With the percentage of event guests requesting special meals more than doubling over the last 10 years, caterers are turning to a variety of strategies to keep clients happy while holding the line on margins.

In Part III of our series, we share tips from leading caterers:

Making Dishes do Double Duty

Culinary Capers Catering and Special Events
Vancouver, British Columbia
Debra Lykkemark, CEO

To keep costs under control, we will often try and design the special meal option to be served with that same starch and vegetables we are serving with the regular meal.

We also try and design our special options to cover a number of the above listed special requests. For example: If the regular entree was beef tenderloin with a port jus with grilled vegetables and rosemary roasted potatoes, we could substitute our vegan roasted vegetable and heirloom bean terrine for the beef tenderloin and port jus, serving it with the grilled vegetables and potatoes. Providing we just used olive oil on the potatoes and vegetables and no garlic or onion, this dish would be suitable for lactose intolerance, gluten-free, vegan, nut and seafood allergies, Jewish and Muslim.

Example: Special meal options for an event for 730 guests that we just catered:

First Course
Vegetarian option: Baby Beet Salad with Fromage Blanc Tart (in photo)
Golden and red beets, tarragon, honey, vinegar, shaved rainbow radishes and frisée salad

Entree Course
Gluten-free, vegan (without cheese) and vegetarian option: Roasted Vegetable and Heirloom Bean Terrine
Roasted red and yellow bell peppers, fennel, thyme, basil, and heirloom beans, wrapped zucchini, served with capers, red pepper coulis and Asiago cheese

Served with the same starch and vegetables as the regular entree (Short Rib Provençal): Gâteau De Pommes Du Terre
Smashed young red potatoes, olive oil and parsley
Legumes du Jour Pas De Beurre
Fresh seasonal vegetables tossed in fresh herbs and olive oil

Dessert Course
Gluten- and dairy-free option: Coconut Panna Cotta
Made with coconut milk and fresh berries

For large sit-down dinners all these special requests can be very challenging. We recommend setting up a separate plating line for special meals as it will keep the service moving quickly.

Next Page: Getting the Allergens Out of Menus

Getting the Allergens Out of Menus

Affairs to Remember Caterers
Atlanta
Ashley Mitchell, executive chef

Mitchell was recently named honorary chair for this year's FAAN Walk for the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. Because the Affairs team "got tired of serving--and being served--boring food at banquets just because of the allergy/dietary restriction situation," Mitchell not only evaluated the company's entire product line for nut allergies but worked to create restaurant-quality meals that avoid the "Top 8 Allergens."

We recently announced, via press release, the availability of the "Top 8 Allergens" menu items specifically for served dinners, as well as new served dinner options that are free of certain food allergens. This offering gives our sales team a much wider range of options for clients and their guests who have food allergies.

Until about five years ago, we would send a 3 percent overage of vegetarian meals to any event, and we were able to accommodate almost any request. We began to notice that the special dietary needs were becoming much more specific and increasing at a dramatic rate.

We immediately began to assess the requests, develop luxury product to accommodate these guests at the same level as guests without special dietary needs, educate and train our staff (including very specific scripting for real-time situations) and implement new practices to ensure fresh and safe foods for all of our guests.

Guests from all walks of life make special requests. The requests are generally based on lifestyle and religious preferences--even personal likes and dislikes. We treat each request as though there is a food allergy driving the demand, even though that is often not the case. We are diligent about preventing cross-contamination and avoiding any ingredient that might pose a cross-reactivity response. While nothing is ever free, we do not adjust based on special orders. We do adjust our global pricing at least annually to reflect these trends, so in that sense we do charge for overages.

Example: Passed Vegan Hors D’oeuvre During Cocktail Hour

  • Black Bean Cake, Avocado Salad
  • Butterbean Hummus, Fried Spinach, Wonton Triangle
  • Seasonal Melon, Serrano Chile Syrup, Ceramic Spoon
  • Pineapple Gazpacho Soup Shot With Diced Red Pepper and Cilantro Oil

Chef-inspired Vegan Wok Station
An attendant sautés sesame-marinated tofu with rice noodles and chef’s choice of seasonal vegetables presented in an petit black tea cup; chopsticks optional

Seated, Served Dinner
Table is preset with assorted breads and vegan spreads:

  • Roasted eggplant and smoky chipotle peppers enhanced with roasted garlic and roasted red pepper
  • Black-eyed peas with chipotle peppers, lemon and lime zest, fresh diced tomatoes and scallions

First Course: Vegan Salads

  • Bibb lettuce with organic baby arugula and Turkish fig poached in house-made red wine syrup, finished with toasted walnuts and served with a champagne vinaigrette
  • Sugar snap peas and roasted pear tomatoes with spiced pumpkin seeds, tossed with citrus-infused olive oil and pomegranate seeds, presented on chicory
  • Flat leaf baby spinach, sweet grape halves, roasted pecans offered in a butter lettuce cup with red wine vinaigrette

Main Course: Vegan Choices

  • Grilled Zucchini and Yellow Squash "Pappardelle" + Basil Infused Rustic Pomodoro
  • Grilled Portabella Filet + Tomato "Demi" (in photo)
  • Roasted New Potatoes, Grilled Asparagus, Leeks
  • Pine Nut-Crusted Tofu + Balsamic Reduction and Basil Oil
  • Caponata Timbale, Tomato Confit

Next Page: Tips from Top Caterers on Accommodating Special Requests

Tips from Top Caterers on Accommodating Special Requests

"Generally 10 percent is the baseline [for anticipating special menu requests from guests], but we have a very specific conversation with clients about their knowledge of their past events, guests’ dietary preferences/restrictions, etc. For corporate events, many clients have good notes from past events; for weddings, couples or their parents typically know the overall preferences/needs. Once we present 10 percent as the baseline, most of our clients can advise if they feel that will be too high or too low."
Pamela Brunson, director of marketing and brand communications, Wolfgang Puck Catering, Los Angeles

Not '5 Minutes Later'

"We do 5 percent vegetarian over and above the vegetarian count we are given. All our vegetarian meals are also gluten-free.

"Vegetarian meals need to be more creative, and the service of those meals at tables should be done first to avoid them feeling different, not five minutes after the other guests have been served."
Jerry Edwards, CPCE, Chef's Expressions, Timonium, Md.

"Some hosts will solicit special meal requests on invitations--something we discourage for many reasons. In these instances, you get actual allergies, but also a lot of food preferences: 'We don’t like salmon,' 'vegetables to be well cooked,' 'no spicy food'--the list goes on. It is important to know that, no matter how unusual the request, we always accommodate. We are ultimately liable for any allergic reactions that might occur when guests eat our food. We take no shortcuts and always make sure that the staff are well informed about ingredients."
Eric Michael, co-founder and creative director, Occasions Caterers, Washington

Always Ready for the Carnivores

"We have long been prepared for vegetarians and vegans. We plan on 10 percent vegetarian; we provide that as an overage in the entrees. We still have to be prepared for 100 percent carnivores."
Lee Gregory, executive vice president, McCall Associates, San Francisco

"I don't pay much attention to vegetarian requests and gluten-free on buffets menus--the reason being is that I do make sure I design the menu to already accommodate these diets' requests. It is the food allergies that I pay close attention to because these people could end up in the hospital. Also, people who have dietary restrictions because of religious affliations. Those diets to me are 'must haves,' whereas gluten-free, Atkins, etc., are a 'nice to have.' When you are feeding hundreds of people, one has to be aware."
Claire R. Gould, owner, Rx for Events, Atlanta

RELATED STORIES FROM SPECIAL EVENTS

Caterers Respond to Growing Tide of Special Diet Requests: Part I

Tips on Serving Clients with Special Diet Requests

Special Menus for Special Events

Customization to be Key in Special Events in 2012, Fairmont Hotels Says