Under 5 percent is what Carmen Callo, executive chef at Centerplate, estimates is the percentage of special dietary requests he received about five years ago. Today, as he oversees catering at Colorado Convention Center in Denver, he and his team are cooking for groups where 15 to 20 percent of attendees have special dietary requirements.
Anyone who has attended an event—business or social—has seen the increase Callo is referring to. Despite the perception, attendees with dietary requests don’t have to be a burden for planners and chefs. These tips from top local chefs will ensure that your next gathering will be a great experience for those making the requests and vendors who prepare their meals.
Communicate Specifics Early & Often
Planners are experts in sealing up cracks to make sure nothing falls through them, but waiting until a pre-con to share dietary requests can put avoidable pressure on vendors. One way to get the communication flowing is by giving attendees a list of dietary options during the registration process. Providing attendees with a select list of options shows that their needs are being addressed, and it will help your vendors’ efficiency as well.
“When you open it up and there’s a 400-person spreadsheet where they’re allowed to type whatever they want, it’s hard to manage,” says Callo.
Once attendees’ preferences are known by vendors, communicate with attendees so they know where to find their meals. “One of the biggest challenges we have,” says Callo, “is when meals aren’t picked up.” In bigger areas such as convention centers, planners can help connect attendees to their requested meals by notifying them via email or text with details about where the meals will be located.
Embrace New Food Options
Cooking for special dietary requests has become part of the mainstream now, says John Johnstone, vice president of food and beverage at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. All the chefs interviewed for this article mentioned how special dietary requests are creating new opportunities for culinary innovation. “Vegetarian doesn’t mean a steamed vegetable plate anymore,” emphasizes Johnstone.
Creativity is reaching more than just attendees with special meal requests. “We’ve changed how we cook for the masses,” says Four Seasons Hotel Denver Executive Chef Simon Purvis. “We use very limited cream, and we’ve almost removed butter. Our cooking is very, very healthy compared to where it was in the past. It’s being very well-received.”
Make the Distinction between Allergies & Preferences
Like food preferences, food allergies will continue to increase among meeting attendees. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the prevalence of reported food allergy increased 18 percent among children under age 18 years from 1997 to 2007.
Vendors need to know when an attendee has an allergy versus a preference, and planners can help communicate that information. The preparation for attendees with allergies can be much more intricate because the consequences can be severe. At The Broadmoor, Johnstone says, allergies receive special red-flag attention. “We use different pots and pans,” he notes. “We do everything right in the back of house to ensure there is no cross-contamination.”
The Four Seasons follows a very similar approach. “We want to know if it’s a dietary preference versus something that’ll make a guest sick. If it’s a serious allergy, the whole process is different,” confirms Purvis.
A memorable meal has the potential to make an entire meeting memorable, especially for attendees with special dietary requests. Early and regular communication with vendors can help them impress attendees with innovative meals regardless of their dietary requests.