June 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions Over the Coals June 1999 Current Issue
June 1999

Over the Coals

Business barbecues should be much more impressive than the typical backyard affair

By Lisa Grimaldi

Barbecues have the reputation of being one of the most informal, low-maintenance and least-expensive forms of entertainment around. Toss some of burgers and franks on the grill, set up a couple of picnic tables and benches, crank up the tunes and, voilà, you've got that most popular of warm-weather celebrations, right?

Well, perhaps that works for a family cookout in the yard, but anyone who has ever planned a large group barbecue knows, no matter how casual and slapdash these affairs might appear, they can be every bit as detailed and can require as much careful planning as a black-tie formal.

As for their alleged low-budget appeal, Gail Martin, director of catering for Lake Buena Vista, Fla.-based Black Tie to Barbecue, says, "Barbecues aren't the low-end affairs they once were." On the bottom of the scale, caterers can charge $10 per person for food, drinks (excluding alcoholic beverages), servers and utensils. More elaborate cookouts, like the type Martin's firm arranges, featuring steaks with a company's logo seared onto them, can cost as much as $100 per head.

How does one turn a boring backyard cookout into crowd-pleasing perfection? M&C consulted with barbecue experts, who share the following tips.

The great outdoors
One of the appeals of barbecues is that they are staged outdoors. Although some resorts have a venue set up specifically for these events, more often than not they are staged off-site, at a park, beach or similar facility. Off-premises caterers or destination management firms can steer planners to appropriate venues. Typically, DMCs will take care of arrangements such as reserving these facilities and obtaining permits.

"It's always wise to choose a facility that has some type of covered structure [such as a pavilion or clubhouse] in case the weather doesn't cooperate," says Linda West, owner of Houston-based Melange Catering. "If there aren't any on the grounds, you can always [rent] tents. If the destination is humid, you should consider renting air conditioners for the tents as well."

Another minor drawback of cookout venues: They often do not have adequate rest room facilities for large groups. Rick Weyerhaeuser, senior vice president of San Diego-based Picnic People, a division of catering firm Hospitality Inc., recommends bringing in "portable potties" to fill the gap. "As a rule of thumb, there should be one unit per 100 guests."

Most caterers provide their own grills, and if there are not picnic tables and chairs already at the facility, they can arrange for them as well (for a rental price, naturally).

Burgers and beyond
Now for the (literal) meat and potatoes of any good barbecue: the grub.

"Barbecues can be as simple or as fancy as you want. The key thing is that the food's cooked on a grill," says Bennett Brown, president of Atlanta-based Low Country Barbecue Inc. Brown, whose firm has arranged barbecues as far afield as Amsterdam (for a Fourth of July cookout for 1,500 thrown by the U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands), favors menus that are unusual and that do not create a mess. "Company barbecues are not the same as family [functions]. You don't want to be licking your fingers or walking around with corn in your teeth in front of the CEO," he says.

Among his most popular offerings: deboned, quartered chicken (the dirty work, deboning, is done in the food-prep kitchen); whiskey-glazed beef tenderloins; pork tenderloins with Jamaican jerk seasoning; roasted oysters cooked in their shells on the grill; several cold side salads; baked potatoes (actually grilled in foil), and two vegetarian options (see "Grilled, Not Killed" on page 70).

"Most people like corn on the cob, but it's messy," Brown says. "We cook it in the husk, leave 2 inches of stalk attached to the ear, then pull the husk back over the stalk and wrap it in a paper towel, so the guests can eat it like a popsicle." Cob-toting attendees can visit the "corn station," which Brown equips with melted butter, salt, pepper and little baskets of toothpicks to get rid of those tenacious kernels.

Melange Catering's West recommends serving nontraditional cookout fare, such as grilled venison, quail, and wild turkey and habañero sausage. "I like to include a seafood dish as well. Barbecued shrimp or fish steaks salmon, tuna, swordfish hold up when they're grilled." Another of her favorites: fish-and-veggie kabobs.

West adds, "When children are included in the event, I always recommend serving hamburgers and hot dogs along with the fancier stuff. They're just not going to eat venison."

Picnic People's Weyerhaeuser does not consider dogs and burgers mere kid stuff. "You can have all kinds of dishes on the menu, but 75 percent of the guests really want the hot dogs and burgers. They should always be an option."

Brownies and beverages
As for desserts, keep it simple, the pros say.

"They should be items that people can grab and are quick to eat," says Michelle Young, banquet manager for Lovin' Oven, a Sayville, N.Y.-based catering firm. Her recommendations: cookies, brownies or ice cream pops served from a refrigerated cart. "When you are dealing with a barbecue, you don't want to go crazy with stuff that will melt: cream, frosting, chocolate, etc."

To wash down cookout fare, planners recommend iced tea, lemonade, soda, beer and wine. West likes to rent machines to make frozen drinks, like margaritas and daiquiris.

When it comes to serving beer, there are two schools of thought: bottles and kegs. West prefers bottled beer because she can offer more of a variety. "And I don't like kegs. There's always a certain part of a group that feels they have to 'float the keg' [drink every last drop], and then things can get of hand," she says.

On the other hand, Young feels bottles are unsafe in a large group setting, especially when the group includes children. Adds Picnic People's Rick Weyerhaeuser: "Also, many parks don't allow bottles, so make sure you find out the regulations before deciding."

Dressing up the site
The very nature of a barbecue is casual, but there is more to creating the right ambience than just setting up a few picnic tables and benches. Brown of Low Country Barbecue likes to dress up the cookout site with picket-fence borders and antique chuck wagons.

Black Tie to Barbecue's Martin also likes the country theme for barbecues. "Instead of buffet tables for the food, I like to set up the bowls and platters on bales of hay, and, instead of plain picnic tables, I use large industrial drums with plywood on top for tables."

West of Melange Catering likes using picnic tables but spruces them up with lanterns and metal pails filled with wildflowers. "For night events, I like to string colored bulbs around the barbecue area to add to the festive atmosphere."

Paper or china?
"Finger-lickin' good" might be good enough for backyard bashes and fast-food chicken joints, but group barbecues require a bit more attention in the utensil department.

At the very least, attendees should have the option to eat their barbecued goodies on a plate with a knife and fork. Depending on the budget, planners can choose plates and cups made of styrofoam or paper (just a few cents per head), enamel, or even traditional china (up to $5 per head). Clear acrylic tableware (about $2 per person) also is gaining popularity. "It's a nice compromise," according to West.

For utensils, the options are plastic, clear acrylic or stainless steel. If steak is on the menu, caterers say, metal knives always should be used, even if the other utensils are plastic.

Other issues to consider: plastic vs. cloth tablecloths, and paper vs. cloth napkins. "And always hand out moistened wipes," recommends Brown.

Fun and games
A family barbecue wouldn't be the same without a radio or CD player, and the same holds true for organization-sponsored cookouts. "Music lets everyone know it's a party. I can't imagine throwing a barbecue without it," says West.

Naturally, the type of music a planner selects depends on taste and budget. But these experts say bluegrass and country music are the most popular for barbecues. "If your budget is too tight for a whole band, a sole fiddler or even CDs can work," says West.

If the crowd likes dancing, a floor can be set up. Linda West often hires a few professionals to demonstrate line dancing and two-stepping. "If the group feels like joining in, fine. If they still seem shy, don't ever force them to get up," she says.

Other ways to liven up a cookout: Have handlers walk around the tables with farm animals like sheep, goats and horses, or, when kids are involved, arrange to have a small petting zoo assembled. For her barbecues, West often brings in a pair of longhorn steer with which participants can have their photos taken. Gail Martin has taken the animal idea one step further; she has organized mini cattle drives (for guest entertainment, not participation) through the barbecue grounds.

Sports-oriented entertainment is always popular, including old standbys such as horseshoes, softball, volleyball and races (spoon, three-legged and potato sack), and new favorites like soccer and croquet, according to Weyerhaeuser of Picnic People. He adds that renting carnival-style game booths are a growing trend for outdoor events.

For the perfect final touch, Lovin' Oven's Young recommends that age-old crowd-pleaser: fireworks.

Grilled, not killed
In the not-so-distant-past, a vegetarian at a barbecue was likely to feel as welcome as a furrier at an animal rights rally. Woe befell the herbivore who attended a cookout hungry; her dining choices likely were limited to cole slaw, baked beans and a plain hamburger bun. grilled not killed

Today, planners and caterers are much more considerate of vegetarians' needs. In addition to veggie burgers and tofu hot dogs, many creative, delicious nonmeat dishes can augment a traditional barbecue.

Linda West, owner of Houston-based Melange Catering, recommends serving grilled, sliced portabello mushrooms; grilled vegetables and herbs wrapped in parchment paper or aluminum foil pockets, and veggie kabobs.

Bennett Brown, owner of Low Country Barbecue Inc., an Atlanta-based catering firm, offers baked sweet onions (cored Vidalia onions sprinkled with a crumbled bouillon cube and brown sugar, wrapped in foil and grilled for 40 minutes), salads and grilled vegetables.

Both pros also recommend having a "potato bar," where attendees can dress their grilled or mashed spuds with interesting toppings like salsa, guacamole or spinach- artichoke sauce.

Rick Weyerhaeuser, senior vice president of Picnic People, a division of San Diego-based off-premises catering firm Hospitality Inc., offers a final tip: "Be sure you have a separate grill to prepare the vegetarian foods; some vegetarians don't want their food cooked on the same grill that is used for hamburgers or steaks." L.G.

What's cooking?
Half the fun of a barbecue is the cooking. "People love to see their food prepared in front of them; it's part of the entertainment," says Linda West, owner of Houston's Melange Catering. But there is a big difference between cooking burgers to order for a crew of 10 and preparing barbecue fare for 1,000 hungry attendees.

Some tips for cooking and serving a large group:

  • Have enough grill chefs on hand. As a rule of thumb, there should be one chef for every 50 guests.
  • For groups of 500 or more, have some items cooked in advance. "Barbecued chicken works well this way," says John Ham, vice president of Atlanta's Low Country Barbecues. "Chickens can be cooked whole beforehand, then quartered and thrown on the grill for a little extra browning on site." Steaks, on the other hand, should always be grilled on site. For large groups (more than 200), steaks that can be sliced and served (London broil or flank) are the best choice.
  • Don't think all the grilled food has to be done simultaneously. "Barbecues aren't as regimented as a formal dinner," says West. "People don't have to eat at the same time, and they'll get up an average of four times during a two-hour window to get different items."
  • L.G.

    Roast masters
    Want to hire a pro to stoke your next cookout event? These groups can help planners locate off-premises caterers.

    International Special Events Society
    9202 N. Meridian St., Suite 200
    Indianapolis, Ind. 46260
    Phone: (317) 571-5601
    Fax: (317) 571-5603

    National Catering Association
    860 Bay St.
    Staten Island, N.Y. 10304
    Phone: (800) NCA-0029
    Fax: (718) 420-0025

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