Meetings & Conventions Over the Coals June 1999
Over the Coals
Business barbecues should be much more
impressive than the typical backyard
By Lisa GrimaldiB
arbecues 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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
Other issues to consider: plastic vs. cloth tablecloths, and
paper vs. cloth napkins. "And always hand out moistened wipes,"
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
For the perfect final touch, Lovin' Oven's Young recommends that
age-old crowd-pleaser: fireworks.Grilled, not
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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