We reached out to local pros for the latest look at the fast-paced world of food and beverage and catering. From recent trends to clever insight and advice, here’s what they had to say.
For starters, Kathleen O’Neill, co-owner with Mary Rembelski of Canape Cart in Birmingham, a boutique catering business says, “Events don’t have to be on a grand scale to make a great impression.”
She’s seen a shift in the last decade. “There’s a whole focus on food and a lot of requests for organic and local sourcing from Michigan farms. People also request craft cocktails, Michigan beers and a signature cocktail.”
A combination of casual and formal elements includes donut wedding cakes and sliders late at night. People are also incorporating food trucks into formal meetings and a rehearsal party might rent out a local joint for burgers and beer.
For business or personal parties, people are looking for a signature brand to make their event distinct. “Weddings have become a business that encompasses more than themes, colors and styling,” O’Neill says.
When a challenge presents itself, she likes to get creative. “I can take a garage and make it into a different room,” she says. “I think of it sometimes as theater. It’s not all about the food, but dishes and linens too.”
For her, organization is essential. “Keeping on top of things is important and the team behind me has to be informed. I’m organizing the info and making sure the right people receive it,” she says.
According to Jason Hougard, regional vice president of Centerplate at Cobo Center in Detroit, “a lot of event planners pick a city from a food perspective and sustainability is huge in the industry. Other trends include small plate items and an emphasis on dairy free, gluten free and vegan alternatives. People are much more health conscious.”
Executive chef Robin Wilson says, “There’s a carbon footprint of about 150-mile radius with local availability in season. We have a lot of small business suppliers. We’re part of the Executive Green Council and Cobo Center is green certified. We try to go above and beyond.”
Cobo’s rooftop even has a beehive farm and a small herb garden.
Jennifer McDonnell, director of sales, says, “They always suggest a diverse menu with a vegetarian entrée and a beautiful presentation that changes seasonally.”
Adds Hougard: “People eat with their eyes. It’s like a work of art.”
For the North American International Auto Show, the staff relies on the Alto-Shaam Combi Oven that can bake, roast, steam and more. “It helps us keep on top of large events and make 6,000 meals in about three hours,” says Wilson. “It controls the moisture-to-heat ratio to help deliver the best quality food and keep the flavor profile. It’s the Cadillac of ovens.”
Mishaps are bound to happen, like the time they were feeding 14,000 people and someone forgot to order extra dishes. “So we ran out and had to wash them as they were coming back while we were still trying to plate the meals,” says Wilson.
Through it all, they’re able to keep up with cuttingedge trends. “We’re all over North America, so we can reach out to other properties. We have a lot of resources and a lot of support,” says McDonnell. “We don’t have conventional convention food. Nothing stays the same. It’s always changing.”
Angela Whitener, director of sales for Stafford’s Bay View Inn and the Perry Hotel in Petoskey and the Crooked River Lodge in Alanson, has learned a lot in her 18 years there. “The longevity of the people you work with is so rare,” she says. “For my clients, that’s a great selling point because a lot of the guesswork is taken out.”
In food and beverage, she says, less is more. “It used to be a lavish banquet with lots of wasted food, ‘the bigger the better; we want it to look bountiful.’ Now people are very conscious and they want to keep it simple.”
Many guests want fresh local fare and they want to know if the eggs are free-range, the beef is grass-fed and the salmon is wild-caught. “In Michigan, there are so many great farms and agriculture is a big industry,” says Whitener who gets requests from gluten free, wheat free and dairy free to no garlic or onions.
“We have to label everything and we have to be accommodating,” she says. “At corporate events and weddings, there can be special requests for 20 percent of the guests. We have to prepare something that feels just as special as that filet mignon.”
Still, historic hotel rooms can pose a challenge when there are pillars, limited electrical outlets and odd-shaped spaces. “People love the hotel and the location,” says Whitener. “We give them the reality of what we have to work with from the beginning.”
As for planning, it all boils down to communication and accuracy whether it’s an event for 10 or 100,” says Whitener, who recalls a time when people showed up on the wrong day. “I got a call from my general manager to serve breakfast to a group of 60 attendees who showed up at the Bay View Inn.” It turns out the planner had booked a business meeting for the following day, but gave the wrong date to the group.
“We all make mistakes. We made it work,” says Whitener who believes in putting yourself in another’s situations. “A bride has never planned a wedding and neither has a new planner. Don’t assume people know everything you know. It’s important to be personable and patient and it’s okay to make mistakes.”
ON THE TABLE
At Mission Point Resort on Mackinac Island, Rylin Ploe, senior conference services manager, says they make it a point to discuss each property option. “We’re very unique to a conference. Every meeting space is going to be different, so having an open mind-set helps. It’s great if they’re being open to what might work best in the hotel and we’re blending ideas together and understanding their needs and going above and beyond.”
She believes it’s important to understand your property and the experience guests will have from the time they get there to the time they leave. “We can go into one of the restaurants and get a vegetarian meal for someone who didn’t share that need in advance,” says Ploe. “You have to take your meeting planner shoes off and put your client shoes on.”
She adds, “Mackinac Island is a unique destination, so it’s important for us to understand the surrounding area. It’s about making that connection, being proactive and anticipating food needs. We’ve had a couple of weddings that submitted family recipes for us to make. We have a great executive chef who said it might not taste exactly like Grandma’s, but so far, they say they can barely tell the difference. It’s all about being flexible.”
Dietary restrictions often guide Brenda Durling, CCEP, director of conference and food service operations for VisTaTech Center-Schoolcraft College in Livonia.
“Guests are asking for healthier menu options and we are happy to oblige. Getting away from rich sauces and cooking methods and moving towards quickly sautéed, poached, and chargrilled items is a must. Accompanying those items now are fresh relishes, chutneys, and lots of housepickled vegetables,” she says.
Another factor is technology, which includes laptops connecting to data projectors and clients requesting PowerPoint remotes and confidence monitors and recording the event to a digital file for posting on their website. Webinars, video conferencing and livestreaming have become popular requests at the center that’s starting to offer live streaming to YouTube.
The college location appeals to businesses by having the latest technology and built-in data projectors and screens in every meeting room along with free Wi-Fi and on-site tech support.
It’s also home to Schoolcraft College’s highly acclaimed Culinary Arts program. Many of the chefs working in the catering department are recent graduates who can provide culinary delights, from freshly baked pastries to elaborate lunches or dinners.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU
According to Keri Douglass, event manager for The Henry, Autograph Collection in Dearborn, clients want to add more personalization than in the past, which pulls together a clear message of who they are, whether it’s a corporate event or wedding. For example, meetings are requesting no bottled water and more recycling options to show they are striving to go green.
Other advances include a meeting services app that allows their on-site contact to make requests from wherever they are in the hotel without having to find someone in person.
Douglass says keeping the venue/vendor relationship strong is extremely important. “The flow of communication needs to be present, so if there are any changes (which there usually are) we can work through them together. We have the same end goal, to create a successful event for our clients, so it is important to work together.”
She says it’s okay to ask questions and your clients will thank you for it. “It doesn’t mean you don’t know how to do your job, it means you are thorough and truly care about your client’s vision for their meeting/ event/wedding.”
For a small wedding (one bridesmaid and one groomsman) with bouquets that had wilted in a freezer, Douglass was there to save the day. “Luckily, I had ordered a large arrangement for their ceremony as a surprise for them and was able to create the two bouquets from it and ordered two rushed boutonnieres through a local florist. It was a crazy day, but the bride and groom were wonderful and truly happy in the end.”
Themes also can take an event to the next level. For one bride and groom that loved to travel, they created hors d’oeuvres based on the places they had been, which was a great way to tie everything together. For example, braised lamb on a pita croustade with tzatziki and feta signified their trip to Greece.
Todd Webb, executive chef at JW Marriott Grand Rapids, has been in the business for 22 years. “It used to be everything in large format with chafing dishes and a buffet. Now we try to create a crafted experience with individual portions,” he says about oven-to-table options like a cast iron skillet or a salad plate instead of a big bowl.
“We love it when meeting planners come to us with an open mind and find what we do best. There are lots of ideas on social media and we can execute them, but what we excel in is a unique experience that you’re not going to see everywhere, like milk and cookies put on a griddle to get warm and gooey,” says Webb.
When he first started, plated meals were passed from one person in the kitchen to the next and now the conveyor belt they have is the Henry Ford of plated events, he says.
Early in his career he was told, “This is a marathon, not a sprint” and “You’re playing chess, not checkers.”
He’s taken both to heart. “We have a great relationship with vendors and I have a great support team, from the dishwashers to the cooks,” says Webb. “I have the pleasure of leading and managing this talented group of people.”
Some days he’s a social worker, others he’s like an EMT needed to patch things up. “You have to roll with the punches and you want to work somewhere you’re going to be challenged. Every day is only as good as your last performance,” he says.
“We’re always prepared for things not going our way and we look at that as an opportunity. We want to have options, whether it’s for 10 people or 800. Even if there are no vegetarians, we’re going to have that for them.”
Phil Rodriguez, co-owner of Rose Catering in Clinton Township, counts casual gatherings like backyard barbecues among the current trends. “We still do traditional weddings at halls, but graduation parties and family reunions like the nostalgia of fresh grilled food,” he says. “It’s small and you’re out there interacting with the customers, which is great.” Many of the firm’s events take place in residential settings.
“People are more at home when they’re in their yard,” adds Rodriguez. “It’s a nice relaxed atmosphere.” Because windy days can be especially tricky, they make sure table covers stay clean and secure.
Taste is always a real crowd-pleaser. “We like to use a lot of subtle, but strong flavors. Our chef is really good at balancing the two, like he does for our rosemary baked chicken,” the caterer says.
Their vendors are small business owners that can be flexible as well. “Just let us know what you want and we will take care of it,” says Rodriguez.
A WHOLE NEW WORLD
From a food and beverage perspective, Jill Bish, director of catering and conference services at the Radisson Plaza Hotel & Suites at Kalamazoo Center, says they’re excited that the average attendee’s palette is now open to global flavors and inspiration.
“In years past, we would be excited to use seasonings like chipotle powder. Now, we are spanning the globe with flavors and seasonings ranging from za’atar to harissa to sofrito to hibiscus and more,” she says.
From a planning perspective, the conversation has changed from “what” to “how.” For example, Bish says it’s gone from asking, “what do you need for your meeting” to “how do you want your attendees to feel when they leave your event.” Creativity plays a role in the conversation. “A break isn’t just assorted cookies anymore. Now, it’s bringing in a certified yoga instructor to help refresh the attendees,” she says.
She also appreciates the new trend of mixed seating for meetings with soft furnishings, traditional round tables and high tables that let attendees choose what suits their needs.
In this industry, Bish says you need more than plan A, B and C. “To be successful you need to anticipate every scenario and have plan Z in your back pocket.”
Software programs help, including join.me, which helps in collaboration with clients unable to meet in-person, and Delphi, which can help to create banquet event orders that are the instruction manuals for the events.
“What sets us apart is our passion, not just for providing stellar service or mouthwatering food, but for knowing that the focus is not us, but what makes our clients’ event a success,” says Bish. “We also have to practice exceptional listening skills to pick up on any cues of what will surprise and delight them.”