The rapidly expanding and sometimes exhausting number of dietary requests made by meeting attendees is not likely to slow down any time soon. What do convention-center chefs and culinary staff say is the most important ingredient for dealing safely — and gracefully — with them? Communication.
When members of Jen Cafferty’s family were diagnosed with health conditions that required that they eat a gluten-free diet more than a decade ago, Cafferty was glad that she knew how to cook. Gluten-free prepared foods weren’t widely available at the time, Cafferty said, and even so, they were expensive. She had access to them, she said, but not everyone was so lucky. “If you were on a very limited budget, or if you didn’t know how to cook, it was very difficult.”
The desire to share her knowledge about gluten-free cooking led Cafferty, who is based in the Chicago area, to begin producing live cooking shows at shopping centers on the weekends. Chefs participated in the shows, which drew 200 or so people, along with one or two gluten-free product vendors, who were invited to help Cafferty cover her costs. Five years ago, with the number of vendors who wanted to sponsor the cooking demonstrations expanding rapidly, Cafferty flipped the model. A health and wellness exhibition, featuring vendors offering gluten- and other allergen-free products, became the main attraction, with cooking demonstrations as the sideshow.
In the last couple of years, “business has exploded,” Cafferty said. This year, Cafferty will present the Gluten & Allergen Free Expo in five different cities — Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas, Des Moines, and Secaucus, N.J. — where she expects between 30,000 to 40,000 people to attend. Her rate of growth is “easily 100 percent a year,” she said. “It’s crazy what’s going on out there.”
A similar story is being reported throughout the meetings and events industry by those in the front lines of food preparation: convention-center chefs and catering services managers. Just five to seven years ago, there were very few requests for special meals, said André Beauchamp, general manager at Capital HRS, which provides catering service at the Quebec City Convention Centre. Today, special requests make up 10 to 15 percent of meals, he said.
Similarly, at the Vancouver Convention Centre, there’s been a “dramatic” increase in the number of requests for special meals, said Executive Chef Blair Rasmussen, who has been cooking at the center since 1993. Requests for peanut-free meals have doubled and orders for vegan meals have doubled or tripled, he said, and requests for gluten-free meals have outstripped both. All together, Rasmussen estimates that special dietary requests have increased tenfold.
Gary Prell, vice president for culinary development at Centerplate, which runs more than 45 convention and exposition centers across the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, uses a dining-related metaphor to describe the phenomenon: food trucks. “Once they were an anomaly, then they were a fad, and then a trend,” Prell said. “And now they are the norm.”
Chef Robert Gilbert
At the most basic level, fulfilling dietary requests is not a matter of hospitality trends, but of risk management. The increase in dietary requests, including for gluten-free meals, is “part of a larger trend around special diets and allergies,” said Robert Gilbert, executive chef for special events and catering at Walt Disney World Resort. “We’ve always been focused on food allergies, but that focus has broadened as our guests’ needs have changed. It really is one of the most important things we focus on across the resort, because it’s often a safety issue for our guests, and safety is always our No. 1 priority.”
According to the Food and Drug Administration, an estimated 30,000 anaphylactic reactions to foods are treated in emergency departments each year, and result in 150 deaths. In addition to those with life-threatening allergies, approximately 1 percent of the world’s population has celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that is treated with a gluten-free diet. An additional 6 percent may have non-celiac gluten sensitivity, a condition about which there is little medical consensus. (See “What the Science Says," below)
It’s likely that some of the recent increases in requests for gluten- and wheat-free meals also can be attributed to the effect of the top-selling book Wheat Belly, which was published in 2011 by cardiologist William Davis and links wheat and gluten consumption to myriad illnesses — as well as advertising by the food industry. Gluten-free foods represented an estimated $4.2-billion market in 2012, and are projected to grow to $6.6 billion by 2016, according to the research firm Packaged Facts. The cumulative effect is that, according to a survey released earlier this year by the NPD Group, nearly 30 percent of Americans said they are trying to cut down on or eliminate gluten from their diet.
Despite debate about whether strict avoidance of gluten-free is medically necessary — or wise — for such a large segment of the population, “if you are choosing to feed people today, you need to assume that people have life-threatening food allergies,” Cafferty said. “If you treat it like a big fad, you could ultimately end up killing somebody.”
“Regardless of how we have gotten here,” Centerplate’s Prell added, “we have arrived.”
‘It's Part of Our Job’ The rise in special requests undoubtedly adds to the complexity of meal planning. Kristy Glass, meetings manager for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), reports that, for a recent meeting for 50 people, she received requests related to nine different allergies or dietary restrictions. “In the past,” Glass said, “you could generally accommodate requests by offering a vegetarian option — something almost all food-service facilities are used to providing. Today that doesn’t always work.”
The traditional policy was to prepare an overage of vegetarian meals in the amount of 5 percent of guaranteed meal counts, unless otherwise stated by the client, said Doug Finney, general manager of convention and catering services at the Pasadena Convention Center. But vegetarian-meal requests alone are up to 10 percent for some groups, he said, and many requests are significantly more complicated. As you would expect, all of the meals were customized for the 250 people who attended the two-and-a-half-day Celiac Disease Foundation (CDF) National Education Conference at the Pasadena center in May. But the kitchen also was asked to prepare more than 80 special meals when 400 attendees of a health-care association held a luncheon there in April, Finney said.
Many chefs and culinary professionals, including Finney, told Convene that they take pride in meeting such dietary requests and find the challenge professionally stimulating. Providing service “to groups with dietary issues, particularly those people at risk, is a very delicate and serious a matter, and we do take it to heart,” Finney said. “For the other dietary requests, it challenges us to stay ahead and allows for us to continue to be creative. We accommodate the best we can. After all, we are in the hospitality business.”
And people with creative minds often like to work within constraints. “I fall into that group,” Rasmussen said. “I don’t mind when there are restrictions, I like rising to the challenge.” Walt Disney World’s Gilbert concurred. Guests with special diets are “not a hindrance to us; they actually