Feast Not Famine

Cinching belts shouldn't mean scrimping on food and beverage. Just add a dash of creativity

Thanks to celebrity chefs, food networks, and culinary magazines, the average American's palate has become more sophisticated, and many of us yearn to try inventive and elaborate menus. There has been just one roadblock: the economy.

Times are tough and money is tight. That is simply the reality of the day, but it becomes more apparent when planning an incentive trip or group event. But just because you have a reduced budget doesn't mean you have to scrimp on pizzazz at food and beverage functions.

Creativity is just as important as what is on the menu. A clear and concise dialogue with the catering staff or food and beverage department—partners who will help get the creative juices flowing when it comes to stretching the budget—is imperative. Most have planned hundreds of meetings and events and will have countless ideas for you to consider. For example, they can help steer you away from complicated dishes that require more labor and thus cost more.

Beware, say many professional planners: There have been all too many instances in these trying times where hotels will lowball room rates and try to make up the revenue by pricing food and beverage functions through the roof.

Eat, Drink, and Be Active
Even before the economy started to wane, interactive food functions were becoming more popular, and that trend continues.

Interactive cooking stations have increased in popularity while sit-down dinners have lost the prominence they once had. Many companies have smaller staffs, and teamwork is more important than ever. Roaming around a room exploring different food stations enables the attendees to interact, thus contributing to team camaraderie.

"The days of long, boring dinner functions are over," declares Giorgi Di Lemis, Benchmark Hospitality International's vice president of food and beverage, who is based in Houston, TX. Benchmark Hospitality operates properties in major metropolitan and resort destinations worldwide.

Why give attendees pre-plated salads when crisp lettuce, fresh vegetables, dressings, and cheese can be waiting on each table for them to create their own?

"Plus, we're not putting in the labor to construct or serve the salad," says Des Hague, president and CEO of Stamford, CT-based Centerplate, the hospitality provider to 250 North American convention centers and entertainment venues.

Staff Meetings
An efficient catering manager will listen to the needs of the group and will be ready with suggestions. The executive chef, sommelier, and banquet manager can also add value to a catering function.

For example, a sommelier can assist a planner in choosing a $40 bottle of wine instead of a $60 bottle. The dining experience can then be enhanced by having the sommelier on staff address the group, which will not cost you a dime. Plus, if the group takes away a tip or two about wine, it will make the event that much more memorable.

Chefs are available to speak and interact with your group even during buffets. "Require and demand certain interaction in the banquet room," says Di Lemis. "An added bonus is these are things that don't cost money."

Water Into Wine
If prepared properly, less expensive ingredients can be impressive.

"There is always a line between filet mignon with foie gras and osso buco, but even less expensive cuts of meat will be delicious if well treated," explains Di Lemis.

When times are tough, many turn to comfort food. Di Lemis says there are some simple ways to make comfort food chic.

"Consider a veal shank osso buco that comes to the table with a demitasse spoon sticking out of the bone, making the presentation 20 to 22 inches high. Now that is comfort food with an attitude," says Di Lemis. "Can a comfort dessert like a creme brulee become a 'wow'? Of course, especially if it is torched in front of the guests."

Menus that are seasonal in flavor not only taste better, but are cheaper. Plus, fresh ingredients sourced from the local area tend to have a smaller carbon footprint. Substituting shrimp for lobster or fresh day boat fish for halibut or sea bass not only helps with costs but is an environmentally friendly choice.

But remember, today most guests are extremely food savvy with high expectations. People know quality. Questionable fish, certain meats, and aging produce will not impress; quite the opposite, they will turn diners off.

The Plating Game
One-plate meals have become popular, cost-effective options for breakfast and lunch at The Breakers in Palm Beach, FL. "All courses are beautifully presented for each guest, in individual vessels and served on one plate. When selected instead of a buffet, clients can save up to 20 percent per person while providing a refreshing twist on the old-style plated banquet meal," explains Michele Wilde, director of conference services at The Breakers. A popular one-plate breakfast option consists of scrambled eggs in a mini cast iron skillet, a sweet potato pancake in a footed glass ramekin, and tropical fruit in a miniature martini glass.

In a similar vein, the Crowne Plaza Melbourne Oceanfront in Melbourne, FL, has introduced a catering option called "banquetology" that fuses three emerging trends: right-sized food portions, a variety of menu options, and aesthetically-pleasing presentations. Offerings vary from daintily tied sandwich pieces to desserts served in shot glasses. Not only do these smaller portions minimize calories and waste, they are cost-effective.

This concept can be easily incorporated into your food and beverage functions. It is as simple as cutting down on portion size. Cut bagels, croissants, and doughnuts in half, or replace them with mini-muffins, mini-doughnuts, or mini-danishes. Tapas menus are another effective way to incorporate smaller portion sizes into a program.

Remember, it's wonderful to be cost- conscious, but you do not want to appear cheap. Perceived value counts as much, if not more, than actual cost. Food functions leave a lasting impression, and you want that to be the right impression.