A recent “Special Events Magazine” survey of caterers revealed that special dietary requests from guests attending meetings and events now constitute 20 percent of an audience, up from five percent 10 years ago.
While requests for special meals due to religious or medical reasons must be honored, these days, requests are often more a matter of personal preference than necessity. Vegetarian, gluten-free, vegan, and organic are common and easily accommodated requests. Things get more complicated (and expensive) when guests request specific food items or preparation techniques. Last week’s requests included steamed vegetables only, a particular brand of coconut water, and meat sourced from a specific vendor. The most challenging are people who walk in and announce their restrictions, expecting to be accommodated on the spot.
In our “have it now” society, guests don’t realize that catered events don’t have the flexibility of restaurants and that the menus for meals at a private home, the president’s official residence, for example, are planned well in advance. There is no larder behind the kitchen door stocked like a gourmet grocery store. Options for unexpected substitutions are often quite limited. What’s an event planner to do?
While it won’t always be possible to accommodate all requests, our job is to make everyone feel welcome. The foods we serve are perhaps the most personal way to do so.
The best way to prepare is by thinking in advance about the guest list, your locale, and the capabilities of your caterer. Caterers report the Millennial generation is the most apt to make special requests. More than half of the top ten vegetarian cities in the U.S. are university towns. If you live in one them, it goes without saying that you should be prepared to host many vegetarians at your events. If your alumni include a high percentage of people who observe religious dietary laws, obviously, you need to plan accordingly.
Discuss the guest list with your caterer in advance trying to anticipate special requests. For a served meal it is preferable to select a menu that can be discreetly customized so that all plates look the same. For example, a beef entrée with several sides of vegetables can be easily modified by substituting the meat with a vegetarian product and keeping the same sides.
On a buffet, offer a wide variety of options labeling each food, noting which are vegetarian, which have common allergens such as nuts or seafood, and which are gluten-free so that guests can select the foods that meet their needs.
Create a special request drop-down on computer registration sites or on rsvp cards. Limit the number of choices to help control frivolous requests such as one we recently received from a woman who replied to attend an academic symposium. She provided a long list of foods she doesn’t like and won’t eat, noting at the end she is, however, willing to eat organic honey.
State a deadline for special requests and note that while you will try to accommodate requests after that time, no guarantee is made. This gives you and the caterers time to prepare and some wiggle room when people show up at the last minute demanding a special meal. One word of caution: When one events planner recently took dietary requests online, the responses jumped to 30 percent of the guest list.
If you’re the one with special dietary needs, it’s polite to confine your requests to restrictions based on serious needs (allergies, religious laws, vegetarianism) vs. simple preferences (you don’t like tomatoes). Always make your needs known when accepting an invitation. If you forget, it is poor form to put your host on the spot by expecting to be accommodated when you arrive. Instead, simply avoid or discreetly decline the foods that you cannot eat and catch a snack on the way home!