by Bob Krause | February 01, 2005

When arranging the food and beverage for your meeting, options on the same old catering menu can be pretty boring. Sometimes it seems that every facility offers the same items they just give them different names. After all, how many ways can you serve scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast or prepare a chicken Caesar salad for lunch? How many times can you serve chicken and still keep attendees happy?
    To add some zest, follow these suggestions for straying from the menu.

Know Your Client
Before deciding to tweak the banquet offerings, find out what your attendees like to eat. To create a winning menu, you need to know your group’s demographics and eating habits, what they enjoyed last year and what wasn’t so popular.
    Refer to your notes from events past to learn from old home runs and errors. Or, if you are new to the event, ask committee members or others involved in the planning process to recall what earned raves and what went back to the kitchen untouched.
    Make sure whatever you serve fits your audience. A group function simply is not the time to surprise meat eaters with a plate of sushi.
    Of course, your budget will control what meals you can serve. You should know exactly how much you have to spend for every meal, including the accompanying tax and gratuity. This will help you decide what you can afford and how much wow you can add to the dining experience.

Meet the Chef
A great way to ensure a wonderful dining experience is to engage those who will be preparing your meals.
    As the menu discussions begin, ask to meet with the chef. Get together in the catering manager’s office so you can chat and get to know one another. Ask where the chef studied, where he apprenticed, other jobs he’s held and what his current favorite ingredients are. Show interest in the rest of the kitchen staff by touring their work areas and asking questions about what they like to cook. Let them know you are excited to have them on your team.
    Share your experiences with the chef, including what has been successful with your group or areas that could use some improvement. Discuss your budget, and ask for help creating something new and fresh within your price range. Most kitchen staffs will be happy to be given such a challenging opportunity.

Make It Special
    We meeting planners have hundreds of details to manage and often get comfortable doing elements of our jobs the same way every time. Managing meals is no exception.
    So how do we keep things under control but create an environment that encourages creativity? By trying to make the meal an experience.
    For example: Instead of a plated meal with salad, pasta and a dinner roll, add some pizzazz by theming the meal. Have the waitstaff wear chef’s hats, play some great Italian music, set up pasta stations in front of the guests, and offer varieties of sauce and toppings for them to dress their plates themselves.
    Serve the salad and rolls family-style from large bowls placed at each table. Instead of cola and iced tea, offer Italian-style flavored waters and maybe hire a singing waiter to serve the drinks. After the meal, offer espresso instead of coffee. Make it fun for everyone, including the servers.
    A good reason to go off menu is to engage and inspire all those involved in the meal-planning process including you. Yes, it’s a lot easier to just pick up a menu and order “the usual” corporate cuisine, but why do that when a whole new world of wonderful dining experiences awaits the enjoyment of all? All you have to do is ask.

Bob Krause is founder of Plann-It Meetings & Events in San Diego (, specializing in corporate meetings.