Special is the New Ordinary

Denise-RobinetteThe call came from the planner “I have a 700 person seated plated dinner event and there are 118 special meals”.

In years past when a caterer heard the words “special” meals, it usually meant kosher or vegetarian. Fast forward to 2016…special meal now encompasses gluten free, vegan, pescatarian, lactose intolerant, severe nut allergy, halal, paleo….and the list goes on. As we know, one size does not fit all.

So what does a caterer do when faced with a 700 person dinner…with 118 “special” meals? For you math wizzes out there, that is 17% of the guests saying they have special dietary concerns! .Oh, did I mention, it is open seating with guests seating anywhere they choose. Yes, it gets even better, guests have a choice of beef, fish, or vegetarian…..or so I thought at the proposal stage…3 months prior to the event date.


At first appearance, when faced with this opportunity, it seemed daunting, stressful and a “oh my” type of day. I was buried in spread sheets of over 700 non alphabetical guest names, listing dietary needs from easy to life threatening. With each new day, a new spreadsheet would appear from the client with “updates” with regard to changes, additions, and deletions. Three Advils later, I took a big breath and sat down to figure out what to do.

8 Tips/Steps to Take

  1. Preplanning at the proposal stage … The first step in creating a menu for this size of an event, is to make it as “diet friendly” as possible, without sacrificing creativity, taste and restaurant style quality. The initial proposal addressed the basic diet restrictions, such as no nuts or shellfish, that needed to be addressed for any current catered event. In further conversations with the client I learned that they wanted all individual needs to be addressed. The trend in corporate events is specialty service. I knew our EC kitchen was up to the job!
  2. Planner Data Collection … I was extremely fortunate having worked with this client previously, to know that my client is extremely diligent in capturing all of the raw data. The spreadsheet that he has created provides me with excellent data from which to begin.
  3. Kitchen Review of Menu … It is imperative that before we begin in organization of special meals, that we sit with the Chef to review all of the menu ingredients in each of the courses to be served. Tomatoes, nuts, dairy, wheat, soy, raw garlic, black pepper, red pepper, mushrooms, onions, shallots, are just a few of the “hidden” ingredients that need to be accounted for in preparation of the food.
  4. New Spreadsheet time … with ingredients known, it is now my turn to do a spreadsheet. Each person (in this case 118 people) was reviewed by the Chef and I to determine what they could and could not eat. We were serving a three course meal, with a choice of entrée. I created a spreadsheet with each guest’s course identified.It is key that this spreadsheet is done meticulously with each course and each meal being served to each guest so that there is one master list for the management team. No guess work on the day of the event.
  5. Educating Front of the House Staff … I always find that this is one of the biggest challenges trying to communicate to over 120 staff members who, where, what and when. We, as caterers, all know how to divide our rooms into smaller pods and to work inside out, but with open seating and only a color coded name card, in dim event lighting, one cannot see.I began with a pre-shift meeting with my key special meal team leaders and the captains who were running the event. I knew that if I could educate them in the quickest and easiest way possible, meal execution would go much smoother. This core group of staff is key in spreading the word and getting their team members to be on the same page. Teaching each of the team members to say as a guest approached, “I have a special meal,” we taught the wait team member to say, “Great! What is your name?” Remember, names were the only way we knew who had special meals, no table numbers and no preassigned seating.During roll call, I zeroed in on teaching the wait staff the correct wording as well as making sure that we identified the “special meal” waiters on each team. In my case, I had 16 staff members dedicated to the event checking cards, identifying names and meals, and communicating to the table waiter. Each table was assigned their own special waiter, while each section had special meal team waiters and management to execute.
  6. What is the Kitchen Role in Special Meals … Believe it or not, our kitchen is fabulous with special meals! How did that saying once go…”Special meals don’t upset us!” That is very true with the Entertaining Company culinary team. I had assigned 4 Chefs to the execution of the special meals. The 3 management team leaders leading the special meals, were the only team members workings with the 4 special meal Chefs. This was a much easier way to execute than having all of the waiters screaming in the kitchen that they needed their special meals.
  7. All Guests Served at Once … We talked about the need to have every guest at the table served at once.  This was solved by the planner building into the timeline a 30 minute window during the cocktail reception transition. As guests were making their way into the dining area, we could begin the process of locating special guests and the location of their seats. A 30 minute transition is not unreasonable when you think of how long it actually does take to move 700 guests from point a to point b, and then to have them seated and ready to go.All of our team members , divided into their designated sections, along with the designated 16 members of the special meals team, went table by table identifying and locating the special guests. This was then communicated to the floor captain and each individual table waiter. We knew in advance of our sweep service, what we would need when.The 12 special meal wait team members were able to grab what they needed ahead of time, and fall in line with the waiter sweep for each course. Special guest meals were delivered right along the regular guest meals.Thanks to the planner, that 30 minutes of organization on the floor, with the special meals team, was key to the success of the event.Special-Meals-Catering-Chicago
  8. The Team, the team, the team … Remember, it takes a team of people! From the culinary staff, to the management lead staff, to the waitstaff, to the special meal staff…..it takes an entire team of people to execute.

As I always say, information is power. Data is power. Pre-event organizing and educating the team….will pay off in the long run.