. Occasionally venues that merely rent space will nevertheless have preferred-or even required-caterers, but not always. Sometimes you're on your own. But we're here to help.
Even In Hotels There are Details to Check
One of the most important things you have to do, before choosing your dishes, is to work your way methodically through the menu. Taste everything (as well as the wines that might be offered as an accompaniment). You should taste every appetizer, every soup, every entrée and every dessert to make sure they're fresh and well-prepared, and suitable for the people who will be consuming them. Just as you would do at a restaurant, probe for flexibility. Be sure to find out whether the food-service staff can accommodate requests for special meals, which are on the rise these days, says Leslie Jeske, director of catering at the Radisson Barcelo Hotel in Washington, D.C. "I get requests for low-fat, reduced sodium or vegetarian meals at least twice a week," she says. It's true that these days most hotels are used to such requests and have several vegetarian meals either on their menus or at least in the freezer for emergency backup. Still, it's best to double-check.
To pick out your menu and decide how you want the food to be served, it helps to have an understanding of who's in your group. For example, if it's a group of strangers meeting for the first time, it often helps to serve meals buffet-style the first day; that way, socializing and mingling is made easy. If the group is at the same venue for several days, vary meals between sit-downs and buffets. The longer a group stays at the same hotel or convention center, the more important variety becomes, adds Jeske. "If a group does a buffet on the first day, I'll usually suggest a more formal, though light, midday meal on day two," she says. "By the third day, I'll even suggest a cookout."
And if things are getting really dull on the food front, you can always offer attendees vouchers for other restaurants, either in the venue or nearby. This is pricier but may be a great break after days of eating in the same ballrooms, rubbing shoulders with the same people meal after meal. You'll need to check that the hotel's restaurants can accommodate a crowd and that a large group won't disturb other diners.
Remember, too, to have someone on site who is responsible for managing the food and beverages during the event. The venue will almost certainly provide such a person. That person can be the liaison between you and the hotel when it comes to special meals, if the service slows or to troubleshoot any catering issues that may surface. This brings up some good advice as regards many aspects of event planning: You can't do everything yourself, no matter how hard you try or how miserable your budget. "You just can't count place settings at a banquet room in one area when you're responsible for AV in another," says Gavin. "It makes things easier to have someone on hand working solely on your event."
Working With Independent Caterers
Interview a number of caterers before making a choice. Use the same criteria you use when choosing a restaurant: flexibility (a willingness to shift ideas and to listen to the client), proper staffing levels, experience and, of course, expert food preparation. Make sure they have catered events of your size and type before-you don't want to have the caterers learning on the job, so leave tryouts to others. Get references.
And, to be fair to the caterers, have a clear idea of what you want.
Give them a realistic budget at the start. Very little irritates a caterer more than being asked to devise a menu without any notion of how much there is to spend. When you have narrowed your choices down to, say, three, start tasting.
Decide What You Want
By the time you approach a caterer, you should have a pretty fair idea of the agenda, and the number of people who will be at each event. Are you going to have a stand-up reception with canapés and cocktails? A wise caterer will steer you away from certain foods and towards others: not too many messy dips or things that drip-there's nothing worse than an important guest with a red stain of shrimp dip on his shirtfront and a thunderous look on his face. Make sure the food is not too hot, in either sense of the word-you don't want people reaching for a jug of cold water to put out the fire, nor do you want them scorching their fingers. Make sure that what food is suggested can be easily managed with one hand (there'll likely be a glass in the other).
For buffet lunches, it's a challenge for a caterer to invent options beyond the banal plates of cold cuts and sticks of celery and raw carrot. "Always be careful though," a catering manager advises. "We had a successful buffet at which our most popular food was satay-skewers of grilled chicken with a peanut sauce dip, exotic but perfectly acceptable to a mainstream taste. However, you'll be surprised at how many people are allergic to nuts."
Evening meals are more open-ended, with unlimited possibilities. They can be formal affairs with fine linens and gourmet foods. Or they can be burger cookouts, tailgates, barbecues or something similar. Hot dogs made with French baguette loaves and real German bratwurst were a hit at a recent software conference. You can also opt for a stir fry station, for Middle Eastern nights or you can even spice things up with a fajita buffet or a "mashed potato bar" where the potatoes (and toppings) are served in martini glasses. You'll have to judge the level of informality your group will tolerate and offer the food accordingly. Good caterers can, with seeming effortlessness, switch from formal to informal, from Thai or Japanese to basic American.
What About Drinks?
There should also be plenty of beverage options available. Fewer people are now drinking alcohol at midday meals, either from choice (for health reasons) or because they're feeling the weight of corporate disapproval. So have a selection of mineral waters, juices and soda available with coffees (decaf and regular) and tea. Fruit juices and spiced teas are increasingly popular.
Remember that you might want to schedule a cocktail hour.
Almost all venues will provide carafes of ice water during meetings at no charge and usually also pencils and notepads.
How Much Is All This Going To Cost?
Prices will obviously vary from place to place, but food and beverage costs are a basic part of your cost structure, and you have to be realistic.
Here are some rough ball-park numbers, though they will be slightly higher if you use outside caterers, because you must add setup and transportation costs to their estimates:
Continental breakfast: $14 to $15 per person.
Full breakfast: $20 to $25 per person.
Morning and afternoon breaks: $4 to $6 per person.
Hot lunch (not buffet): $30.
Dinner: $45 to $75 or higher.
Receptions: $25 to $65 per person.
A Caution on Costs
If a restaurant quotes a per-person cost for a meal at, say, "$45 ++" (plus tax and plus gratuity), it means that the taxes and gratuities are extra. Sometimes the gratuity is predetermined by the restaurant and can run as high as 20 percent. Many a planner has been unpleasantly surprised when the bill turned out to be much higher than expected.
Always ask what is included in the cost. Coffee, tea and sodas are normally included, but bottled waters and specialty coffees are not.
To Save Costs
At receptions, use napkins for holding food rather than plates, even paper ones. Food consumption will drop-you can balance less food that way.
Field-test wines. Find drinkable varieties from places like Chile, where prices are still undervalued. If you're unsure, go with house brands-assuming that the venue has done its own background work.
Fashion In Food
You don't have to count yourself food-obsessed to want your meals to be interesting and agreeable. Nor do you have to be on the cutting edge of culinary fashion. But you don't want to be safe and boring either. The point is to arrive at a position where the meals aren't really being talked about very much-food at events like these usually becomes a hot topic of conversation when it's awful or strange. You want people to enjoy their meal without it taking their minds off the point of the meeting. It's fair to say that boredom is more of a hazard than its obverse: Most caterers are very aware of markets, and hotel banqueting operations generally err on the side of safe. So know your audience, consult your suppliers, and then take your own counsel.
What Won't Work?
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