When Stephanie Curran joined the Spokane Convention Center team as catering director in 1995, the longtime vegetarian noticed that the menu options for non-meat-eating attendees were extremely limited. In fact, they consisted of one meal. Curran knew she had to do something about it.
“When I first arrived, every vegetarian meal — lunch or dinner — was a puff pastry stuffed with broccoli, carrots, and cauliflower with a roasted tomato on the side,” said Curran, now the CEO at the Spokane Public Facilities District, which manages the convention center. “I went to the chef and told him, ‘Vegetarians are people, too, and we eat more than broccoli and carrots.’”
Over the past few years there’s been a surge in dietary requests among meeting attendees. “The majority of this demand is specifically for vegetarian, vegan and/or gluten-free options,” Megan Kasper, the convention center’s current catering director, says. “Seeing that this was not just a temporary trend, but a new way of eating, we decided it was time to offer more options for those guests. We didn’t want them to feel like they were getting a dish that was a second thought.”
But they didn’t just want to offer more options for vegetarian and vegan delegates — they wanted to make attendees’ dining experience more comfortable. “I also told [the chef] it can be awkward to be served a different meal at a table,” Curran explains. “Everyone looks at the vegetarian and wants to know why they have a different meal and then launch into a debate about why people should eat meat.”
Curran and the food-and-beverage team then worked together to create inventive vegetarian options that are visually similar to other menu items. “For example, a steak and potato meal would have a Portobello mushroom cut into the same size and shape as the steak so most people at the table wouldn’t even notice,” she says. “The other important detail is to make sure the servers serve the vegetarian at the same time as the rest of the table. In the past, the vegetarian was either served way before the rest of the table or the table had to wait with their food for the vegetarian to be served.” The convention center uses these same standards to create vegan and gluten-free meal options as well.
Now, instead of puff pastries stuffed with vegetables, the convention center offers dishes like grilled polenta on garbanzo bean ragout with marinara, roasted vegetables over herbed basmati rice, or a red quinoa curry with agave and kale. Many of their guests attend banquets and meetings frequently, so they can soon grow tired of the obvious choices, Kasper says. “Our most common feedback is that the guests love the creativity in the vegetarian and vegan options that we provide.”