Frugal Food and Beverage for Events

30 ways to trim the cost of meals

Food and beverage is key to the success of an event; it's also one of the biggest-ticket items, typically eating up a minimum of 25 percent of a meeting's budget, according to data collected for M&C's Meetings Market Report. For savvy advice on how to help planners stretch their meal budgets while still pleasing attendees' palates, we assembled a panel of top F&B experts:

• Scott Berglund, director of meetings and special events at The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island (Fla.);

• Linwood Campbell, director of catering at The Westin Charlotte (N.C.);

• Greg Casella, president of Catered Too, San Jose (Calif.), and president of the National Association of Catering Executives;

• Jerry Edwards, president of Chef's Expressions, a Timonium, Md.-based catering firm;

• Marc Ehrler, corporate chef for Loews Hotels & Resorts;

• Steve Enselein, vice president of catering and convention services for Hyatt Hotels & Resorts, North America, and

• Martha Hsu, senior meeting and special events manager at the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel (Calif.).

Following are their tips, each of which can trim anywhere from 5 to 15 percent of the cost per item discussed, unless otherwise noted.

Breakfast Switch to shots. One way to save on breakfast and morning break costs is to serve juices and smoothies in shot glasses (approximately 1.5 oz.) rather than in traditional juice glasses (typically 4-6 oz.), suggests Marc Ehrler of Loews Hotels & Resorts. "Attendees rarely finish a full, traditional glass," he says. "This way, there is less waste, and attendees can sample several types of smoothies or juices if they like."

Keep special orders in-house. If you have attendees who must adhere to gluten-free diets (which must steer clear of wheat, rye and barley), speak to the chef before the event, says Ehrler. The kitchen might be able to make "safe" items (oat breads and muffins, for example) in-house, rather than ordering them from outside suppliers at a higher cost.

Go for bulk. Several pros recommend serving breakfast foods like yogurt and cereal in bulk (yogurt in a serving bowl and cereal in dispensers, for example), rather than individual packaging. Hyatt's Steve Enselein says this can cut up to 20 percent of the of cost of those items. The same advice applies to condiments, e.g., creamers, butter, cream cheese and jam.

Limit quantities. The Westin Charlotte's Linwood Campbell says more planners are ordering a set number of individual items, such as granola or power bars. "When they run out, they're done," he notes.

Give leftovers a second life. Campbell also sees an increasing number of groups making use of breakfast leftovers. "The nonperishable leftovers from continental breakfast (breads, pastry, snack bars) are put on fresh trays and served again during the first morning break," he says.

Slice it up. "Pull whole fruit from the breakfast buffet if you need to save dollars," recommends Steve Enselein at Hyatt Hotels & Resorts North America. A more affordable alternative: sliced melon.

Bag savings. Most groups likely have just a handful of tea drinkers, says Scott Berglund at the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island. Instead of paying by the gallon (hotels can charge as much as $25 per gallon of hot water for tea), he advises asking your F&B supplier to charge per tea bag used (typically less than $1).

More Menu Savings
When planning all the meals and F&B functions for events, keep in mind the following general cost-saving tips.

• Be honest. Tell chefs about your budget up-front so they know what they have to work with.

• Ask for ideas. Always meet with the chef and ask for suggestions; he or she might come up with completely different dishes than those that are listed on the banquet menus. At least one chain -- Loews Hotels & Resorts -- has introduced value versions of its standard banquet menus.

• Keep current. Make sure the menu has been updated recently and reinvented to reflect budgets in the new economy, suggests Loews' Marc Ehrler.

• Use pitchers. Cut beverage costs at meals and breaks by serving pitchers of lemonade, iced tea or ice water infused with fruit, rather than individually bottled soft drinks or sodas.

• Match menus. Ask the chef or caterer if another group is meeting at the same time, so your group (if small) can piggyback on their menu selections. The savings on bulk buying and preparation can trim 5 to 10 percent off the entire meal or meals.

• Use food as décor. Save on centerpieces by using attractive displays of edibles to go with the meal. For example: rolls, muffins, sweets, fruit salads, even crudité platters.

• Serve family-style. Set platters on each table as a cost-effective alternative to a buffet, suggests Hyatt's Steve Enselein. Attendees can choose the items and amount they want, but, the chef has some control over portions.

Lunch Go solo. Save on labor costs (and keep interruptions to a minimum during a lunchtime presentation) by serving a one-plate meal. A good option, says Greg Casella of Catered Too, San Jose, is a salad topped with a protein, such as cold chicken breast or poached salmon.

Skip sweets. Another way to trim lunch budgets: Skip the dessert course. "You can serve a sweet during afternoon break instead," says Linwood Campbell.

Go retro. Comfort food is in and, happily, budget-friendly. Campbell likes grilled cheese as well as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. "You can even do mini [quartered] sandwiches and serve them along with ‘shots' of soup," he says.

Limit choice. When serving a buffet-style lunch, reduce the number of items you would traditionally offer (instead of four salads, offer three; instead of three hot items, include two), says Martha Hsu at the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel.

Substitute salads.
Rather than offering a protein-based salad (e.g., seafood or chicken) on the buffet, Hsu suggests a budget-friendly pasta dish and/or traditional greens.

Choose cost-effective cuts. If the buffet includes cold meats, ask your F&B contact to use less expensive items such as turkey and domestic ham rather than pricey imported cold cuts such as prosciutto or Serrano ham.

Compartmentalize meals.
Keep portions down by using divided serving dishes, such as bento boxes, which "are attractive to eye and allow for smaller portion sizes," according to Scott Berglund. If hotels already have the boxes, he says, they typically do not charge for them. Campbell suggests using cafeteria or army-style trays; the compartments keep the look interesting, portions are controlled and -- since everything comes on one tray -- labor costs are lower.

Seek sponsors. While association planners have long turned to suppliers to sponsor or subsidize lunches and other meals, Campbell now sees more corporate clients doing the same. "One company reached out to suppliers, who in turn underwrote $20,000 for the meeting's F&B," he notes.

Dinner Halve the bubbles. If dinner includes a champagne toast, half-fill the glasses, as a full glass will likely go to waste during a meal, recommends Martha Hsu.

Create pleasing presentations. If you don't have the budget to serve lobster tails as a first course, wow attendees with a beautifully presented single scallop (at a cost of about $1.20 each), served on some greens or vegetable puree, or a lobster "knuckle" -- a slice of lobster claw (cost, approximately 45 cents) on a ceramic soup spoon, says Jerry Edwards.

Downsize entrées. Offer a smaller portion of the most expensive element of the meal -- typically the protein part of the entrée. A typical serving of meat or fish is six ounces; ask the chef to scale back to four or five ounces and fill up the rest of plate with veggies. (Jerry Edwards says root vegetables -- carrots, parsnips, beets -- are the most affordable.)

Start with pasta. A first course of pasta is affordable, filling and people-pleasing, says Edwards. But steer clear of stringy spaghetti (too messy for business events). Better options, says Edwards, are pappardelle (wide noodles) or gnocchi, which "hold sauce well."

Choose alternate cuts. Substitute high-ticket items, such as a New York strip steak, for the more affordable flank steak, recommends Loews' Marc Ehrler. The same principal holds for fish. An alternative to rockfish, says Edwards, is economical turbot: "We'll serve it the same way -- with a roulade -- and attendees are just as satisfied."

Ride the market. "Don't set menu months in advance," suggest Greg Casella. "Let chefs serve what they get for best price and quality for that week."

Stretch with starch. Potatoes and sweet potatoes cost less than green veggies; Edwards advises dressing them up in dishes such as sweet potato mousse Potato Charlotte, a potato puree encrusted with thinly-sliced potatoes or even fries. Corn also can dress up a first course or entrée.

End with "bites." Instead of full-size individual desserts, serve a tray of small tasting portions or truffles for the table, suggests Hyatt's Steve Enselein.