Babette Pepaj (@BakeSpace) is founder and CEO of BakeSpace.com, which earned back-to-back Webby Award nominations in 2009 and 2010 for “Best Social Network.” She also founded and serves as producer of the TECHmunch Food Blogger Conference series. Previously she spent more than a decade producing and directing reality TV programs such as MTV’s “The Real World” and “Road Rules.” Babette graciously agreed to share her tips for serving great food at your event. Enjoy!
Whether you’re organizing a day of technical panel discussions or a celebrity-driven fundraising banquet, one thing is certain… your guests will be hungry. Last year alone, we produced more than a dozen large-scale events ranging from tasting parties and food blogger conferences to community fundraisers such as Cupcake Camp LA, which attracted more than 1,000 attendees. Each time we stage such an event, we learn something new about how to satisfy a food-savvy crowd. Some lessons are learned the hard way, but others are just common sense. Here are our top five dos and don’ts for planning what to serve at your next event.
1. Understand tastebuds. Obviously you can’t please everyone, but always take the time to do some research so you truly understand the tastes and preferences of the people attending your event. You don’t want to serve vegetarian faire to a bunch of BBQ lovers (or vice versa). Also keep the environment in mind—you don’t want to serve hot soup on a sweltering summer day or ice cream in the depth of winter.
2. Presentation is key. Nowadays anyone with a smart phone can become a brand ambassador. That’s why we always encourage attendees at our food-related events to post photos on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites. When they see food presented in a beautiful way, they’re inspired to share their photos in real time. Too often, lighting gets overlooked amid all the event planning details. Dim lighting can make food look boring and less than camera-friendly. So make an effort to ensure everything is well lit (this means using lights that are bright AND flattering). Also, use any extra space on buffet and dining tables to post signs with the event’s fan page and hashtag info to further inspire posting.
3. It’s all about the flow. We once hosted a “build your own sandwich bar” at a reputable hotel. While it was a great idea, we wound up with a single “bar” and a line of more than 100 people extending out the door. To make matters worse, the hotel insisted on having its staff painstakingly serve each attendee, which made it unbearably time-consuming for guests to move through the line (it also cost us far more than we should have paid in staffing fees). Lesson learned! If you’re going to host a buffet or even a snack bar, make sure you have a way for attendees to get in and out of the line quickly.
4. Don’t be ambiguous. A lot of prep work is done over the phone, so it’s always best to confirm everything in writing and make sure you have every detail covered. When you work remotely with a caterer on your menu plan, much of the conversation may be open to interpretation. This can result in unwelcome surprises, such as the time we ordered a fruit plate and were instead given whole fruit in a bowl. Whole apples! Whole oranges! Who wants to break open a whole orange during a networking event?
5. Don’t rely too much on the venue’s caterer and in-house staff. Your event belongs to you, not your venue’s preferred (often mandatory) caterer. Don’t assume a venue’s in-house staff cares if your food presentation is messy or if there aren’t enough napkins at each table. Your best bet is to assign someone from your own team to be in charge and oversee communication with the venue staff throughout preparation and during the event.
Finally, don’t be afraid to negotiate with the venue and/or catering company. Look carefully at the menu and ask them to justify costs that seem inordinately expensive (why should a small tray of salad cost $75?). Get creative. If the venue permits you to bring food in, try to find food sponsors. This often works best with local specialty providers that are eager for publicity and can make decisions quickly. Also reach out to local food bloggers who can provide vendor recommendations and get you up to speed on local food trends.
Got questions about planning food for your next event? Please feel free to contact me on Twitter (@BakeSpace) or via email to babette at bakespace dot com. Or join us at our next TECHmunch or Cupcake Camp LA event.