Bite-size food: smart service choice or annoying to attendees? Food trucks: on their way out or here to stay? Food fads come and go, but here are a few of the conference F&B trends we think will survive in 2014 (and why).
1. Bite-Sized Portions. With the nation’s renewed focus on healthy eating, event attendees—like the rest of the nation’s diners—are asking for smaller portions. A trend that started with tapas-style servings, bite-size banquet offerings can mean more flavor and variety, such as the house-made charcuterie offerings (pictured right) at Kimpton’s Urbana restaurant in Washington, D.C. Hamburgers have been reduced to sliders and hot dogs have turned into mini corn dogs. Healthy options such as sea-salted edamame can be served in snackable portions. Refine your meal choices and add a touch of sophistication with fries with truffle oil or prosciutto draped with local honey. Mini menus don’t have to mean miniscule flavors.
2. Locally Sourced Foods. Fresh, sustainable items are landing on attendees’ plates as the farm-to-fork movement takes hold as one of the most popular trends for F&B. The shrimp ceviche dish at the Coppola Resorts in Belize, for example, features tomatoes and onions from the local garden and shrimp caught daily by fishermen near local offshore reefs.
3. Meals on Wheels. Food trucks came on the scene fast, serving original creations like Indian-spiced mini doughnuts alongside crowd favorites such as hot dogs and barbecue straight out of roadside mobile kitchens. If you want to give your attendees a different taste of the local cuisine, consider replacing a banquet meal with a collection of food trucks. Fun and fast beats slow and expected.
4. Upscale Comfort Food. Southern food is known for its butter and sheer decadence, but we’re loving the chefs who put their own refined twists on the classics. At Hyatt Regency Atlanta’s signature restaurant Sway, Executive Chef Martin Pfefferkorn lightens up Southern fare with seasonal, local ingredients. His classic greens are cooked with turkey bacon or no meat at all, but still have lots of flavor. Other favorites include the fried buttermilk chicken and 2013 versions of pimento cheese, homemade pies, and shrimp and grits.
5. Veggie-Driven Menus. Vegetarians aren’t the only ones steering clear of steak lunches. “If you sit down at lunch to heavy protein and heavy starch meals, your afternoon is shot and people are doing head bobs in the afternoon sessions,” says Dylah Wallenius, meetings director for the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel. “We make sure there is protein at every meal, but we are modifying menus and pulling off the heavier presentations.” One solution: more veggies—and not just traditional roasted vegetables. Get creative with cauliflower steaks and Mediterranean flavors that go beyond caprese to boost the veggie options on your menus.
6. Creative Serving Vessels. For a while, it might have seemed the creative serving tray trend was getting out of control. (Nobody wants to eat shrimp out of a child’s plastic boat.) But done correctly, creative serving vessels can complement and enhance an event’s theme and food choices. These tiny pails held cassoulet at the Harmony at Hard Rock party at Catersource 2013. “Miniature is still big, but we’ve been seeing a lot more outside-the-box thinking,” says Deborah Carver of Catersource.
7. Vintage-Inspired Menus. Popular shows and films like “Mad Men” and “The Great Gatsby” make us remember when the evening cocktail hour and speakeasy-style cocktail bars were in vogue. Planners who want to bring back the days of yore should go retro at receptions with signature ’60s drinks (think old fashioneds and greyhounds) or more innocent soda-shop–inspired specialty drinks with flavors like vanilla cream, root beer, cherry coke and pink lemonade.