Eat, drinking, and be meeting! Fresh takes on food and beverage in 2022

A jigsaw bowl.
A jigsaw bowl.

Here’s the dish on the food and beverage world: While many of the pandemic-inspired trends will continue for the foreseeable future (think: individual servings, spaced-out seating, and pre-packaged meals), several new trends are making their way into the meeting mainstream. What’s on the menu in 2022? Here’s what planners, caterers, and properties around the South are serving up.

Buffets are back

Surprising to some—and exciting for others—is the return of the buffet. While some are choosing to stick to individual servings and pre-packaged meals, buffets are making a comeback with many groups. Dana Pellicano, Marriott International’s vice president of U.S. and Canada food and beverage, is seeing particularly large groups go back to buffet-style meals, the most efficient way to feed a large group in a short amount of time. But it’s not completely the buffet of 2019.

“The buffet has evolved, at least with many groups I’m seeing,” Pellicano says. “It’s not the traditional buffet with the big scoop-and-serve approach. I’ve seen a modified version: less of just one large dish that everyone self-serves out of and instead individually plated items or, if it is self-served, items being changed out more frequently. But even with changes, I think the buffet is here to stay.”

"Hanging" Sweet and Spicy Bacon with Jalepeno Cornbread.
“Hanging” Sweet and Spicy Bacon with Jalepeno Cornbread.

Focus on health

While the slightly reimagined buffet has made its triumphant return to meetings and conferences, its comeback coincides with an increased emphasis on eating healthier. During the past two years and now as more people are getting out of the sweatpants and back into the office, healthier options have an elevated profile across the board—even Delta Air Lines recently introduced a plant-based menu on select flights.

The increase in requests for healthier food has many properties tweaking their menus to include leaner options. “We have added sections to the menu to make sure we can accommodate those healthier requests,” Pellicano says. “We’re seeing requests that are more vegetable-forward and less meat-focused, which is good for the waistline and the environment.”

The healthy trend isn’t reserved only for hotels. Micah Quinn, director of the Oxford Conference Center in Mississippi, is seeing similar requests, especially for breakfast and breaks. “In years past, we’d have a continental breakfast heavy on items like muffins and pastries,” Quinn says. “Now we’re getting more requests to have healthier options included.”

A plethora of palates

Another trend seeing more time on the must-have list this year is catering to specific palates. Michelle Rounsaville, owner and operator of My Michelle’s, a catering company in Oxford, Miss., has seen a significant shift in the way meeting attendees are willing to eat.

“Just a few years ago, you’d go to a conference, and the food that was there is just what you ate,” she says. “Attendees now are being much more vocal about how and what they eat, whether it’s just their lifestyle or a religious reason or a food allergy.”

Rounsaville is getting many more requests for specific diets, including a recent conference focused on vegetarian dishes. To please as many people as possible, Rounsaville ensured she had a variety of options.

“We created a fajita bar, and we had the typical chicken and beef, but then we added sweet potato and mushroom for anyone wanting vegetarian,” she says. “We were also sure to include corn tortillas if someone preferred gluten-free. This type of plan—covering that wide variety—is getting much more frequent.”

So frequent that many properties are proactively changing their menus to allow groups to see specific food options well in advance. “We’ve altered menus so they are friendly to more diets,” Pellicano says. “In the past, we’ve maybe had a fish and meat, and now we’ll probably have some sort of vegan option and non-dairy option included, as well.”

Similarly, Hilton Aventura Miami has placed emphasis on catering to specific palates. In addition to offering more items adapting to potential allergy issues, the property’s management is focused on training its staff to understand how to alter dishes to meet individual requirements.

“We want our entire staff trained to understand the ingredients we put into every dish so that we can easily substitute to meet the request,” says German Villa, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing. “Nowadays, that’s something we are thinking about when creating a menu, how we can deconstruct the dish and put it back together to meet the specific culinary need.”

Hilton Aventura Miami has gone a step further to cater to the needs of the Jewish community. For people requesting kosher meals, the property brings in kosher caterers to create special menus onsite. “We have a banquet kitchen that we turn over to them, and it’s prepped and sanitized to be completely kosher,” explains the hotel’s executive chef Marcos Flores. “We’re fortunate enough that we have two full kitchens, so we can turn over one and still execute the rest of the food and beverage throughout the hotel in a separate kitchen.”

Eye-popping presentations

In celebration of National Iced Tea Month this June, the chefs at Caribe Royale Orlando in Florida generously shared one of their favorite iced tea recipes.
In celebration of National Iced Tea Month this June, the chefs at Caribe Royale Orlando in Florida shared one of their favorite iced tea recipes.

As the saying goes, you eat with your eyes. Accordingly, requests for fun and unique food presentations are on the rise. This trend took off during the pandemic, and there is no end in sight; attendees want to be wowed. “People want an experience,” Pellicano says.

Properties around the South are perfecting the art of food presentation. Hotel Drover in Fort Worth, Texas, has taken its presentation up a notch, creating visually interesting dishes. For example, the “hanging” sweet and spicy bacon with jalapeño cornbread is served with each bacon slice hanging from a clip on a small rack, like socks on a clothesline.

“There is an emphasis on creating intimate and thoughtful activations with a plethora of Instagram-able moments for guests,” notes Grant Morgan, the hotel’s executive concept chef. “I anticipate the food and beverage scene will continue to craft unique and one-of-a-kind experiences for guests.”

Luminary Hotel & Co. in Fort Myers, Fla., recently introduced new menus built around fun, including build-your-own mimosas and candied-bacon BLTs. The hotel also created food stations that provide opportunities
to converse.

“These stations are manned by staff or a chef where guests can engage and interact about the food,” says Steve Adams, the property’s director of food and beverage. “We are doing some fun events where groups opt for items like a whole pig so they can have a different experience and create a buzz.”

Unique serving experiences also are adding a whimsical touch. Cori Bokath, director of planning for Atlanta-based Meeting Expectations, is seeing creative and appealing beverage stations. “Right now, a fun trend is having a drink cart,” she says. “And it’s not just for coffee and cappuccino anymore. Companies will bring in old Italian cars that have been renovated, and they serve custom beverages. They are popping up everywhere.”

Cheers to mocktails

Beverage options also are expanding, with a nod to the health benefits—and cost savings—of low- or no-alcohol concoctions. Focus has shifted from traditional cocktails to “mocktails,” with mixologists shaking up innovative and colorful creations.

This trend is in line with a recent cocktail trends report from spirits company Bacardi Limited that shows drinking trends have changed. People are drinking less alcohol for physical and mental health reasons, something the report calls “mindful consumption.” According to the report, 22 percent of consumers are drinking less, while 55 percent are consuming low-alcohol options. The no- and low-alcohol beverage market is expected to continue to grow.

“There are now many high-quality non-alcoholic spirit options,” says Vicente Lavayen, director of food and beverage for Epicurean Hotel in Tampa, Fla. “Premium non-alcoholic whiskies, vodkas, neutral spirits, and cordials are readily available.”

Although mocktails have been included on menus for decades, the increased availability of no-alcohol options makes it easier for properties to widen their selection and thoughtfully create zero-proof beverages.

“In the past mocktails were not very well balanced,” Pellicano says. “Now, with product extension lines that are fully non-alcoholic, you’re seeing mocktails crafted with the same care as an alcoholic drink. It’s a lovely way of opening a whole new part of the beverage world to guests who don’t drink or simply don’t want alcohol. It also provides an option for delicious cocktail-like drinks at lunch or a crafted mixology station during a break time.”

These new F&B trends provide food for thought. But it remains a universal truth that good food is a critical component of any gathering—and not just because most people love to eat. Mealtimes offer great networking opportunities. Raising glasses in a toast and breaking bread together creates a bonding experience, and a well-fed group is a happy group.

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