Just as with every other facet of events, COVID-19 has forced planners to change how they think about food and beverage. While many changes have made hosting more difficult, the silver lining is that creativity has blossomed when it comes not only to preparation, but also to presentation. “It requires thinking through all of the typical stations and almost deconstructing the whole thing,” said Sarabeth Quattlebaum of Sarabeth Events.
Chefs across the South have been cooking up clever new ways to minimize touch points and serve up individualized portions that are delightful, and most importantly, delicious.
Beyond a basic boxed lunch
One easy way to feed a group but keep touch points to a minimum is a classic boxed lunch. Many planners and caterers around the South have worked on ways to elevate the humble boxed lunch. This could mean little changes, such as adding in mini bottles of condiments instead of the typical plastic wrapped ones, said Quattlebaum. “It also means thinking through the wrappers on all food items included in the box,” she added. “Perhaps the wrappers are branded or have funny sayings on them. Or everyone gets an empty box and does a build-your-own lunch, which is still single serve, but attendees are getting to create their own and aren’t stuck with having it selected for them.”
Austin, Texas-based catering company Royal Fig Catering has been getting many requests for boxed lunches and has also found ways to improve upon the basic box, starting with using a see-through container.
“Our thinking behind the boxed lunch starts with the color,” said owner Kristen Stacy. “We want it to be a fun experience, and the color of the foods inside are part of that.”
Royal Fig takes great care to ensure their boxes feature a variety of colorful foods, such as roasted red peppers, seasonal fruit or veggies, and smoked salmon.
Thinking outside the box
For planners who want even more originality, caterers have upped their game with other single-serve offerings, including finding unexpected ways to serve the food. A group favorite Quattlebaum offers is mini charcuterie boards, so every guest receives their very own. “That has been a huge hit for us,” Quattlebaum said. “Other unexpected serving ideas are edible serving spoons, French fries in a cone, or mini burgers in a mini box.”
Chef’s Market in Nashville, Tenn., has also been finding unique ways to serve menu items, including individual balsa wood cones holding multiple types of foods, including one charcuterie option that features prosciutto, toast points, pickled peppers, and olives. “It’s creating individual grab-and-go servings out of what is typically a grazing table display,” explained Chef’s Market owner Jim Hagy. “Besides keeping the touch points to a minimum, it also makes for a display that’s visually appealing to guests.”
Mason jar salads have become a popular choice for Royal Fig Catering. “It’s completely packaged and has a nice look—much nicer than the typical plastic clamshell box,” Stacy said. Royal Fig added to the unique presentation of mason jar salads by creating a vertical wall display of them. They have also deployed a ‘Ring for Taco’ decorative wall.
“Customers come up, ring a bell at a window designated for the particular taco they want, and a gloved hand reaches through to give them the taco,” Stacy explained. “We’ve also done that with champagne, and it’s a huge hit that’s creative and safe.”
Bonus benefit of the single serve
Preventing potential contamination is an obvious benefit of single serve food options, but another upside that comes with new safety practices is the potential for branding. Individual, pre-packaged items are a great opportunity for groups to ensure their name is seen.
“Though, you must keep in mind there is a cost with that,” said Kimberly Bean, of KBT Creative Support Services. “With so many virtual meetings going on in the last year, I’ve seen groups get really creative in sending out snacks or some sort of food to their attendees and branding the box. It makes for a really nice presentation.”
The process can also be thought through creatively to try to minimize extra costs as much as possible, Quattlebaum added. “For example, instead of printing a bulk order of branded wrappers so every single thing is branded, just brand a few,” she said. “Or have stickers made and put those on regular boxes or wrappers. It’s cheaper, but it still makes for a really cohesive, nice look. It’s a smaller cost, but still makes a big impact.”
Balancing the budget
Extra packaging and oftentimes extra servers are needed to get everything packaged and ready to go. “It’s a fact that we have to acknowledge right now,” said Sally Mainprize, SMMC, CRP, DES, of Iron Peacock Events. “We have to know individually packaged items are going to add to the budget. We as planners must make sure our clients have that expectation.” Quattlebaum recommends to clients that they need to build in an extra five to 10 percent of the overall budget as a buffer. “That is to specifically cover these sorts of things that we’ve never had to include in budgets before,” she added.
One option to keep these added costs at a minimum, Mainprize noted, is using the branding capability as a sponsorship opportunity. Instead of a group branding the packaged items themselves, offer that opportunity to one or more sponsors for a fee, which helps offset those additional costs.
Many groups and planners are turning to a cafeteria-style buffet served by staff behind plexiglass. This option helps keep portion control in check, as well as costs, but it does mean more labor, as more servers could likely be needed, Hagy said.
Chef’s Market approaches staffing fees a little differently than others. Instead of the flat fee or percentage that some hotels or caterers may charge, they view staffing costs based on each individual need, which can help groups budget better. “We tell groups exactly how many servers they will need based on what they request, because it obviously varies based on how they want food and beverage served,” Hagy said. “We then charge an amount per server, so groups aren’t overpaying for more than they need, and they know exactly how much it will cost.”
To help with budget control for its groups, the Texas A&M Hotel and Conference Center has been experimenting with ways to offer single serve and other minimal touch point options in a way that isn’t more time consuming or production intensive. “We’ve learned that you must find better ways to prepare foods,” said general manager Greg Stafford. “We’ve found we can prepare a lot of our most expensive ingredients in advance using particular cooking methods. That represents a relatively small portion of our ingredients, but it’s a large portion of the cost and those that take the most time to prepare.”
Preparing particular foods in advance allows for quality and consistency of the product and helps with cost, as the culinary team can focus more time on plating and presentation, which are important today, Stafford added. It also means food can be better planned across a variety of groups, keeping waste and prep time to a minimum. “It’s beneficial to be able to prepare at a scale that’s different than we might do for a single event,” he said. “While there has been some increase in food costs, utilizing these methods has allowed us to reduce waste and reduce labor by simply being more efficient from a production standpoint. That means that in the end, the group ends up with a balance of cost that still allows groups to customize their experience and keeps the quality high.”
Weighing the waste
While these single-serve options may be checking all the boxes for required health and safety practices, they aren’t always the most eco-friendly. “A lot of the creativity we’re having with individually packaged items isn’t going to be sustainable,” said Bean. “But the reality is that it’s hard to have it both ways right now. It’s a hard balancing act, and it’s only going to get harder as prices increase.”
Bean believes groups could start opting for more pre-plated and served meals to manage sustainability. “While that is more eco-friendly, it does take away the choice of selecting your food, and people do like their choices,” she added.
For those who prefer packaged meals, it comes down to using eco-friendly options as much as possible to minimize the waste. There are a variety of sustainable packaging options on the market that many caterers, such as Wolfgang Puck Catering, are opting for. “If we are doing individually packaged, we really try to go with compostable packaging or at least packaging that is made from recyclable materials,” said regional director of catering sales Mary Cline.
One way Wolfgang Puck Catering is striving to be more eco-friendly is by electing to use reusable grocery totes. “Even if all of the packaged items inside the tote aren’t reusable, at least the tote is,” Cline said. “Reusable bento boxes are also great, but they can get costly, and everyone may not have the budget for that.”
The struggle between balancing the need for individual servings and minimizing waste will continue—at least for the foreseeable future. But it opens the door for more innovation and creative thinking to find ways to increase sustainability in the new post-COVID, single-serve environment.
“Caterers are going to constantly be looking for new packaging items that better emphasize sustainability, particularly as larger meetings resume, because individual servings are obviously not going away for a while,” Cline said. “That will be our biggest challenge going forward: how to continue individually packaged foods without creating a massive amount of waste.”
Paige Townley is a lifelong Southerner and freelance journalist based in Birmingham, Ala. For the past 15-plus years she’s been writing on a variety of topics—and loving every minute of it. When not crafting her latest story, she’s usually spending time with her husband and two little girls or chasing around their French bulldog.