Wondering what the latest is in food and beverage for meetings and events? We talked to executive chefs and food and beverage directors from around the state to learn what clients are asking for, and what’s a hit (and what’s not) with guests.
The George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston and the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort & Spa in San Antonio are both seeing a similar trend of groups looking to experience the authentic local culture of the places they’re visiting.
“Traveling is all about experiencing a new culture, and that includes fare from the region guests are visiting,” says James Morin, executive chef at the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort & Spa. “We see a lot of guests enthralled by the culture of our Lone Star State, and they want to experience that unique Texas flavor in authentic cuisine.”
Guests are excited to learn about the unique specialty game menu served at the hotel’s Antlers Lodge, Morin says.
“We certainly continue to see a growing number of guests looking for healthier options, but far and away guests are still excited to try the flavors of the Hill Country through dishes like the Texas Spiced Rubbed Elk, Antelope Carpaccio, Pan Seared Lamb Chops or Texas Charcuterie,” Morin says.
The desire to try local ingredients also extends to beverage options, says Paul Resch, director of food and beverage service at the Hyatt Regency.
“Local and craft are huge right now,” Resch says. “We have a Texas bar setup that includes local beer and liquor where almost every product offered comes from our great state. We source Texas craft beers and liquors, and often work with our partners to create a regional craft cocktail menu to accompany the bar.”
To offer the local flavor of the Houston food scene, Chris Bupp, general manager of Levy, the exclusive food and beverage provider for the George R. Brown Convention Center, works with local partners to showcase the Houston food scene. In partnering with local businesses, Bupp also highlights its partnership with women- and minority-owned small businesses in the Houston community.
“This is for businesses to grow and thrive financially and be able to reach these audiences that otherwise wouldn’t come to the restaurant or food truck,” Bupp says. “We look at ourselves as stewards on behalf of the city. We love to celebrate and tell these stories.”
A kiosk operating for lunch, for instance, may be a local barbecue vendor who smokes the meat out front and can talk about the food with attendees while serving it, Bupp says.
Showcasing the sourcing of ingredients and partnerships with local suppliers is a shift from previous priorities, when companies put their brand on a product instead of highlighting the local producer.
“The industry went through a time of private labeling that was, ‘This is ours, and this is made for us,’” Bupp says. “Now we’re celebrating local brands. Just like in restaurants, we’re focusing on where your pork is raised, where the vegetables come from, and if the honey is wild and local.”
The convention center also works to showcase its local partners by prominently featuring their branding in restaurant and café experiences. The convention center uses a local company, Java Pura, as a coffee vendor. “In telling people about it, it’s roasted down the street and it’s available across Texas,” Bupp says. “What a great story to tell, and consumers love hearing about it.”
The center also emphasizes the impact a conference will have on small businesses when speaking with show management. It’s an important part of an authentic experience.
“If we have a larger conference where we had lunch for more than 7,000 attendees for a two-and-a-half-day period, and we utilized local concepts, I not only thank them for their business, but make them aware of what an impact they made on these small businesses,” Bupp says.
Chefs at multiple hotels and resorts spoke about an increased desire to develop menus with healthy options for attendees.
For breakfast, groups are looking for healthy options and “light action stations.” “They want to see how the food is prepared,” says Christof Syré, executive chef at the Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas.
Grains are popular. Syré has offered a grain station that combines three or four different kinds of grains such as quinoa, farro and sorghum. “We mix that all up and make it almost like an oatmeal serving,” he says. Syré then offers options for toppings, such as dried fruit.
Cold oatmeal is also extremely popular with guests, as is avocado toast that can be topped with smoked salmon or a poached egg. Other popular items include probiotic drinks and superfood shakes and snacks. During the day, Syré also offers fruit or carmelized ginger as snacks on the table, along with citrus cocktails. Planners can mix different colors and flavors, such as beet, kale and ginger.
Salmon has been a strong ingredient for Ruffy Sulaiman, executive chef at Hilton Americas-Houston. “When we do a lot of tastings, each time we have salmon in the tasting, salmon always wins,” Sulaiman says. He credits the interest in salmon because it’s loaded with Omega 3 and appeals to most health-conscious eaters.
On the convention center side, Bupp says the George R. Brown Convention Center is focused on exploring vegetable-forward dishes. “Whether that’s through cold-pressed juices at break,” Bupp says, “we’re really looking at portion sizing and balancing.”
Portion control is also gaining importance on menus. “For so many years in the convention center world and banquets in general, the volume of food was important,” Bupp says. “We’re now much more focused on giving guests portions realistic for what they should eat.”
Accommodating dietary restrictions for groups of all sizes is a complicated challenge, and the numbers of guests asking for certain foods is increasing.
“There are a lot of folks asking for glutenfree options, low-fat, dairy-free food and lower glycemic options,” Sulaiman says. “So you can imagine that in feeding 2,000 to 3,000 people, 200 people are looking for different types of food.”
Meeting a variety of dietary restrictions has been “challenging and rewarding,” Sulaiman says. “It allows us to be as creative as possible to make sure that we take care of those folks.”
Bupp says it’s important to create menus that cater to guests with different dietary needs “without making those needs special. You can make a dish naturally gluten free so that those guests don’t have to feel like they’re alienated or not receiving the same as everyone else,” Bupp says.
The staff at the George R. Brown Convention Center also makes dishes as inclusive as possible, for instance, exploring whether a vegetarian dish can be made vegan.
“You do not have to necessarily make alternative plans if we are conscious in menu planning,” Bupp says.
Fresh Juices in Cocktails
After noticing that many venues do not have bars, Tassie Grantham, CEO of SassTass & The Pour Horse, decided to offer a unique service for Texas events. Last year, she completed the renovation of a horse trailer into a mobile bar for hire. “No one in Texas has a horse trailer bar,” Grantham says. “I always try to innovate and be on-trend, or start trends before they actually start here.”
Grantham is now working on a champagne bar, and can use the mobile bars for other services like offering cakes and desserts.
Recently, Grantham has noticed that clients are steering away from margaritas. “You can do so much more with fruit juices, crafting cocktails to fit personalities,” Grantham says. She recommends using watermelon in summertime.
“We use whole watermelons to make watermelon and thyme martinis,” Grantham says. The cocktail is created with vodka, lemon juice and St-Germain. Grantham also notices an increase in requests for custom garnishes, such as flowers inside the ice.
Integrated Bar Options
Instead of offering an assortment of cocktails, Destry Gatlin, beverage director of The Woolworth, a restaurant and cocktail bar in Dallas, wanted to offer a set of cocktails that formed a cohesive body of work.
“Each cocktail represents a different natural element that is essential to bringing forth life,” Gatlin says. “As you work your way through the different libations, each drink connects to the one before, creating a unique experience.”
Food and beverage is a king of social media, and food and beverage vendors continue to focus on engagement through social media.
“Social media is a huge part of the world we live in today to engage with our convention attendees through social media,” Bupp says.
The trend to optimize social media is to leverage posts to create excitement for what’s coming up next in the conference.
“We collaborate with show management and shoot out tweets of fresh bread coming out for lunch that day or pictures of the reception set-up as guests are coming out of the meeting,” Bupp says.
To make food the focus of a conference, a priority for Bupp is to get event managers in front of the client as early as possible to make sure food is an integral part of the program.
Instead of offering a long menu of options, the focus is to cater menus to fit the group itself, and to edit offerings to best match the event.
“Convention center menus used to be 40 to 50 pages long,” Bupp says. “We really work to pare down the size of the catering menu. Just like with restaurant and café concepts, catering menus fit the group itself versus processing orders and producing it.”
Sulaiman has also noticed lately that many clients are not picking menus anymore.
“Almost all events want to customize their menu,” Sulaiman says. “People want to own it. They don’t want to feel like one of many. They want something unique for their event.”
What are guests looking for?
“Cool, fun items that make the meeting special and memorable,” Sulaiman says.
Goodbye Buffets, Hello Pop-Up Experiences
Long buffet lines are going by the wayside, Sulaiman says. Instead, planners are looking for small plates and smaller vessels to put food in. Continuing the trend of more demand for healthy options, “less is more,” Sulaiman says.
Planners are also looking for pop-up food experiences. Sulaiman has developed different food stations that highlighted the various cultures represented in Houston, including an Indian station with chicken Marsala and lamb shashlik and a pho station to represent Vietnamese culture.
The George R. Brown Convention Center also coordinates portable pop-up concepts to bring in vendors based on the interests and needs of the client. Attendees might find a cold-brewed coffee pop-up when getting out of a morning meeting, or a pop-up bar offering cocktails in the evening.
At the Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas, a popular option for event dinners is a restaurant pop-up, including action stations where guests interact with the chef to learn more about the dish. Four Seasons has executed a pop-up Brazilian steakhouse, where customers are served beef sirloin, lamb chops, sausages and chicken thighs wrapped in bacon on swords. Four Seasons also executed a pop-up steakhouse, offering a group of 100 guests an a la carte menu with steak, chicken, lamb and vegetarian options.