As most meeting planners are aware, food is an essential part of any event—whether it’s an intimate cocktail hour or a large-scale catered conference. Many catering companies are offering innovative food and beverage concepts with a more personal touch that goes beyond the standard buffet or plated meal.
“There are so many things caterers can do to stand out at events, but the main thing is to be innovative,” says Kaiy Smith-Biesman, founder of Stems, a catering and entertaining company in Pasadena. “Clients are looking for more than just great food; they want new experiences. By focusing on unique menus, customization, quality, experiential elements, exceptional service, and collaboration, caterers can differentiate themselves and stand out at events—ultimately leaving a positive and lasting impression on clients and guests.”
From creative displays and menus to branding integration, these innovative ideas from California-based catering companies will make events stand out by creating fun and memorable culinary experiences for attendees.
Heirloom LA in Los Angeles is known for edible centerpieces, which replace traditional flower centerpieces with beautiful food displays that reduce waste by also serving as decorations. It offers different options, including Mediterranean, Mexican, vegan, dessert, and its popular crostini station, which features various meats, cheeses, vegetables, and breads.
“I ordered an edible centerpiece for my own wedding a few years back, and people still talk about it,” says Kasey Karinen, general manager of Heirloom LA. “People love this concept because you don’t have to leave the table or wait for your food. When guests sit down they are immediately comfortable, interested, and able to nosh. It’s also a great conversation starter with the people around you.”
Stems curates unique culinary experiences and displays including a floating charcuterie wall. It features a board suspended on a slat wall to give the appearance it’s floating, and it can also display appetizers and desserts.
“People prefer experiences over traditional catering because they value personalization and customization, and enjoy the exploration that experiences provide,” says Smith-Biesman. “It’s also a great way to encourage social interaction, discovery, and engagement along with multisensory stimulation. While traditional catering serves its purpose, experiences offer a more dynamic and memorable approach to dining that satisfies not only hunger, but also the desire for personalization, exploration, social connection, and meaningful events.”
Chef Tolu Eros, founder and chef of ILÉ LA in Los Angeles and ILÉ Bistro in Culver City, is known as “The Billionaire Chef” and has catered for billionaires and presidents from around the world.
“Experiential catering [which makes the dining experience immersive and interactive for attendees] is on the rise,” says Eros. “I’ve been doing it since 2018 and have noticed more caterers offering this type of service in addition to clients requesting this level of service. It’s not enough to simply put food in front of our clients—there’s opportunity to create a memorable experience. Caterers can and should offer excellent service to stand out. People correlate the kind of service they receive to how the food tastes. If they have a bad experience, they will remember the food as being bad, and if they have a great experience, they remember the food very fondly.”
At the Coachella festival grounds in Indio in April, Eros was the first West African chef to cater at the exclusive Rose Garden VIP dinner in partnership with Outstanding in the Field [a recurring outdoor dining event]. He served more than 320 guests a custom menu titled “Chasing Drums” and took attendees on a journey exploring the culinary landscapes of West Africa, chasing different sounds and tastes that express the emotions of joyfulness, gratitude, and love. Menu items included a cassava and beetroot salad, his grandmother’s pepper soup, jollof rice, and puff-puff, an African donut.
“Another catering experience was in partnership with recording artist IDK and Nike for his album listening party at the Nike LA office,” adds Eros. “I treated about 100 guests, including one of my favorite musical artists, will.i.am, to shrimp toast infused with suya [a northern Nigerian spice], Zobo beef sliders, … pepper soup, jollof rice, and king oyster mushrooms. The menu was a nice complement to a night filled with a kaleidoscope of jazz
and hip-hop sounds.”
Functional Ice Sculptures
Another unique way to make a statement is with a functional ice sculpture that dispenses cocktails. Bret and Lucy Ramirez Thompson are the owners of Pez Cantina, a restaurant and catering business that partners with spirits companies to create one-of-a-kind ice sculptures for events and food festivals, including Masters of Taste. Cocktails are poured into the top of the ice luge and come out in a cup at the bottom, which can be lit up with liquid nitrogen for a smoky effect.
“A company logo or the bride’s and groom’s names can be carved into the ice for a personalized touch,” says Lucy. “It looks stunning and people love it. It’s also biodegradable, so it won’t sit in a landfill after. It’s natural but feels just as impactful.”
At Pechanga Resort Casino’s annual Sushi and Sake Festival in Temecula, the food star of the show is a 100-pound bluefish tuna that is brought centerstage and carved with a traditional Yanagiba knife by Chef Kiyo Ikeda. During the experience, the chef narrates as he breaks down the tuna while taking questions from the crowd.
“We are always looking for new ways to raise the bar for our guests, and our partners at Habitat for Humanity give us the perfect opportunity,” says Sutisa Spellman, catering and conference services manager at Pechanga Resort Casino. “Serving sushi requires the highest-quality ingredients and a team of skilled chefs. To build on that idea, we also gave our guests a behind-the-scenes look at the sushi-making process, from watching our expert catering staff plate sushi to learning from an acclaimed sushi chef how to carve one of the most sought-after fishes.”