Hungry for More: Planning food at corporate events
It’s 2 p.m. They’re not even halfway through the afternoon’s speakers, and your gut feels like it’s full of lead. That fettuccini Alfredo you scooped onto your plate at noon is now beckoning you to dreamland, tempting you to close those eyelids … if just … for a few … moments.
Sure everyone loves a good pasta, but serving it for lunch at a corporate event? It’s a common faux pas, according to Mary Crafts-Homer, founder and CEO of Culinary Crafts. “If lunch is loaded with carbs, your audience will be dragging. Lunch needs to be protein-centric; it will keep them alert,” says Crafts-Homer.
This insight is just one example of why effective corporate events require strategic planning when it comes to food and beverage. It’s not just a matter of pleasing their palates or accommodating the vegans and vegetarians. You also need to consider quantity, budget, timing and more. Because what you serve and how you serve it can elevate or downgrade your next gathering.
Before you start puzzling over whether to do a plated dinner featuring pan-seared black cod with honey soy glaze or have your guests mingle around the chef’s station sizzling with shrimp and salmon, smart planning starts with the numbers.
“The No. 1 thing people need to focus on first is establishing a head count,” says Lyndsey Bergeson, owner of Without a Hitch, a Salt Lake City-based event planning company. “If a company says, ‘I think it’ll be like 100 to 200 people,’ that’s too big of a gap. As early as you can get a firm attendance figure, the better you’ll be able to plan.”
Along with a head count, another biggie is budget. Say you have a fixed budget of $1,500 for lunch. With just 100 guests, you can afford to go as high as $15 a head. This opens up all kinds of possibilities, such as an elaborate buffet touting mesquite-grilled flank steak with chimichurri sauce, or action stations where the chefs serve short ribs individually smoked. If your head count is 200, then you’re looking at $7.50 a head, which could land you comfortably in the range of sandwiches and soups.
Next, you want to consider timing. Is your event a half day? Full day? Three days? Are you feeding them every meal, or turning them loose for a breakfast or lunch on their own? (If so, have you clearly communicated your “provided” vs. “on-your own” meals to your guests?) And what about the role of food?
“If the goal is to get people up and moving, then you don’t want a plated meal. You want action stations or a buffet,” says Crafts-Homer. She also points out that if your event is multiple days, you want to vary the style of service from meal to meal, from buffets to stations to plated meals.
And consider the size of the crowd for traffic flow and timing. Work with your caterer to ensure adequate staff and logistics are in place to avoid long amusement-park lines at the buffet tables, or having half the room finishing their cheesecake while the other half is just getting their salads.
And as for when to serve your guests? If you’re starting early, say 7:30 or 8, Crafts-Homer says to serve a hot breakfast. If you’re starting around 9 a.m., you can get away with a continental breakfast or just beverage service (coffee, tea, water, juice).
Regardless of when you start, Crafts-Homer says to serve food about every two hours, whether it’s a break or a meal or appetizers and cocktails. And she encourages creativity in the details. “Even if it’s a break, instead of setting out granola bars, set up a trail mix bar, with gummy bears, nuts, chocolate. If you think outside the box with your food, your guests know you’re thinking outside the box with your product.”
That out-of-the-box thinking is exactly why Culinary Crafts has earned several Best of State awards. From action stations to butler-passed hors d’oeuvres to innovative cuisine with over 2,000 menu items, the company understands the power of food and drink in making a lasting impression.
This also underscores why Natalie Peay, executive producer for Salt Lake City-based Webb Event Production, is an advocate for making food a central part of event planning. “I just got off the phone with a venue caterer discussing the signature drink for a client’s event, because that drink people are walking around with in their hand is just as important as the furniture they’re sitting on or the person they’re listening to,” says Peay. “The biggest shortfall I see sometimes is people don’t understand that food is a major part of the experience.”
Peay shares a story of a client who had run out of money and to save on budget, cut a large portion of the food out. At a scheduled mingler one evening, Peay says, “I watched the attendees walk around; they didn’t quite know what to do, because as a culture we’re so established to have a plate or drink in our hand.”
Peay adds that the best events happen when planners consider the whole event, as well as individual portions of the event. “Whether it’s something they see, touch, listen to, or something they experience through food or entertainment, it all plays a part in creating their overall experience. It all plays into how people feel about your event as they leave.”
So that next event of yours? Plan ahead so you can do more than fill their bellies—dazzle them with the experience.
Photos courtesy of Culinary Crafts.