Increasing demand for food that satisfies specialized dietary needs and wants, together with a growing appetite for healthy foods, make customization – and early planning – critical to the success of food and beverage functions.
“The days when you simply presented a choice of banquet menus to the planner and they picked one are long over. Customization is the norm now,” said Paul Carter, executive chef at The Phoenician in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Today’s meeting planners need to be aware of the dietary needs and desires of attendees – and convey that information to venues,
According to Carter, dietary issues are cropping up daily – and the resort is adapting to this.
“We are seeing a huge trend to awareness of what is actually in the food,” he said. “We are dealing with so many guest allergies. The awareness of gluten in foods, for one, has become a daily topic, even for people who are not necessarily allergic.”
Planners on board
Meeting planners are also taking note of dietary trends.
“We have definitely geared our menus more toward wellness,” said Nadine Murray, an independent planner with Planitbest in Chicago. “Portion sizes and presentation come into it. We will put out a smaller plate and keep replenishing it as opposed to just creating a huge buffet.”
When she does offer buffets, salads and other healthy fare are included.
“Presentation is extremely important,” Murray added. “We don’t want it to look overdone. It’s not just a health issue, it’s ethical; people don’t want to see a lot of waste.”
Food and beverage can be tricky because “peoples’ brains tell them they’re on vacation, and they will eat what they usually won’t at home,” said meetings educator Joan Eisenstodt of Eisenstodt Associates.
“As planners, we have to get away from the printed menu and talk to the chefs in more depth.”
Culinary trends pose challenges
Today’s culinary trends and needs can be challenging, according to Carter. “We had one four-day event with 140 people. It turned out that 55 wanted special meals, which we didn’t know until the day before. The first day sent us into a tailspin, but we accommodated it all.”
One recent group wanted all their food labeled for fat content, calories and other nutritional information. Making things more challenging – the request came the day before the meeting.
“We are now getting used to that kind of thing,” Carter said, adding that “it’s best if planners let us know as much in advance as they can.”
A better burger
Corporate groups are increasingly expecting the kind of healthier food that their own company cafeterias are now offering, Carter said.
Carter noted that even standard events such as outdoor cookouts, popular in The Phoencian’s sunny location, are being modified.
“In the past, there would be regular burgers for almost everybody with a couple of veggie burgers,” Carter noted. “Now it’s the regular meat burger that has become the special meal. Of course we still serve a very nutritious meat burger.”
The Arizona Heart Association held a banquet at The Phoenician last fall that required the creation of a three-course meal using 25 superfoods and featuring a main course entree of under 800 calories.
“We were worried that some of the 100 guests would request something more mainstream, even though it’s the Heart Association and people expect to eat well. But we were pleasantly surprised,” Carter said.
“I don’t see all this going away; I only see it increasing,” Carter said. “The more people realize the importance of food, they will change their ways.”
Keep it local
One trend that can create complications for chefs is the demand for locally sourced food. Satisfying this demand is not as simple as it sounds, according to Carter.
“Being local can sometimes be more expensive and present more challenges,” he said.
“I was recently talking to a vendor about ordering a product produced nearby. It turns out the product is grown in Phoenix, then immediately shipped to Los Angeles. So we actually had to get it from Los Angeles.
“It’s also difficult if planners ask for this kind of information too far out, because markets change so frequently. We grow a tremendous amount of produce in Arizona, but we don’t always know exactly where from.”
Maintaining the variety of ingredients necessary to meet current dietary requirements also can be a challenge for hotels, said Carter.
“We have 10 restaurants, so it’s easier for me to have a larger inventory. These changes have to be very challenging for a smaller operation.”