Communication and knowledge are key to ensuring the F&B experience
pleases all parties
At a recent Tourism Ireland event, I was intrigued by a query to guest host Lady Dunleath about the menus available at Ballywalter Park, Lord and Lady Dunleath’s Northern Ireland home. A meeting planner representing a law firm in Manhattan’s financial district inquired about the availability of vegetarian, vegan and kosher meals at the estate, whose Mansion House is offered for group functions. In the ensuing conversation, the planner noted that, given the costs involved in obtaining kosher provisions, she tried to investigate if attendees are strict about their observance of the dietary laws, or if they can be satisfied with a vegetarian offering or some other option on the buffet.
The planner’s remarks echoed a sentiment expressed at PCMA’s Convening Leaders at the Vancouver Convention Centre earlier this year. During a session entitled “Dietary Restrictions Pup-Up,” a frustrated participant lamented about a fiasco she coined “koshergate.” Apparently, it is not an unusual occurrence for attendees to pre-order kosher or other special-order meals, and then fail to claim them. The planner bemoaned that “almost two dozen attendees requested kosher meals [from what would seem to be a very upscale establishment] at a cost of $125 for lunch and $225 for dinner – and none of them were picked up.” A solution suggested at the event was to substitute kosher with vegetarian.
As someone who adheres to kosher dietary rules, I was perplexed on multiple levels, First, it is erroneous to think that vegetarian is kosher. Second, I found it disturbing that anyone was paying $225 for a kosher dinner. It seems to me that the venues might be unfairly marking up the cost of the meals. One would be hard pressed to spend that much on a dinner for an individual attendee at the country’s premier kosher eateries, such as Reserve Cut, Prime Grill, or Chicago’s Shallots Bistro.
Third, I was curious as to what the attendees who ordered the meals and failed to pick them up were eating. The idea of not claiming a kosher meal seemed off, since that meal is a lifeline of sorts. Out of town in a convention center, that meal is all that stands between me and my “Plan B” – commencing a search for fresh fruits, or emergency rations of oatmeal, canned tuna or peanut butter, not to mention supporting the legacy of Milton Hershey (to my waistline’s chagrin).
Paul Ruby, CMP, Associate Director of Event Management at the Sheraton Dallas Hotel and President-Elect of the Event Service Professionals Association, noted that while many people take their dietary requirements strictly, many do not. The latter individuals might not follow through on their kosher meal order, placing an unexpected stress on the supply of non-kosher items. Ruby cited the case of “short-rib gate” (also discussed at the aforementioned PCMA conference) as an example. Vegetarians decided to forego their self-imposed restrictions and succumbed to the temptation of succulent-looking short ribs, “In regards to kosher and halal, we have seen more requests in the past three years and have also seen a steady average of only 20 percent being actually consumer,” Ruby relates. Aside from costing the venue money on the unclaimed dietary meals, deviations like these can result in a figurative bad taste left in the mouths of attendees. Food shortages reflect poorly on the event, its planners and the venue itself.
In some cases, attendees may reconsider their order in time to change the request. Thus, Ruby suggests, it is important to have clarified “in advance with the chef on his policy for cancellation on custom meals ordered from outside, as well as turnaround time for increasing an order once onsite. This varies in different locations based on the kosher or halal provider in that city.” Regarding attendees who simply do not pick up their special orders, “I have seen some clients outline in their registration materials that special meals not retrieved will be added to the conference cost of the individual,” Ruby observes. “Although this is not an avenue for all planners, some are using this tactic to create a message that for kosher and halal meals, there is an added cost and a mutual respect that if ordered, they should be consumer.”
“Many people don’t understand that kosher is focused on processes, not blessings. The rabbi affiliated with a kosher certification is merely there as a quality control supervisor.” – Deborah Shapiro, Vice President of Marketing & Operations, Kosher Media Holdings, LLC
A more positive approach to the issue, Ruby feels, involved thorough communication. “For many who do require a kosher meal and have designated this on the registration, it is best to understand and confirm what the guest really requires and them what the facility is able to provide. Is it fresh? Is it frozen? Will it be meat or dairy? What about breakfast? I have some clients who actually reach out to the attendee in advance, only to find out they checked the box my mistake; they actual do not need kosher. With the rising costs involved, knowing this prior to confirming orders with the chef can make a difference.” It is also important to communicate post event with guests who deviated from their stated dietary requirements. Ruby suggests that planners confirm with the event staff/chef that all special meals ordered will be labeled with the guest’s name. “At the conclusion for the each meal period, ask for a list of those that did not request their meal that day. Follow up with the guest to gain more insight as to why they did not get their meal.”
The fact is there is much to contend with when it comes to food and beverage preparation, from food allergens to religious requirements to the rules set by the Americans with Disabilities Act. In accommodating all of these needs, it helps to limit the special requests to medically or religiously based ones. “Many times we see that when a registration list comes in, it has an empty field where each guest types in any kind of meal preference,” says Ruby, “and most often they are current diet requests and not something medical or religious in nature. Planners then struggle trying to create menus or order special plates for sometimes 200 or more ‘special requests.’ I once had a repeat [church] group that was for 3,600 people over three days with all meals plated. Two years ago they left this field open and had 230 special requests. This year they only offered a medically required section and the count went down to 29.”
To ensure that things go smoothly with medical and religious dietary requests, a partnership needs to be established between planners and attendees founded upon a combination of education, communication and foresight. To address some of the concerns planners have expressed, I compiled a list of pointers for both planners and attendees, primarily related to kosher catering, that I hope proves helpful.
“When we are able to speak with a guest who had a kosher or halal request, one of the most frequent [concerns they express is] they are never sure if the product is truly certified.” – Paul Ruby, CMP, Associate Director of Event Management at the Sheraton Dallas Hotel and President-Elect of the Event Service Professionals Association
Tips for Planners
- Know what you are asking for. Know what kosher is and is not.Misconceptions can lead to frustration on the part of the planner, as well as overpayment for the product. As an example, the planner at PCMA cited above was not cognizant what a substitution of vegetarian meals for kosher would have meant to an observant attendee. The planner I met at the Tourism Ireland event was mistaken in thinking that the reason for the exorbitant pricing on the meals she was ordering was that a rabbi was needed to bless the food. As Deborah Shapiro, Vice President of Marketing & Operations for Kosher Media Holdings, LLC, explains: “Many people don’t understand that kosher is focused on processes, not blessings. The rabbi affiliated with a kosher certification is merely there as a quality control supervisor, not a religious leader. In a conference setting, for example, a kosher caterer would follow an intricate set of processes that would prevent the meal’s cross-contamination with other non-kosher foods being served.”
This is not the forum to fully explain the nature of kosher, a topic that has been discussed in countless volumes over three thousand years. The easiest way to satisfy kosher consumers is to turn to an outside service that can provide a properly supervised prepackaged meal. Many facilities whose meeting clientele often require kosher catering are probably already familiar with vendors that will satisfy the strictest standards.
- Don’t break the seal. Kosher meals usually come in layers of packaging that are imposing and not pretty to look at. Wait staff may feel compelled to help the attendee by removing all the plastic and aluminum foil to make the doof presentable. Doing so without the kosher diner viewing the package being opened could jeopardize the validity of the supervision. One solution would be to call aside the diner for a moment to open all the packaging or observe it being opened. A preopened meal could mean the attendee will leave it behind.
- Be familiar with the Jewish calendar. While most planners are familiar with major Jewish holidays, there are other that are not as well known. For example, this year, a major international business tourism tradeshow will take place in Las Vegas overlapping in part with the holiday of Sukkoth. While attendees may pay for admission to a conference and request kosher meals for the days they are in attendance, it is more likely they will skip out on sessions that take place over the holiday. (A list of Jewish holidays can easily be found via a Google search.)
- Google is great, but … Contact the city’s local Orthodox rabbinate or Jewish federation to find purveyors of kosher products, or ask the attendee if he or she is familiar with an acceptable kosher merchant in the city. Self-certified supervision, allowed under the consumer protection laws of certain states, is not necessarily acceptable to kosher consumers. A useful listing of generally acceptable kosher supervision agencies and their associated trade logos can be found at www.kosherquest.org/kosher-symbols. “When we are able to speak with a guest who had a kosher or halal request, one of the most frequent [concerns they express is] they are never sure if the product is truly certified,” Ruby adds. “Has it followed the proper chain of custody from preparation to service? The more a planner can do to gather and provide this information and assuredness to an attendee prior to arrival, the better the experience will be.”
- Compare pricing. As noted above, generally, dinner at some of the finest kosher restaurants should not cost as much as what the planners were saying they were charged. If the price seems high, find out why. Is the venue marking up the pricing? Is a service fee by the venue or a delivery charge being tacked on? If after comparing pricing a planner believe the costs of the meals are too high, then they should be negotiated like any other event cost. Restaurants or kosher corporate caterers have websites that are a great source for comparing pricing. Ruby adds that kosher caterers “can offer frozen products that are many times on disposable ware and warmed, or these can be provided fresh and served on china that has been certified. The cost varies widely between the two. Do your homework with the venue well in advance.”
- Retain records. Keep track of attendee requests from prior years, and get feedback from the attendees on the meals. During her years as Senior Conference Planner for the New York State Society of Certified Public Accountants, Tamara Samilenko, now a Guest Relations Specialist at the Chopra Center in San Diego, devised a database of previous requests still in use at the Society today. Getting to know the attendees allowed Samilenko to properly account for meal costs at events, work effectively with venue caterers, and become a hero of sorts to attendees, who knew that she “had their back.”
Tips for Attendees
- Be appreciative of the work the planner is doing. Special meals are part of the event, but do require extra effort to obtain, especially in second- and -third-tier cities. Courteously offer assistance, and express gratitude.
- Communicate requests clearly and in a timely manner. Make sure the venue has ample time to prepare or order the special meal. In many instances, additional arrangements need to be made. Putting the planner and venue on the spot at the last minute is unfair. Also, let the planner know if and when you will not be in attendance.
- Give specifics regarding the requirements and any associated issues. Do not expect the planner to know what you are thinking. Not everyone shares the same knowledge of kosher or other religious dietary requirements. Ensure that all the particulars are addressed (type of food, supervisory agency is acceptable) prior to getting to the event and being disappointed.
- Confirm the special request the day before the event. Depending on the size of the event, there could be tens, hundreds or thousands of people to prepare F&B for. And while each attendee is important, we all make mistakes and information can get lost in the shuffle.
In addition to being the COO of Facilities Media Group, David Korn served as a mashgiach (kosher supervisor) in restaurants and groceries while pursuing graduate studies.
This article was originally published in Facilities & Destination Magazine, Summer 2016 issue. It has been reprinted here with permission.