Putting a Lid on Sky-High Event F&B Costs

With food costs soaring, F&B suppliers are struggling to source affordable meals for clients. Convene spoke with three suppliers about their workarounds to make clients’ events a success, from an economic and gastronomic perspective.

Author: Casey Gale       

Chef Carmen Callo in garden

Chef Carmen Callo inspects produce from Blue Bear Farm at the Colorado Convention Center. Convention centers growing their own produce is a small way to circumvent rising food costs.

It’s the perfect storm: Worker shortages have created supply-chain issues across industries. Inflation, according to Bloomberg, climbed to its highest level since 1981 in May, rising nearly 9 percent from a year earlier as measured by the Consumer Price Index, sending food costs soaring. And many event organizers, still contending with COVID-19’s long-term impact on the meetings industry, are working with reduced budgets. These challenges have forced suppliers to get creative and plan ahead like never before.

Kenneth Goldbach headshot

Kenneth Goldbach

Consumers feel the impact on their wallets at supermarkets and restaurants — food prices are sky high. Food and beverage suppliers are grappling with the same high prices, which has created a challenge in developing affordable meal plans at events.

“As businesses started opening up, it’s the same thing you [have been seeing] at home. You started seeing price increases in your day-to-day life, and we started seeing that with our vendors,” Kenneth Goldbach, OVG Hospitality’s district general manager based at the Atlantic City Convention Center, told Convene. For Goldbach, a successful workaround has been changing up the way meals are served to help clients cut costs.

“We’ve done events where they historically would’ve done buffet meal services for their attendees, but they didn’t have the budgets [this year] to do the standard plated or buffet service,” Goldbach said. What Goldbach’s team is offering instead are concession vouchers that attendees can use to pick up a full meal, choosing from among six different cuisine concepts, including barbeque and Tex-Mex. “We just had to look outside the box,” Goldbach said. Carmen Callo, senior vice president, corporate executive chef for Sodexo Live!, oversees more than 100 culinarians across the United States and Canada, and also has been bypassing plated and buffet-style meals in favor of boxed meals to accommodate budgetary constraints.

“Prices are up double digits in most categories,” Callo said, “so while costs are up, budgets and spend have not directly translated to that.”

Chef Gregg Nuguid headshot

Chef Gregg Nuguid

Mixing up Ingredients

Gregg Nuguid, OVG Hospitality’s executive chef at the Palm Beach County Convention Center, has found clients are happy to substitute higher-priced food items with lower-priced alternatives as a way to keep costs down. “Broccolini — obviously it’s more expensive than regular broccoli, so that’s one way to reduce the price,” Nuguid said. “Instead of baby carrots that cost 50-75 cents a piece, you can just get the same regular-sized carrots, but we can cut them nicely and that still pleases the guests. The taste is still there, the presentation is still there, so that’s helping us as well as the clients.”

And for those guests “who really want surf and turf and the price of that went up 50 percent,” he said, “our take on that is just cutting down the portion and it still makes guests happy.”

Sourcing products in a timely manner isn’t so easy to solve — items that used to take days to arrive now take weeks. While Callo said he felt the situation has “stabilized somewhat” from winter due to an especially pronounced lack of truck drivers at the time, “it’s still not where it was pre-COVID, by any means.”

To combat this, Nuguid has made use of local and domestic products instead of imported products, as well as expanded the number of vendors he uses. “I find it helpful to keep a great relationship with the vendors or the sales representatives, because they’re the ones who will let me know if they have a product that is very limited,” he said, “and they would offer it to me first if I wanted to secure it.”

The key ingredient that Goldbach, Callo, and Nuguid all agreed on is the importance of early communication with the client. “We need a little bit more lead time than we used to,” Goldbach said. “We’re working with you and trying to accommodate your needs, but we have to move timelines back a little more.”

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Casey Gale is senior editor at Convene.