There is more demand for special meals now than ever before. Attendees come with all types of allergies, preferences, religious mandates, doctor’s orders….
You should develop a procedure for dealing with special meal requests in advance. Last-minute requests can throw off the kitchen. Because they haven’t planned in advance, they have to pull someone off of the line to work on one dish, which slows down the rest of the service.
Always be sure the special meal is served last at each table. If it is served first, other guests may request that instead of the regular meal. Rich Benninger, Owner, The Olde Tater Barn, New York, comments, “This is so timely for my last week’s event challenge. Who knew 132 guests who all had to RSVP and share any special meal requirements could turn into a kitchen nightmare? We were doing a five-course French/Dominican Republic-themed wedding (who knew such a menu existed?) timed to be served over four hours. Everything was being cooked by just two chefs and all made practically to order. Three vegetarian meals turned into 15 as the buffalo course was served.”
Attendees with special needs should be required to funnel special meal requests through the planner or a particular contact person from the planner’s staff. They should not be contacting the caterer directly, which can cause confusion and mix-ups.
With enough advance warning, the venue can order kosher meals from a kosher kitchen. There would, of course, be an extra charge for this. Lisa Lynn Backus, Catering/Convention Service Manager at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas warns, “When it comes to kosher meals you have to be careful to ask “what level of kosher does the guest eat”? (Kosher style, Glatt, served with paper, plastic, etc.) When doing events that are 100% kosher you are at the mercy of the supervising Rabbi, and some are more strict then others. I worked with one Rabbi on a reception for 2,000 guests and he made us order “whole salmons” – un-gutted salmons that weighed a ton and were costly to ship.”
Some planners try to get reduced prices for things like vegetable or fruit plates, because they say a plate of veggies costs the hotel less than that slab of Prime Rib. But, there is more labor involved in preparing and delivering a special meal. Benninger says, “Special meals should cost the same or more than the regular menu. The extra labor and coordination are an expense.” Benninger adds, “Another allergy that is coming up more often is latex. At an event we had a guest so allergic to latex the food service gloves were taken out of the kitchen two days before prep started and everyone went back to the days of washing their hands every 10 minutes or so.”
Angela Roberts CMP CSEP CHE. National Sales Director, ClubCorp added, ‘A big one for me is gluten free. Rarely an option on registration requests and most hotels think gluten free means I have to have tofu... Seems educating the Chef's is important. ;).”
Backus says, “To make life easier on the chefs, serving staff and especially clients I often do “Vegan” meals such as Butternut & Acorn Squashes and Risotto entrees. This satisfies most levels of Vegetarian, Vegan and Gluten Free requests."
Planners (remember – not attendees) should discuss this with caterers in advance. Some planners will put a note on the registration form, asking anyone with allergies or disabilities to contact the planner so arrangements can be made.
Written by Patti Shock.