Food and beverage offerings are key aspects of any event. As catering prices continue to rise, knowing how to be creative when putting together a menu will be increasingly important.
While restrictions from the pandemic are behind us, lingering operational realities remain: greater labour costs (and labour shortages) and significant inflation on food. Though the pandemic may have caused a backlog of pent-up demand in the events industry, now that event planners and clients are able to resume planning functions, they may not be able to have the kind of service they imagined for the same budget.
The most cost-effective foods to cater include rice and noodle-based cultural cuisine. Many international cuisines (Italian, Mexican, Indian, Thai, Chinese, etc.) are in demand and may accommodate most event planner’s budgets. Indian and many South-Asian cultures and cuisines are vegetarian focused. Providing high quality vegetarian fare will typically be more budget-friendly than a meat-focused menu.
The service style, of course, has an impact on the overall budget, offering longer tray pass or reception service in lieu of a plated meal will be more cost-effective, and depending on the type of event may be more effective (e.g., networking events).
Work with the venue and/or caterer on menu planning efficiencies. Control the duration of food and beverage event periods. Longer service periods, which may not be required, carry excess costs. For destination events, promoting local cafés and restaurants to participate in the event can save on the need to hire staff (local vendors will often charge for goods purchased but no additional costs to provide food and beverage services).
Encourage an organized registration or RSVP process to ensure numbers are solid before a catering order is finalized. You may be able to use confirmed numbers in excess of a food and beverage minimum spend to negotiate additional benefits for the event (e.g., negotiate if a greater tier of food and beverage spending is reached; additional concessions may be provided by the venue – waving or reducing AV fees, linen, rentals, etc.).
International-inspired menu items and authentic ethnic cuisine is increasing in importance. Meeting the dietary needs of an increasingly multicultural country has impacts on menu planning. Increased demand for vegetarian and vegan items continues to increase along with guest demands for flexitarian menus. While these trends are growing, more traditional menu options are still commonplace. Event planners would do well to familiarize themselves with caterers who specialize in these emerging cuisine and dietary preferences. Promoting a wide portfolio of reputable catering options can make a difference to clients.
Alternate service styles, including “pop-up” style kiosks and food truck/street food style stations, are increasingly popular for events. Larger serving trays and family-style service (partly as a result of the pandemic) have been replaced by smaller single-serving plates.
Non-alcoholic/mocktail menus are increasing in popularity with younger demographics and typically are able to be provided at a lower price point than alcoholic beverages.
According to an Angus Reid survey, Canadians are increasingly interested in:
- food sourced from local farmers;
- comfort foods with a twist;
- globally inspired foods and flavours;
- food that promotes health and wellness;
- meatless/vegetarian entrees; and
- plant-based hamburgers and sausages.
Plant-based and vegetable-forward menus will continue to be popular in the years to come as the younger, more health-conscious generation enters the event market. Plant-based poultry is the fastest-growing protein, according to Technomic’s Industry Insights for Canada (as of October 2022). However, the plant-based meat trend has begun to slow as plant-based meat alternatives are still considered highly-processed foods. Vegetables and minimally processed or clean label options are expected to continue to increase in demand (e.g., portobello mushrooms, eggplant and cauliflower, when seasoned and correctly can mimic meaty textures and smoky flavours). Quality vegetarian dishes, rather than plant-based meat, should be a focus when identifying catering partners moving forward.
Balancing the budget and need for in demand food will be increasingly challenging. Needs (and budgets) of clients will continue to broaden. Having a greater number of options of venues and tiers of catering menus at your disposal will allow you to meet the greater variation of client needs.
Travis Traini is a Principal at fsSTRATEGY, a consulting firm specializing in strategic advisory services for the hospitality industry, with an emphasis on food and beverage.