Waitstaff should be instructed to serve special meals first — such as for attendees who keep kosher or halal. (Every Angle Photography)
How comfortable do people who keep kosher or halal feel when they sit down to eat at one of your meetings? The answer says more about inclusivity than you may realize. “Planners don’t necessarily think of food and beverage as a diversity and inclusion issue, but it very much is,” said Tracy Stuckrath, CSEP, CMM, CHC, CFPM, who specializes in teaching the meetings industry to better address dietary needs.
“When you’re looking at a room, your attendee base is diverse,” Stuckrath said. “The inclusion part is asking yourself how to authentically and consciously include all of those people in your menu planning.”
Recent statistics indicate that you should expect to receive religious dietary requests at any sizable meeting. Nielsen found that sales of halal food in U.S. grocery and convenience stores increased 15 percent between 2012 and 2016; meanwhile the Pew Research Center reported that roughly 22 percent of Jewish Americans keep kosher at home.
Honoring kosher or halal requests can be nuanced and sometimes expensive, but putting in the effort to prepare means that no attendee is stuck with a growling stomach or forced to eat their emergency ration of packed protein bars as dinner. Here’s what you need to know about meeting your guests’ religious-based F&B requests while also avoiding the headache and expense of unclaimed meals.
The first thing you should know about planning for kosher and halal meals — and probably know already if you’ve arranged them before — is that they can take time to source. That’s why Stuckrath urges all meeting planners to include questions about food preferences in their online registration forms, and make responses mandatory.
To start, she suggests having attendees individually check off which food functions they plan to attend during the meeting. It’s a strategy that Lisa Hill, director of conferences and events/operations for the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR), has also found useful.
Earlier in her career, many times she’d put kosher or halal requests in, “and the banquet staff would tell me they had never been picked up,” Hill said. She’s since realized that asking attendees to spell out exactly which food functions they’ll be attending means she isn’t ordering special meals that sit in the kitchen while an attendee is actually having lunch down the street.
Stuckrath said she hears tales of unclaimed meals from many meeting planners who, like Hill, are trying to address special food requests. She said it often means a meeting has just spent almost a hundred dollars — or sometimes up to $400 — on a single meal that wasn’t picked up; or several thousand dollars on several meals.
To further avoid that frustration, Stuckrath recommends including a check-off list of dietary preferences in the registration form: vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian, halal, kosher, gluten-free, other, and none. Since you’re trying to gather as much information as you can — both to best serve attendees
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and to avoid those unclaimed meals — Stuckrath suggests that when an attendee checks off halal or kosher, it should trigger another list, also presented in check-box form. Those sub-options will help you home in on how closely that person follows kosher or halal rules.
You might label one option “Strict Kosher (my meal must be prepared in a certified kosher kitchen and I will not eat off the buffet)” and another as “Kosher (I need a meal without pork, shellfish, or meat and dairy together; I will eat from the buffet as long as it’s labeled).” Similar choices can be presented to those who select halal, and in each case, Stuckrath suggests also including options that say “A vegetarian meal is acceptable” and “A vegan meal is acceptable.”
While honoring an attendee’s religious requirements, the additional questions help avoid another reason people don’t pick up their special meals, Stuckrath said: They found something suitable on the buffet and ate that instead.
She also recommends including disclaimers in the food-related registration section noting that dietary restrictions must be indicated on that form in order to receive a special meal at food functions, and that, despite taking every precaution, your event cannot guarantee that items are free of trace amounts of allergens and other ingredients.
Let’s Talk About It
Once you have a list of people who marked off special food requests at registration, even though you had them get specific, Stuckrath still advises meeting planners to call up any attendees who requested kosher or halal meals.
Last year, she helped at an event for which five people had requested kosher meals. When Stuckrath called them, all five people told her that any meal without pork would be fine. “It really is about talking to your attendees,” she said.
If you’re not quite sure how to ask someone how closely they follow kosher or halal rules, Lynne Wellish, CMP, CHSE, CHO — a speaker, trainer, and consultant for the hospitality industry, who keeps kosher at home — suggests this simple, open-ended line: “Tell me about what kosher (or halal) means to you.”
Angela Smith Ford, CMP, event operations manager for the International Legal Technology Association (ILTA), said that when one of her attendees recently noted in the online registration form that he keeps halal, she sent him an email and asked if there was anything she should do to provide a suitable meal. “He said, ‘No, that’s just my restriction,’” she recalled. It was that simple. According to Today’s Dietitian, all foods are considered halal, or lawful, except for pork and its by-products, carnivorous animals, birds of prey, blood, alcohol, and foods contaminated with any of these. All seafood is halal.
Hill also emails attendees to follow up on kosher or halal requests — though she says both are rare. At her organization’s fall meeting last year, out of 1,150 attendees, only three had asked for kosher or halal meals. For Ford, the numbers are even smaller: one or two out of more than 3,500. That means careful follow-up with each attendee doesn’t take much time.
After you’ve clarified an attendee’s particular requirements, take a similar communications approach with your venue or caterer. Go over exactly what your attendees told you they need. For some, it may be meals without certain ingredients. For others, it can be as simple as carefully labeled buffet items.
But for those who most closely follow kosher and halal rules — and for whom only a meal prepared in a certified kitchen may be acceptable — your dining contact will probably need to outsource.
“I’ve never had a venue tell me they can do kosher meals on site,” Ford said, “but I also don’t think I’ve ever had a time that I had to [outsource it] myself.”
Usually the food and beverage team will have encountered this question before, and they’ll have a relationship with a specialty supplier or a nearby restaurant.
“A chef knows how to source things in their local city,” Wellish said. That may mean a kosher butcher or halal restaurant in high-population areas. Or in more remote places, it could mean a frozen meal that comes double-wrapped with special instructions.
To get a sense of how the request will be handled, Wellish suggests asking your venue or caterer some basic questions: When was the last time you ordered a kosher or halal meal? Who do you source it from? What training has your staff had in dealing with kosher or halal meals?
To that list, Stuckrath adds: How is the meal certified kosher or halal? How is it presented? How is it prepared and delivered? She also notes that some hotels and convention centers will charge a “corkage fee” for out-of-house prepared food, so be sure to clarify that, too.
Rabbi Sholem Fishbane, executive director of the Association of Kashrus Organizations (AKO), said planners should not make any assumptions
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when they learn that a venue is outsourcing a kosher meal. “Many places are either just ‘kosher-style’ or they have a weak standard,” he said, noting that AKO offers a list of approved kosher agencies on its website. Kosher is not just about avoiding pork and shellfish; meat and dairy products cannot be combined or consumed at the same meal.
Fishbane said it’s important to ask whether you’ll be receiving a simple drop-off or a full, catered meal — and if it’s a drop-off, to check how the food will be sealed and how it will be warmed up. “That last step can make the food non-kosher despite getting it from a kosher caterer,” he added.
Stuckrath recommends running the venue’s proposed meal by your attendee and explaining its source. If there are still lingering questions, connect them with the chef or F&B manager.
“If an attendee talks to the chef directly and they can’t provide a [suit- able] meal for them, then they have to make that call,” she said. “And if they do end up bringing their own food, I would reduce that person’s registration fee.”
It may take extra effort to accommodate special dietary requests, but it’s an important part of making everyone feel welcome at events, Stuckrath said. “When somebody is left hungry at the table because you haven’t planned for their food requests,” she said, “you have excluded them. Thinking about how we plan our menus is very important to inclusion.”
Molly Petrilla is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.