By Mattie John Bamman
We’ve all been there: sitting in a group around a banquet table at a conference… in silence. The food hasn’t arrived, and you haven’t met your fellow attendees. It is the mark of a good event planner to make sure this doesn’t happen, and perhaps surprisingly, the very food itself can be the answer. It’s all a matter of using food and drink strategically to achieve your group’s event, meeting or conference goals.
Thoughtfully incorporating food and drink isn’t difficult. And it doesn’t have to be expensive. Event planners and caterers of all types come loaded with creative ideas. The trick is knowing the right questions to ask.
WHERE TO START
Before you begin to strategize food and drink ideas, you need to determine your goals. What are the most important objectives that your event is trying to achieve? To motivate attendees to knock it out of the park next quarter, or to celebrate a year gone gangbusters? Is it a fundraiser? Does your event have a theme? Do you want the event to build upon your company’s reputation?
The second thing to determine as early on as possible is your event’s setting, whether a specific auditorium or a day at the beach. “It’s really all about matching the food to the setting,” says Bee Talmadge, coordinating sales manager at Jake’s Catering at the Sentinel Hotel in Portland. “You don’t want a beautiful atmosphere and that rubber chicken.”
Talmadge oversees eight luxurious and historic event spaces totaling 23,000 square feet in the city center, and she works with events for 5 to 850 people, with most business meetings clocking in at 50 to 200 guests. “I’m a ‘Jill of all trades’; I work six days a week, and I love my job,” she says. “Those snow days we had this winter? I spent them wishing I could make it to my office.”
Given your goals and setting, event coordinators like Talmadge can make sure the food and drink match the unique style of your event. To get started, Talmadge suggests asking your caterer for photos from previous business occasions. “It helps you really visualize it.” You might replace those folding chairs at the tables with designer chairs, or you might create food stations to keep people on their feet and interacting. Think of what you want your guests to see when they walk in.
Another option is to let the food itself determine the setting. “For us, what’s hot are events that promote excitement and engagement with the food, one another and the surrounding environment,” says Mona Johnson, co-owner of Portland-based Tournant, a new boutique catering company. “People don’t want the same old thing. People want an experience.”
The Tournant team cooks thoughtful food in cool environments, such as an oyster roast at the coast, cooking whole lambs or a side of beef over a big fire at a ranch, or a native salmon bake on the bank of a river. With mobile cooking equipment, including a moveable raw bar for pop-up oyster parties, Tournant can help you host a food-forward event just about anywhere. “Plus,” adds Johnson, “one of the best parts about a meal cooked over the fire is afterwards guests can sit around the dying embers and truly relax and enjoy themselves.”
CONNECTING THROUGH FOOD AND DRINK
One of the key goals of any event is networking. For event coordinators, this means making sure attendees are comfortable and engaged enough to strike up conversations, and with food and drink come numerous strategies. “Build-your-own stations, like build-your-own pizza or poutine, promotes interaction,” says Talmadge. “It’s a good way to get people talking.”
Highlighting local, seasonal ingredients is another approach. It will make attendees feel more connected to place they’re in as well as the company and teams that brought them to that place. And it never hurts to show off culinary expertise: While that rubber chicken is instantly forgettable (in the best-case scenario), a crab and brie-stuffed salmon could be the talk of the office for days to come.
“A lot of it is taking something successful and finding a way to reinvent yourself in little ways each year,” says Talmadge. She offers a straightforward example: a flourless truffle cake served in a martini glass so it appears to be suspended. “Just changing the way you serve a popular food will attract attention.”
Steve Brown co-owns Portland’s Spin Catering, a Portland catering and event company known for throwing large work parties at the lively Tony Starlight Showroom, and he offers another suggestion to get guests talking.
“We are adding paired small bites as a garnish to our custom cocktails,” he says. “An example is a Gompers Gin martini garnished with pancetta-wrapped chevre and ripe pear.” Brown also recommends creating custom drink names, whether a drink named after the founder of the company or an inside joke that is shared office-wide.
THE BUFFET VS. THE PLATED MEAL
Perhaps the biggest question for any event when it comes to food is whether to offer a buffet or a plated meal. A lot of this has to do with the size of your event and venue. Most caterers agree that it is difficult to effectively pull off a seated meal for larger events with attendees of approximately 200 or more. The logistical problems are mostly related to traffic issues — servers and busboys transporting plates and beverages from point A to point B — but it can also be challenging for a single kitchen to keep up with demand.
At Spin Catering, Brown says, “A buffet requires the least number of staff and can be the lowest cost option.” This typically holds true across most event situations. Spin Catering thoughtfully builds separate buffet stations for every 50 to 100 guests, to ensure enough space for guests to get what they need.
Seated, coursed meals, on the other hand, can come with one big bonus: You have more control over the length and pace of the meal. This is especially helpful when you have an important presentation to highlight. For example, Talmadge says the way in which you pace the meal can be used for dramatic effect. “If you’re holding an auction or have another big moment after the meal, you can pace the courses to ensure everyone’s done eating in time,” she says.
And a great tip, if you’re including a welcome speech and looking to save time: pre-set salads so the speaker won’t be fighting for attention with the servers (dressing on the side, of course, to keep the greens from wilting). The moment the event coordinator receives the cue that the speech has concluded, the servers sweep in to remove the plates and deliver entrees.
By the time dessert rolls around, your guests may be relaxed and maybe even a little sleepy. Use the opportunity to keep things rolling. Why not feature a surprise food cart pop-up, like Portland’s Nineteen27 S’mores or Pip’s Original Doughnuts? The food cart team arriving on the scene is sure to cause a commotion, and it could be a good opportunity to get guests out of their seats to retrieve, or even partake in building, their treats.
Thanks to creative event planners, caterers and other professionals, business events are becoming more thoughtful and delicious every day. It all starts by laying out your event’s goals and setting. Then you can finish the task by strategically incorporating food and drink to match.