Event Catering: 10 Tips for Avoiding Food Shortages

Slider Bar Food StationIt's an event planner's nightmare. You run out of food. This rarely happens at sit-down meals, but it happens more often than expected at catered buffets and receptions.

It's not surprising that a discussion about this topic sparked active participation in the Event Planning and Event Management Group on LinkedIn. Fortunately, running out of food has only happened twice at events that I have planned.

Scenario: The first time was early in my career at a meeting with male, blue collar workers who had physically demanding jobs. The venue had a wonderful Danish food restaurant. I ordered exquisite open faced sandwiches for lunch. Everyone enjoyed the sandwiches but I noticed a look of horror coming across the faces of the attendees. They had assumed that this was just the appetizer. My mistake? I had designed the menu based on my own preferences.

With quick brainstorming, the food and beverage director and I found a solution that I will share in a future blog post.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Consider demographics when designing your menu. If the majority of participants are male and in jobs that require physical exertion, opt for hearty choices. 
  2. Consider ordering 1 1/4 - 1 1/2 servings for each male attendee to provide for seconds.
  3. Ask clients to identify attendees with hearty appetites. For plated meals, just as you would order a special meal for participants with allergies or food sensitivities, order special meals with larger portion sizes. 

Scenario: I had planned a business meeting for a large group that started with a light buffet lunch and ended with a cooking event and dinner. As the majority were bussed, I had specifically asked the caterer to organize the food on platters and stagger service. Unfortunately, this was not done and there was no lunch for the last bus. Fortunately, quick thinking meant that no one left the meeting hungry.

  1. Communicate your expectations clearly to the caterer.
  2. Clarify the caterer's portion sizes, % allocated for extra margin, etc.
  3. Select a caterer whose service approach is in harmony with yours.
    If a caterer does not support your ideas for managing the pace of service and presents no alternatives, keep looking.
  4.  Ask the Catering Director to identify which menu items can be quickly replenished. Select some of them. (On LinkedIn, Melanie Mitchell, Director of Meetings at ISASS in Dallas/Fort Worth shared this tip.)
  5. For buffets and events with food stations, use servers to control portions and reduce waste. Be sure to let the group know that there will be an announcement before seconds are served. For tight budgets, Anja Stief Owner, Manager at Food For Thought in Charleston, South Carolina recommend leaving salads, starches and vegetables on a buffet for self-serve and using servers to control portions for meat, fish and other proteins.
  6. Desert BarIf the client does not agree to staffing buffet tables and food stations, stagger service. Organize the food on platters and trays to be brought out as guests arrive. Ensure that there is open communication between the welcome desk and the catering manager to control the pace of service.
  7. Start the buffet line with bread and dinner rolls as guests tend to take smaller portions of other items if their plates aren't empty. Salad would be another excellent item to place near the front of the line. This tip was suggested by Chris Edwards General Manager at Australian Catering Services and Wok On Catering in Brisbane Area, Australia.

Finally, have a back-up plan so that you, the caterer and the client are clear about what steps are to be taken if more food is needed.

For more tips on preventing food shortages, also consult Banquet Service Ratios, Food for Thought: Reception Without Dinner? Feed 'Em Like You Mean It, Why do Buffets Often Cost More Than Plated Meals and Food for Thought: Saving$ on F&B, Part Three on Cvent Event Blog.

Photo Credits: Executive Oasis International

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