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Popular Provisions

Caterers across the state talk trends for meetings and events

By Lauren Pahmeier

Eye-catching, flora-focused tablescape by Boka Catering Group of Chicago
Eye-catching, flora-focused tablescape by Boka Catering Group of Chicago || Photo by Jeff Schear

Keeping up with trends in the fast-paced world of meetings and events is something that differentiates an outstanding venue, vendor, or caterer from an average one. Staying in the know gives industry professionals the chance to flesh out their offerings in anticipation of future requests from planners, and at the same time, create their own takes on trends. Upon consultation, they can flex industry insights to their planner clients and by proxy, give the planner the ability to impress their attendees when they incorporate trends into their events.

When it comes to catering in particular, there are so many ways that trends can manifest. They can span serving styles, particular cuisines, special ingredients, and more. Although the catering decisions that planners make ultimately depend on the event—after all, you can’t cater a boxed lunch meeting the same way you would a fundraising gala—there are a few popular requests that transcend the type of gathering.

Many catering companies across the state stay on top of what’s trending for corporate and nonprofit events and shared their thoughts with Illinois Meetings + Events. Read on to see what their planner clients have been requesting recently.

Strong, Specific Themes

While planning around a theme is not a novel idea for gatherings, themes that go above and beyond branding, color schemes, and holidays are something that has been inspiring planners lately. “I think people are taking it to the next level right now,” says Duce Raymond, managing partner at True Cuisine Special Events in Wood Dale.

As one example, Raymond and the team at True Cuisine catered a Super Mario Bros.-themed company picnic last summer after the blockbuster movie debuted in theaters. The employees and their families could appreciate details such as Bowser mixed berry shortcakes, Goomba Oreo chocolate trifles, and even a piranha plant-shaped vessel for dip, complete with fruit kabobs for teeth. Each of these heavily inspired dishes made the event more of an experience for each guest than the average company picnic. “If you can pick out a theme for your event, it just makes it so much more exciting instead of just saying, ‘We’re having a summer picnic,’” says Raymond.

This sentiment is echoed by optical manager Sheila Harvey for Vision Care Associates, who doubles as the company’s event coordinator and planner. Over the years, Harvey has worked with Conn’s Catering in Springfield to bring several specific themes to life, including a Las Vegas-themed holiday party. To honor the theme, Conn’s put together five food stations, each themed around a different casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, giving attendees the chance to appreciate the food not only for the taste but also for the connection to the casino.

Tablescape of small bites from True Cuisine
Tablescape of small bites from True Cuisine || Courtesy of SBR Events Group

Harvey noted that specific themes make events fun not only for employees but also for their plus ones. “If you bring your significant other with you, you’re having fun because it’s your employer. But [your plus-one might be] thinking, ‘Okay, is this over yet?’ When you look around and see all the guests, it’s my goal to make sure that everybody who comes to the party is having a blast,” says Harvey.

Interactive Food Stations

Another trending item in the catering world is interactive food stations. While regular stations are a great way to get attendees moving through the space and make them more likely to mingle, taking it a step further and adding an interactive element leaves an impression and gives guests something to talk about. “People like food as entertainment, they find value in that,” says Brian Reilly, owner of Cured Catering in Springfield.

Chef-led carving station by True Cuisine Special Events in Wood Dale;
Chef-led carving station by True Cuisine Special Events in Wood Dale || Courtesy of SBR Events Group

Cured Catering has embraced this trend by offering several interactive food stations, whether it’s blackening shrimp, cooking over an open flame, or working with the client to create a custom solution. Stations like these are especially popular at nonprofit and fundraising events, where planners are really looking to impress attendees. “People sometimes pay a premium to be there, so we are part of the entertainment,” says Reilly.

Boka Catering Group in Chicago has also worked with clients to add interactive elements to their food stations. Instead of setting up a regular charcuterie board table at a recent event, Boka leveled up by sending a chef to carve an entire leg of prosciutto live on-site. “It kind of adds some theater to the event, where it’s not just a table with some cheese on it,” says Liz Kort, senior catering sales manager at Boka.

Flexibility on Dietary Restrictions

Caterers across Illinois also have taken note of the ever-increasing expectation that they will have the ability to accommodate a wide array of dietary restrictions—especially since the percentage of attendees who request accommodations continues to rise.

“It’s more or less expected from the caterers to be accommodating for all the different dietary restrictions that are out there now,” says Raymond of True Cuisine. “We expect it, and go out of our way to make sure we have all the dietary restrictions because there are so many—we want to be proactive about it.”

True Cuisine Special Events marks its menus with which items and dishes are nut-free, gluten-free, and more ahead of time, so clients can choose those dishes intentionally. What’s more, Nelson’s Catering in Springfield takes embracing dietary restrictions a step further.

Delectable plate by Cured Catering in Springfield
Delectable plate by Cured Catering in Springfield || Courtesy of Cured Catering

“A lot of times, I will just tell the event planner, ‘Why don’t you have the person call us directly?’” says Mindy Beeler, event planner and employee owner at Nelson’s.

This way, Nelson’s is taking the event planner out as the go-between, and is doubly giving the attendee comfort so they will be able to eat and enjoy themselves at the event. “We’re giving people a sense that we care and we want to do a great job for their event,” says Beeler. “And that means we’re taking care of the people who are eating the food.”