make us better at what we do,” he said. “Our special events and catering operations team creates hundreds of custom menus throughout the year, and we love the challenge of creating something special and building it right into the menu package. This way guests with special diets don’t feel out of place, but rather feel like we took the time to include them in the whole program.”
“It’s part of our job,” HRS’s Beauchamp said, gamely adding: “It’s no problem at all.” Beauchamp recently introduced an appetizer at the Quebec City center that eliminates virtually all of the major allergens, with the exception of traces of sulfite. The appetizer, made of tapioca on red pepper coulis — a thick sauce — with fava beans and leeks, is “no drab salad,” Beauchamp said.
Professional kitchen staffs also have risen to the operational challenges, standardizing the procedures around serving guests with special requests, said Centerplate’s Prell, who prefers the term “customization” to “special meal.” By preparing food themselves and being able to procure ingredients efficiently Prell said, Centerplate kitchen managers are able to minimize costs associated with the demand for alternative ingredients.
Keeping Track of What's What
Meeting planners, for their part, also have devised ways to keep track of burgeoning dietary requests — and keep costs down. “We ask during the registration process if anyone needs special accommodation and communicate it to the hotel well in advance,” Dylah Hughes Wallenius, CMP, meetings director for the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel (ACTEC), wrote in an online Meetings Community discussion. Wallenius maintains a spreadsheet of attendees for each meeting that lists their known special dietary needs and which events they’ll be attending. “I then work closely with the chef to come up with one or two alternate selections that will suit all of the special needs group, whenever possible, rather than providing 10 or more entirely different meals.”
Dylah Hughes Wallenius, CMP
Some planners are relying more on buffets, where food is clearly labeled. “But, even then,” Glass said, “it is difficult to have every ingredient in each dish listed.” During pre-cons, Wallenius emphasizes to food-services staff that anyone waiting on her attendees needs to know the ingredients — or at least the usual allergens — in the food they are serving.
“Another concern,” Wallenius said, “is food that is sometimes outsourced and no one on staff knows exactly what’s in it. I’m finding more and more hotels that buy their baked goods.” At a recent ACTEC meeting, the hotel served what it thought were lemon poppy-seed muffins. “It was only when one of our guests who’s allergic to almonds ate one and started having a reaction that anyone looked at the package to see that although they were billed as lemon poppy-seed, they contained almonds,” Wallenius said. “Luckily, his reaction was mild, but things like that can kill someone and should never be taken lightly.”
Sorting Out the Serious Cases
Executive Chef Blair Rasmussen
It’s become very common for planners to collect information about dietary restrictions during the registration process, but Rasmussen suggests that the process could be finessed. “It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, if a conference organizer has been very diligent and vocal about soliciting comments about dietary requests,” he said. “It’s a good thing,” he added, but given the ease of communicating electronically, sometimes people check boxes indiscriminately, and without much thought. For example, Rasmussen has been given lists of allergies that include “cats,” he said. “I’m certainly not going to be serving any cats.”
Instead of just asking a blanket question about dietary restrictions, Carol Galle, CMP, founder of Detroit-based Special D Events Inc., asks attendees whether their requests are “a preference, allergy, or life-threatening allergy.” “We always label all food items, but we are also careful to let the chef and banquet staff know when an allergy is life-threatening,” Galle said. “We do our best to accommodate everyone by making broad menu selections -which means fewer plated meals and more buffets.”
The biggest headache Wallenius has are last-minute requests by people who don’t have dietary restrictions, just preferences. “Banquet meals are not restaurant meals, and when attendees try to order at the table it slows down the process for the entire group,” she said. It’s frustrating “when people who don’t have special requirements see someone else’s special meal and decide they’d rather have the same.”
There is even a term for those last-minute changes of mind: order envy. And it’s not confined to people who see food that looks more appealing, Rasmussen said. It’s not uncommon for a high-status person at a table, such as a CEO, to request a low-fat, low-salt meal and cause a domino effect, with everyone at the table then requesting the same thing.
Although chefs are prepared for last-minute requests, “I have to be honest,” Beauchamp said. “It’s not an easy situation. It can take as long as three days to go through all the steps to prepare [some allergen-or gluten-free] food.” Even knowing a couple of hours in advance “would be very difficult.” Planners might consider making sure that attendees know how much more difficult it is to accommodate special-meal requests at the last minute. “The most important thing is to be straightforward,” Beauchamp said. “Don’t create a food allergy where one doesn’t exist. And make sure the kitchen knows in advance, so we can have the food prepared.”
Finney and Beauchamp both advocate a system where attendees are issued tickets at registration; and then hand them to wait staff at mealtime. It doesn’t work perfectly — even when planners will commit to managing special meals with coupons, Finney said, sometimes not all of the attendees check in at registration.
His staff anticipates such things, Finney added. “For all groups, ‘Planning 101’ is crucial, as well as working with an open mind and compassion,” he said. It’s a business of “detail, details, and more details.”
Back to the Future Technology has been a tremendous aid to serving attendees with special requests, said Prell, who spoke with Convene in the midst of overseeing meals at a five-day, 11,000-attendee tech conference in New Orleans. Special meals made up about 6 percent of the total — more than 650 meals in all.
Prell started in the business 30 years ago, he said, when a “special meal” meant removing protein, or serving a fruit plate. With registration procedures identifying delegates with requests far in advance of the meeting, it’s now possible to know within a reasonable margin of error how many and what types of meals will be needed. The New Orleans meals were organized so that attendees who had ordered special meals could go to a particular location where staff had lists of their names and checked them off. A majority of the custom meals were vegetarian, with gluten-free a close second, Prell said. He expects to see more requests for diabetic meals in the future.
Although Prell said he is proud to work for Centerplate, a company that embraces customization and attention to detail, he doesn’t see the ability to deliver meals that fit varied dietary profiles as something to tout, but rather as an expected norm