10 Catering Trends for Events in 2021

New seating layouts, zero-proof cocktails and meals that boost your immune system are among the top food-and-beverage trends for face-to-face meetings this year.

Vitamin C juices are a healthy alternative to serving alcohol.

There's a lot to love about in-person meetings — the travel experience, personal connections and, of course, the food. When artfully chosen, prepared and delivered, F&B creates memorable moments that spark conversations and lend a feel-good vibe to the event. 

"Food-and-beverage time is your most social time," says Courtney Lohmann, CMP, director of corporate social responsibility at PRA Business Events, which hosted 195 live events in 2020. "That networking is so critical to event ROI. That's a piece you don't want to take away."

With new health-safety protocols among other considerations, planners are taking a fresh look at menus, seating, service and more. Following are the latest F&B trends for 2021. For safety tips, see the latest CDC guidance on events here.

Nothing to Hide

First and foremost, communicate safety requirements for food functions, and be completely transparent about how food is prepared. Consider an open kitchen, where guests can watch and ask questions. This builds trust and also adds a level of excitement to the meal. If the rave ratings of shows like "The Great British Baking Show" are any indication, people love to watch cooks in action. 

"We've gotten really good feedback on having an open kitchen," says Regina Key, senior director of marketing and creative services for Destination Concepts Inc. "It elevates the comfort level when attendees can see that all safety measures are being implemented." 

New Seating Layouts

Outdoor seating with proper distancing allows attendees to socialize safely at mealtimes. Photo Credit: Destination Concepts/ Luna Munn Photography

Seating guests at a standard round is not only boring, but might make some attendees uncomfortable. Since guests will be unmasked while eating and the risk of contagion rises the closer people are to each other, you must ensure proper distancing during mealtimes. 

"Clients don't want to lose that ability to network, but with four people around a 72-inch round table, it might be difficult to have a conversation and still feel safe," says Lohmann.

Instead, offer new seating options that accommodate varying comfort levels. For one client, PRA designed a table with plexiglass partitions, separating it into four quadrants. The plexiglass barriers put diners at ease conversing during the meal. To elevate the design, centerpieces and candles were placed in the corners of the barriers.

Destination Concepts has used a mix of seating options to set people apart, including high-boy tables for one, eight-foot tables with two seats at either end, and large communal tables with chairs spaced at least six feet apart in a zigzag pattern on either side to give each guest some extra space.

"If your comfort zone was just to be all by yourself, then there were some smaller tables for one person," says Brynne Frost, CEO of the DMC. "With the zigzag pattern, you could have conversation but keep your distance and feel safe. Once people saw the setting and the thought that went into it, everyone seemed to want to sit and stay for a while and mingle."

Covered Cuisine

Glass cloches can turn any dish into a work of art while enhancing safety. Photo Credit: Patty Gonzalez

The days of open buffets are gone. Instead, most event organizers are opting for plated service, where masked and gloved servers bring dishes directly to each attendee. To add an extra level of safety, keep meals covered until placed on the table. For some fun, rather than using the standard stainless covers, use glass cloches to add some pizzazz to the dining experience. 

"I was inspired by a small cloche at my home that I use to display my grandfather's ornate pocket watch," says Jim Mozina, co-owner and COO of Le Basque, a full-service catering and event design firm, which has used small cloches to cover its one-bite canapés. Planners can also place larger cloches over main dishes and desserts. Colorful food and a good reveal produce a wow factor that guests will appreciate.

"It's a great way to combine form and function," says Shaneil Sibblies, president of Style Catering in Miami, which used glass covers with dramatic flair for a corporate luncheon. As the cloches were lowered over a lobster salad with warm burrata, charred corn and tomato, they were filled with oak smoke. "The presentation was beautiful, and people appreciated that the entrée was shielded from possible contaminants as it made its way to the table."

Make It Mini

Adhering to health protocols doesn’t mean you have to skip the passed hors d’oeuvres. For those who want to offer their guests a variety of foods, small dishes work well and can be done three ways: passed, pre-plated or set up at server-attended stations. Among the most popular are mini cheese boards and charcuterie cones.

"Everything is mini," says Sibblies. "We no longer have self-serve stations, so we’re transforming everything into individually portioned servings. With the charcuterie, we’ve now moved to mini boards, which is another great example of form and function because they’re so cute and easier to handle. Even with food prep, you don’t have to have too many hands touching it."

Keep it Sustainable

Early in the pandemic, single-use plastics were thought to be the safest choice, but that has been debunked. "Throw-away is not the answer to safety," says Lohmann. "Multiple studies have shown reusables are just as safe."

When disposable items are needed, Sibblies suggests using products like bamboo or palm leaf plates, both of which are biodegradable. 

Taste of the Town

Treat guests to the best bites in town with food stations from nearby restaurants. Photo Credit: Destination Concepts/ Luna Munn Photography

Bring local flavor into the meeting by having several nearby restaurateurs create food stations. Destination Concepts, for example, created a marketplace of pop-up restaurants for a November event in North Carolina.

"We've taken away the buffet and food stations that 90 percent of events had before," says Frost, "but you still need to serve large numbers of people and give them some variety with a cool aesthetic. With pop-up restaurants, you can walk right up and order from the server or chef, but still keep your distance."

This approach is also a good way to support local eateries, which have been hit especially hard by the pandemic.

Immune Boosters

Acai bowls make for a nutritious, antioxidant-filled snack.

The pandemic naturally pushed wellness to the forefront, and that trend applies to menu choices.

"We've been tiptoeing around wellness for quite a few years now," says Lohmann of PRA. "Planners have been ticking a box, like, 'Oh, we added an hour of yoga.' But I think we're going to see food trends flip hard into making sure we're serving healthy meals throughout the entire day. Gone are the days of cookie carts in the afternoon."

Attendees can expect to see more immune-boosting, healthy options. Destination Concepts, for example, recently has served vitamin C juices, Elderberry-infused waters and acai bowls packed with antioxidants at its meetings. 

Add Mocktails to the Menu

A rising number of attendees are cutting back on cocktails, and planners are recognizing that trend. Not only does limiting alcohol and/or serving zero-proof drinks encourage healthier habits, it also can reduce the risk of attendees becoming intoxicated and ignoring safety protocols. Among other benefits, attendees who drink less or abstain will feel better and more alert for learning. As a bonus, nonalcoholic drinks are typically less expensive.

"There are all kinds of options out there now, including drinks that have the same fizz, color and flavor to it but are nonalcoholic," says Lohmann. "They allow attendees to show up and still feel like they're drinking something really festive."

Schedule a Happy Half-Hour

If you do decide to offer alcohol, consider cutting cocktail hours from two hours to one, or from an hour to 30 minutes. By limiting the duration of the event, you'll reduce the number of beverages people drink, notes Key of Destination Concepts. That saves money and also reduces the likelihood of unsafe behavior.

Timing is Everything

Allowing more time for meals is one way to avoid the problem of long lines at food stations. For large meetings, consider splitting attendees into smaller groups and assigning meal times or different dining locations. This will help limit the potential for exposure to illness, and guests are likely to feel more comfortable dining with fewer people.

"We used to cut into meal breaks for programming; we're not going to be able to compromise on that as much as we used to," says Erin Baker, program manager for the event management company Bishop-McCann. "We need to make sure we're taking the time that is necessary at meal breaks to do it safely. That might mean dispatching people in smaller groups and not allowing a rush to the food lines."