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Food & Beverage Planning

Posted on November 21, 2007

By Kelly Rush

Over the last several years in the online meeting communities, I’ve found that planners are intimidated by food & beverage.  Luckily for me, I love food and have had a chance to see a lot of different presentations.  I’ve outlined below practical advice about food and beverage programming.

Hors d’oeuvres – I think that planning a cocktail reception is one of the most difficult tasks for new planners.  My advice is to limit the selection to three to five, with a maximum of six.  Be sure to specify the number of pieces, at least in percentage form, of each selection.  Choose two to three traditional crowd favorites, and several more “exotic” hors d’oeuvres for the slightly more adventurous.  Also include a vegetarian item.  The highest number of pieces should be concentrated on those items that the majority of the crowd will focus on, for example
Crowd Favorites:  Cocktail Franks in Puff Pastry with Mustard
   Mini Crab Cake with Spicy Remoulade
   Fresh Mozzarella, Heirloom Tomato and Micro Basil on Foccaccia    Crisp
Exotic:   Smoked Duck Breast on Wonton Crisp with Wasabi Aoili
   Gorgonzola and Walnut Encrusted White Grape Truffle
# of Pieces:   1000 total, 700 crowd favorites, 300 “exotic”
Lastly, make sure that the appetizers are bite-size pieces, preferably without a stick or anything else that would have to be held onto until the server collecting trash comes around (i.e. put the shrimp cocktail on a station!).
Vegetarian Entrees – I once had an attendee ask on the third night of her program if she could have something other than the baked, stuffed Vidalia onion she had seen twice before.  A vegetarian friend of mine told me this summer after going to a wedding: “If I get one more plate of grilled veggies and someone says, ‘That looks so good!’  I’m going to flip out.”  In other words, these poor folks tend to get the short end of the stick when it comes to menu planning.  As Joan Eisenstodt would say: “We can do better!”  So, three suggestions:
1. Keep in mind that these entrees should still have the three basic part of a meal—protein, vegetable, and starch. 
2. While it may seem unusual, many vegetarians are used to untraditional meals.  So if you’re having a first course salad, perhaps the entrée could be a beautifully presented soup like a Butternut Squash Soup with Cinnamon and Nutmeg Aioli served in a bread bowl or, better yet, a small, carved pumpkin or other gourd. 
3. Never let an event order state “Chef’s Choice” because not all food functions are prepared by the same chefs and you’ll be in danger of serving the exact same entrée at all of them.  Instead, request a specific entrée for each meal function and,
4. Invest in Mollie’s Katzen’s cookbooks, at least one or two of them, for your bookshelf.  Recipes featured are from the Moosewood Diner in upstate New York and are either vegetarian or completely Vegan.  Personally, I’m taken with The Enchanted Broccoli Forest simply because of the title.

Stations – Stations are one of my favorite concepts for, well, just about anything that is either casual or relates to networking.  They are easy to “theme,”: if needed, and encourage staying active and getting people talking.  A couple of notes:
1. Hors d’oeuvres– Try not to station hot hors d’oeuvres if you’re having a straight out cocktail reception.  Most of the time, there are issues involved with food quality: crispy items don’t stay crispy, for example, and it starts to look unattractive.  Good ideas for stationary items are Mediterranean items, cheese displays, antipasti stations, crudites, etc.  The other important recommendation for stationary hors d’oeuvres displays is this: don’t order for everyone; this is one of the rare times that it’s allowable to underguarantee since it’s not up everyone’s alley (and the accountants will appreciate the cost savings).. 
2. Décor  – Cut food costs, but put a little more money into décor for a more elegant feel.  You’d be surprised how much better the stations look for just the price of two dozen flowers and some greenery. 
3. Food Selection – The options really are limitless, but stations are exceptional when you want to showcase a variety of regional and ethnic foods. 

Reducing Food and Beverage Costs – With gas prices rising, fire, early frost, drought and all the rest, rising food and beverage pricing raises concerns for many planners, especially considering the F&B can comprise up to 60% of the cost of a meeting or event.  Several ideas to keep in mind when you have a lean budget, but still want to have an impress with your F&B program include:
1. First and foremost, be honest with your sales person, conference services manager, and culinary staff.  Once the contract is signed, they have a vested interest in making things happen.
2. Buy locally.  It connects your program with the community and is good for the environment.
3. If the filet is out of your price range, but you love the elegance of the presentation, ask if you can substitute a less expensive cut but keep the presentation. 
4. Choose a less expensive three-course meal and inquire about the cost of adding an intermezzo.  There’s always something elegant, refined, and impressive about adding a palate-cleanser.  Some options include sorbet (lavender and lemon sorbet is a nice choice), or a lovely, refined cheese. 
5. Ask the banquet staff to butler serve certain items: rolls, dressings and sauces can all be served once the food is placed and, again, adds a sense of refinement to the event, particularly for an awards banquet.  It may require extra staff, but the cost could be much cheaper than spending an extra $10++ per person. 

I hope that some of these suggestions help frame your thinking for your next event!


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