Catering to All

Catering to All 1

The secret sauce in special diet requests is in the people.

By Robert Egert

Meeting the dietary desires of catering guests today takes discretion, ingenuity and a good understanding of human behavior. When I started my business in 2007, less than one percent of diners had special dietary requests. That figure is up to about five to seven percent.

One of the biggest changes over the past 11 years is that hosts are less likely now to know their guests’ dietary preferences – pescatarian, ovo-vegetarians, gluten-free, Kosher, and so on. This creates a dilemma that most caterers face: Should guests indicate their meal choices with their RSVPs?

Doing so opens a Pandora's Box. Out of 100 people among whom maybe two have legitimate special diets, all of a sudden 17 do. And it turns into more of, not a diet based on health conditions or religious beliefs, but personal tastes or a dislike for the entrée offered.

Here’s an example: The first year I catered a plated luncheon for a professional group of 300, we had requests for 75 vegetarian/vegan meals. The tables were plated for a dual, miniature dessert of chocolate cake and cheesecake.

I told my servers, "As you drop the vegetarian meal, pick up the dessert and swap it out with a fruit plate." However, only six guests wanted fruit plates that day. The other 69 were just fine eating chocolate cake and cheesecake.

We wasted a lot of fruit and work that day. The next year, we made only 50 fruit plates. By the third year, we made only half a dozen and served those only when people requested.

We realized that the guests weren’t vegetarian or vegan, they just didn't like the entrée offered. So, they figured, "I'll just order a vegetarian meal," instead of asking the conference organizers, "Can you do something different with the menu?"

I personally think it's almost better to not ask, than to figure out what people really want. Another case in point: This spring, conference service managers asked dinner attendees, "Please send any special dietary requests." Of those 125 people, you should expect 10, at the most, to respond. We had 27 alternate requests, but only four had true dietary requirements.

Preparing for the Unknown

How do you anticipate the uncertainties? It’s more an issue when you’re plating tables. In that situation, we have vegetarian dishes in the kitchen. When we cater a buffet or have serving stations, people choose what they like. We will suggest to the host that falafel, vegetable tacos, eggplant parmesan or Asian-style noodles be served in the buffet line or at serving stations.

Catering to All 2Sometimes, we keep a vegetable stack of grilled eggplant, Portobello mushroom, red pepper and a big slice of grilled tomato in the back and serve that with wild rice and green beans. For those who are allergic to gluten, we make a grilled chicken breast or rotisserie chicken with roasted potatoes and vegetables.

Despite these efforts to anticipate people’s tastes, you will still be surprised and asked for unexpected requests, just as our servers discovered at a recent event. When delivering entrées to tables, some guests explained to the staff that they had told the host about their preferences or requirements, and the information wasn’t communicated to us, the caterers. We improvised then with alternate meals and a store run, just as we did two years ago at a wedding reception. The bride and groom had told their wedding planner that they wanted a different meal – steak and lobster – but the wedding planner didn’t convey that to us until the dinner was about to begin.

If we had told the happy couple, “No, you can’t have that,” we would have had a miserable night of failure. So, I sent one of my employees up the street to a gourmet market for two tenderloins and two lobster tails. Fortunately, the bride and groom spent the first part of the evening talking to guests. When their meals were ready, we brought them out as if all had gone as planned, and told them, "Hey, guys, dinner's on the table.”

The secret is not to let the host, event planner or guests get the best of you. Pulled tofu can cost upwards of $10 a pound, whereas chicken is $2 a pound. When you order 10 of those tofu meals and eight of the 10 who requested them eat from the buffet, you waste money and food for which you won’t get paid. That said, you also should be respectful of people’s beliefs. Kosher foods, especially meats, require special preparation. That’s why we have a separate Glatt Kosher division and price those meals accordingly.

When we're preparing menus, we try to weave in items so that the choices will appeal to as many guests as possible to limit the exposure to people who didn't make a special request in advance. Because at the end of the day, it's still going be us scrambling to figure out how to make everyone happy. We try to work by the self-proclaimed expression, we will provide an "Exquisite Event Every Time!"

Exquisite Catering By Robert opened in 2007, and quickly grew to become one of South Florida’s most renowned corporate catering companies. The company provides custom catering for breakfast and lunch meetings, company events, fundraisers and more. It is also well known for its boutique-style catering and event planning for weddings, bridal showers, bar and bat mitzvahs, sweet sixteens and galas. The team at Exquisite Catering also offers menus for those with dietary restrictions including a kosher menu, gluten free, sugar free and dairy free. For more information, visit: http://exquisitecatering.com/

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