It’s the closing general session at #ASAE13. I’ve somehow come down with the worst summer cold/sinus infection I’ve had in at least the last 10 years. Many of my friends seem to be sniffling and sneezing, as well. This has resulted in an unexpected morning expedition to the local CVS. Following two morning learning labs, I’m now eager to grab a bite to eat with my colleagues before Dan Heath takes the stage.
Our preset salads and individual pour salad dressings are delicious – and a great start to the meal. Unfortunately, it’s downhill from there. You’ll have to trust me when I tell you: (a) This is neither my first nor my only disappointing meal service during this conference and (b) This is not all that unusual of an experience for me during most conferences. So, I sit and I wait. And I wait. And I wait some more.
Two at a time, salad plates are removed from our table. They are taken to an undisclosed location that I only imagine to be near B218 – the furthest possible room from our present location in the Georgia World Congress Center. Many of you may recall this long walk from the learning labs you attended earlier in the week. Two at a time, prepared (tepid) meals are slowly walked back to our table.
By now, I’ve clearly identified myself as a vegetarian. As a lacto ovo vegetarian, I require a diet that excludes meat, fish and poultry, but may include dairy products and eggs. Unfortunately, it took several requests (from both me and my tablemates), a desperate tweet and a bag full of a friend’s trail mix before I received my meal. By the way, it came once everyone else had finished eating and the session had started.
As a result of this experience, and at the prodding of some of my friends, I’ve decided to compile the following 10 insights I hope will encourage a new awareness for both planners and suppliers alike as they approach their next food function:
- A lacto ovo vegetarian is not synonymous with lactose intolerance. As an aside, you wouldn’t believe some of the interesting dessert options I’ve been presented when assumptions like this have been made.
- Vegetarians vary. When I first became a vegetarian, I picked up the book Living Vegetarian for Dummies. It outlines the big three: lacto ovo vegetarian, lacto vegetarian and vegan. Know the differences, ask your attendees which they are and communicate accordingly with the chef.
- It’s unlikely that a single, all-encompassing meal that meets the special dietary needs of vegetarians, vegans and those observing a gluten-free diet (and potentially others) will be equally appealing and fulfilling. Unfortunately, one size does not fit all.
- Tofu should not be the protein default of choice. For starters, it’s incredibly bland and it actually requires much more culinary prowess than can reasonably be expected in a banquet environment. Instead, consider beans, lentils, grains, nuts and seeds as alternatives.
- Chances are good there’s at least one vegetarian in every audience. Therefore, vegetarian meals should always be prepared, whether or not they were ordered on the BEO. Additionally, care should be taken to serve all attendees at the same time.
- Servers should be effectively trained in the most efficient way to clear dishes and serve meals. This includes good instructions from their supervisors regarding which tables they’ll be managing, as well as the appropriate use of trays, jacks and hotboxes.
- Whenever possible, suppliers should invest in regular staff and ongoing customer service training. More than once in the last six months I’ve been informed that unsatisfactory service levels were due, in part, to the nature of transient staff.
- For a variety of personal and religious reasons vegetarians have elected not to eat meat, fish and/or poultry. Setting a hunk of meat down in front of a vegetarian, even as a place holder until an alternate meal can be identified and served, will likely not be well received.
- Buffet lines are akin to a culinary guessing game. Although it may be impractical to list and post the ingredients for every dish on a placard, do label for the most common types of special dietary needs and food allergies (e.g., vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, nuts).
- Food allergies are increasingly more prevalent and equally challenging to navigate in a group setting. Here’s a brief primer about event planning and food allergy awareness that identifies the precautions we can take to eliminate possible cross contamination.
So, my question to you is this: Are you familiar with the dietary needs of your attendees? How are they handled? Are your attendees with special dietary needs and food allergies treated like second-class citizens? What will you do to improve their experience moving forward?