Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

May 2012

CMP Series: Farm to Fork to F&B

Carol Bialkowski
Farm to Fork ConveneAs an advocate for local, seasonal, organic food providers, the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association places unique demands on its own F&B suppliers.

Which is how the menus at its 2011 Sustainable Agriculture Conference came to be ‘as local as you could possibly get for an event this size.’

Imagine walking into a hotel or convention center and telling the sales team that you’d love to have a meeting at their venue, but there’s just one catch: You want to bring in all of your own food.

That’s what the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA) does every year during the site-selection process for its annual Sustainable Agriculture Conference, which this past Nov. 11–13 attracted a record 1,200 attendees to Durham, N.C.

“It’s a major request. It’s the make-or-break piece of our negotiation, and oftentimes hotels or venues will refuse our business,” said Fred Broadwell, program manager for the Pittsboro, N.C.–based organization. “We typically say that we are going to be holding an organic-farming event, so we want to walk the talk. We want to have local, seasonal, and organic food to the extent possible,... and we’re looking for the hotel to be flexible.

“Will they allow us to purchase our own food and bring it in and have them prepare it? Or will they allow an outside caterer to be involved? If we sense there is flexibility, we can start a dialogue. But the devil is in the details.”

The Freshest Ingredients

If Broadwell and CFSA Executive Director Roland McReynolds don’t sense much flexibility, they move on to another property. “That’s what happens 100 percent of the time, because we don’t want the venue to call up their wholesaler or distributor and say, ‘Switch out the regular chicken breasts for organic, and we’re done,’” Broadwell said. “Our attendees expect very high-quality food, locally sourced and organic. They expect us to say the chicken came from this farm, and they more than likely know that farmer. The expectation is that some of the celebrated farms and foods end up on the menu. They would be disappointed if nothing that was familiar to them was served.”

Broadwell and McReynolds hit the jackpot when they walked into the sales office at the Sheraton Imperial Hotel and Convention Center in Durham in February 2011. “We said we wanted to talk to food-and-beverage and assure ourselves that they are on board. So they came to the meeting and sat down with us,” Broadwell said. “The food-and-beverage director [John Walsh] was very supportive. Essentially he said, ‘I agree with what you’re doing and I’m a big supporter personally, so I’ll do everything I can to help you.’ He really came through and helped us make it happen. And the chef was fantastic to work with. When you get both of those people on board, that’s Well Fed “Our attendees loved the food,” said CFSA’s Fred Broadwell, “and appreciated all of the effort that went into sourcing and preparing it.” really a great situation. You’ve got to have the cooperation of both. That’s a key part of our negotiation.”

The two parties ultimately agreed on a per-person, per-meal “service charge” for the property to prepare and serve the food that CFSA sourced. “This is typically difficult for hotels, because they are in uncharted territory,” Broadwell said. “There is concern that they won’t meet their profit goals. But if the hotel wants our business bad enough, they will venture into this uncharted territory.”

And uncharted territory it was for the Sheraton. “But with markets changing, you have to think outside the box to bring business in,” said Teresa Palmieri, the hotel’s director of sales. “And it didn't hurt that there were quite a few rooms over the weekend. We are not a big weekend destination since we’re in a business park. We do a lot of associations on weekends, so it worked out well. It was also a relatively short-term booking. We started negotiating in February, they signed in April, and the conference took place in November.”

Once the contract was signed, it was time to start planning the menus and purchasing the food - for 3,700 buffet-style meals (two seated lunches, one seated formal dinner, three breakfasts, and one beer/wine reception) along with another 1,600 people for breaks. Enter Kris Reid, an executive chef from Charlotte who has worked as CFSA’s food coordinator for the past four years. “When Kris came in, I had a little anxiety, because I was getting a good feel for exactly how much food we were talking about - how many meals,” Walsh said. “But Kris was great. She and [Sheraton Executive] Chef [Elhaj Tayouga] developed a rapport, and I let the foodies do what they wanted to do.”

Reid and Tayouga spent two months negotiating the menus, with Tayouga and his team creating around 80 percent of them. “The chef was really excited and engaged, and cared a lot about the event,” Reid said. “I would say, ‘This is what I have available. Here are some menu ideas that I've drawn up. Use them as guide. I’d like you to email me your ideas.’ Then I would look at their suggestions and say, ‘This is a great idea,’ or ‘It doesn't include enough local ingredients,’ or ‘I like the idea for this menu, but there aren't enough vegan options.’ ”

When the menus were finalized, 85 to 90 percent of the food ended up coming from local sources. “The hotel purchased olive oil, seasonings, and things that we couldn't possibly get locally,” Reid said. “But the flour was local and milled locally. The sweet-potato chips were from a local bakery that made them with sweet potatoes from a local farm. It was as local as you could possibly get for an event this size.”

‘Truth in Menu’

Logistically, the Sustainable Agriculture Conference presented some unique challenges for the hotel - including staff training. “All the standard cooking techniques need to change with fresh, organic products,” Tayouga said. “They’re more delicate. Some cook quicker. Most of the natural meat needs a little bit longer time to cook ... and more braising than sautéing or grilling.

“It was good training for my staff, and it was fun for us. It was the first time we did an event like that - dealing with the farmers directly. It gives you a different perspective on the food chain. We’re usually dealing with a middleman, which is kind of sad. You get [the food] off the truck from the distributor and cook it.”

The Sheraton also had to handle multiple product deliveries. Instead of one big delivery from a company like Sysco or US Foods, there were 28 separate deliveries representing 67 purveyors, thanks to the services of two local distributors - Leading Green and ECO. “There are [distributors] that can take produce and meats and cheeses from local farms and consolidate it into a single delivery so that we don’t have 100 farmers bringing their pickup trucks to the back gate,…[although] there was some of that,” Broadwell said. “I’m amazed at how many new companies are on the scene that will do small- to medium-sized consolidation of foods. It’s not exactly the way the hotel typically does it, but we work with them to make it as streamlined as possible.”

Once the food was delivered, it was kept separate from the rest of the food in the hotel, and Reid began to take inventory. “I went into the coolers and dry stock and made sure everything was there and labeled all the products - ‘spinach for Friday lunch,’

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