The meal started with a baby spinach salad with Texas goat cheese, red flame grapes, Mandarin orange supreme and toasted almonds served with warm balsamic vinaigrette. A Limoncello riesling breast of chicken followed, accompanied by apricot-glazed sweet potato gratin and minted haricots verts. Dessert was raspberry cheesecake, served with a local berry sauce, white chocolate whip and fresh berry garnish. The convention center accommodated special requests from 48 of the guests for gluten-free, diabetic or vegetarian meals.
Not so long ago, convention center catering menus had such little variety it was impossible to tell what city you were in from the food on your plate. Attendees could expect morning break tables filled with sugary pastries and sit-down banquets predictably starring chicken, with a preparation not nearly as imaginative as the meal served in Austin. The fare rarely included local products or flavors.
But times are changing, sparked by demands from meeting planners and attendees, who want the food service to cater to their lifestyles and expanded palates. Creativity, sustainability and variety are now requisites.
“I personally like buffets—you get a little bit more for your money,” says Diane Rehiel, a meeting manager for ASTM International (formerly the American Society for Testing and Materials). “Guests like that, too. They like to pick and choose now. Not everyone wants to eat what’s put in front of them.”
More and Less
Convention center food service managers are listening to these demands and expanding their menu selections far beyond the poultry banquet.
Ovations Food Services, which provides catering at nearly two dozen convention centers nationwide, brings in meeting planners for on-site customer appreciation affairs to thank existing clients and court new ones. The events double as a show-and-tell, treating planners to samples of the company’s capabilities.
At one event at Sharonville Convention Center in Cincinnati, Ovations chefs grilled up a four-course dinner worthy of any Michelin-rated restaurant. The menu included jumbo tiger shrimp and seared sea scallops with pepper mango relish, cilantro and butter grilled lobster tail served with a grilled endive and radicchio topped with blood orange vinaigrette, chimichurri grilled rack of lamb and skirt steak with grilled ramps. The grand finale was pineapple and jalapeno sorbet with grilled raspberry pound cake.
It’s the kind of spread that leaves meeting planners buzzing about the possibilities for their next event, says Pam Plageman, regional vice president for Ovations. “It gives them ideas and sparks creativity.”
With an eye on increasing variety as well as reducing waste, Rehiel appreciates the move toward an assortment of miniature desserts in lieu of big slices of cake. “You might order 65 plated dinners, and you got 65 cakes, but sometimes only 49 of those would be eaten,” she says.
Health-conscious attendees are looking for smaller portions not only for dessert, but throughout the day. “Years ago, we used to have bagels and Danishes for breakfast,” says Rehiel, who manages nine major events and 75 to 100 smaller meetings annually. “People don’t want to eat that now. It’s fruit, yogurt, cheese and hard-boiled eggs.”
As vegetarian options become standard on convention center menus, Ovations chefs have taken to flavoring non-meat dishes with vegetable stock instead of chicken stock. They are also accustomed to special requests like low-carb meals.
Ovations was put to the test at Duke Energy Convention Center in Cincinnati, when a group from the Educational Testing Service spent three weeks in town grading advanced placement exams. “We fed them breakfast, lunch, dinner and two snack breaks every day, which equates to about 60,000 meals,” says Plageman. “As you can imagine, educators are very health-conscious, so we had to create menus that included everything from vegan to paleo to kosher.”
Spicing Things Up
Attendees are eager to sample local cuisine and twists on classic favorites, especially in a city like Austin, which is known for its food scene. Brad Kelly, executive chef at Austin Convention Center, whose catering services are run by Levy Restaurants, is happy to oblige.
Kelly has always loved food from his home state of New Mexico, particularly its special local chilies and Spanish and Native American influences. In 2000 he arrived in Austin, where a thriving ranching industry made smoked meats especially popular. He calls the fusion of the two cuisines “New Texican.”
“When I get the opportunity to meet with meeting planners and build menus for them, I expose them to our style of cooking,” Kelly says. “Typically, it’s received with a lot of enthusiasm.”
Three of Austin Convention Center’s most popular menu items are cilantro lime grilled chicken with Hatch green chile Alfredo sauce, a fried chicken flatbread sandwich with butter and Sriracha sauce, and a hot fudge nut cake with pecan ganache.
When accommodating requests for special diets, rather than designing a menu around the dietary restrictions, Kelly says he prefers to “choose something that sounds good and fun” and adjust the preparation of the dish to fit that specific need. To make the food as unique to Austin as possible, the convention center spends about 20 percent of its food budget on items from vendors located within 100 miles of the city.
Virginia Beach Convention Center, which is serviced by catering company Centerplate, emphasizes local products, such as ham, peanuts and Atlantic seafood, in its menus. The convention center also has an on-site herb and vegetable garden.
“Our culinary department kind of threw some herbs in the ground” when the garden was planted seven years ago, recalls Beth Williamson, general manager for Distinctive Gourmet, a division of Centerplate. Today, the garden’s design and care are much more meticulous. The entire culinary staff gets involved in cultivating the 11 raised beds filled with thyme, rosemary, basil, lavender, bay leaf trees, tomatoes, squash and melons. They use this homegrown produce to liven up dishes like pesto-roasted salmon with garden herb cream sauce, orzo pasta salad with diced tomatoes and summer squash, and an assortment of soups and sauces.
While not every convention center catering service harvests food from its backyard, many, like Austin, have joined the farm-to-table movement.
Ovations partners with local providers at nearly all of its locations. Columbus Georgia Convention and Trade Center, for example, gets bread and pastries from a local baker, and fruits and veggies from a local produce company. At another Ovations site, Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center in South Carolina, a local caterer supplies the center’s signature shrimp and grits, while another serves up chicken and waffles and barbecue sliders.
“From the RFP process, we start building relationships with local providers because it’s so important to us to help the community and those small, local businesses,” Plageman says.
Locally sourced ingredients have also made their way into convention center retail food operations. Detroit’s Cobo Center, catered by Centerplate, installed an $8.75 million food court, Detroit Made Kitchen, in January. Selections include home-produced kielbasa, pierogies, pickles and deep-dish pizza.
Buying locally isn’t the only sustainability issue on the minds of convention center caterers and meeting planners. Composting, recycling and donating leftover food are now widespread practices.
“There’s not the waste that was accepted 20 years ago,” Rehiel says. “As a planner, that’s important to me, and I know it’s important for my attendees.”
Virginia Beach Convention Center hires a local company to pick up its food scraps for composting, recycles containers and cooking oil, and donates leftovers to a local homeless shelter. The center also participates in Virginia Aquarium’s Sensible Seafood program to promote sustainable fisheries.
As a LEED Gold-certified facility, Austin Convention Center has a strong commitment to the environment, says Kelly. For 2014, the center is tracking 153,000 pounds of compost diverted from the local landfill. It donates approximately 8,000 pounds of food per year to Austin Baptist Chapel, which has a program to feed the homeless. The chapel’s nearby location ensures the food remains fresh. “They pick it up immediately, and they’re serving it right away,” he says.
Photo credits: Ovations; Virginia Beach Convention Center