Champagne on a Sparkling Cider Budget – Part One
Five Ways to Maximize your F&B Dollars
I am going to say it here, loud and proud – food and beverage management is my favorite part of event planning! Budgeting is another fave of mine, so when I get to put them together I am one happy planner. A little while back in my career, I taught food and beverage management for the Temple University Meeting Planning Certificate Program. Here are some tips and tricks I gave my students on how to maximize your food and beverage dollars.
Repurpose Your Dessert
We have one client that has some pretty tight budgets when it comes to food and beverage spend. The reason they keep F&B tight year over year is so they don’t have to increase their registration fees. As a planner, I totally get that. Although attendees aren’t aware that’s what we are doing. Many treat food at a conference as a free-for-all and don’t realize that a muffin, a piece of fruit and a thimble of coffee for breakfast can add up to $33+ (true story)! As a general rule for clients, we’ve always replated and repurposed our breakfast pastries and fruit for the morning breaks. For this particular client we thought, why don’t we start doing the same with our lunch desserts. We even took it a step further and removed dessert from our lunch buffets and served it for afternoon breaks. If you think about it, do attendees really need all that dessert at lunchtime after they’ve just feasted on a humungous buffet with a dozen offerings? The answer is NO! Of course you’re always going to have that one person who is a little miffed that there was no dessert at lunch. But honestly, we’ve heard few complaints in the more than 10 times we’ve repurposed the lunch dessert in the past year. Most people don‘t mind, and they actually appreciate us spreading out the access to indulgent foods. Food for thought: Keep a bag of individually wrapped chocolates and candies under your registration desk for the complainers. Our JR Global Events go-to is Chocolate Riesen. YUM!
Count Those Sodas
Let’s go back a minute to Food and Beverage Management 101. I taught my students then, and our team now, that every time you have items on consumption you need to count them when they come out of the kitchen and recount them when they go back in. I know it’s the last thing you want to think about when you’re on-site and you’ve got five different fires to put out, but it is important. Here is an example for you. We were a doing a five day program in San Antonio for about 500 attendees. The group was consistently drinking between 200 and 250 sodas each day at lunch. On the last day I was reviewing my catering bills and the soda consumption was 521. I immediately knew that something wasn’t right. Luckily, our team’s food and beverage person was keeping records and his count was 215. It turns out the catering staff inadvertently transposed the numbers! Think about it – that a discrepancy of 306 of sodas at $5.25++ a pop, would have cost over $2,000.00!
Light Something on Fire
One of things we struggle with when we’re trying to stay on budget is how to deliver that WOW factor to an event when we don’t have a whole lotta cash to work with. Here’s something that works out well – when you’re short on cash, light something on fire. No, I don’t mean in an arson kind of way, I mean in a food kind of way. I’m not kidding: LIGHT. IT. UP! Think about a Bananas Foster station at a reception. The presentation and final dish are spectacular, but the ingredients, not so pricey. Your attendees will think it is an elegant (read: expensive) dish, but in reality, it is ice cream, butter, sugar, bananas and a little rum. You probably have that in your kitchen right now (but, don’t try this at home, kids!). The ingredients are inexpensive and the pre-prep time for the kitchen is low. You’ll have to pay a chef fee, but the overall food cost is minimal for the impact the dish delivers. For added flare, make sure it’s served in a pretty martini glass or coupe!
Do the Math on Coffee
Seriously. Can somebody please explain to me why coffee by the gallon at hotels is so expensive? And why the cost per gallon varies some much from city to city? In Portland, Oregon, I’ve paid $65+ a gallon (no tax, yay!); in San Francisco it’s $165+ per gallon. People, it is hot water pushed through cheap beans five gallons at a time. And, don’t tell me it’s labor intensive; it is emptying a huge bag of grounds into a hopper and pushing the start button. But I digress. One of the budgeting pitfalls planners get into is telling the hotel they need unlimited coffee by the gallon throughout the day and then trusting that the hotel is replenishing the coffee only when needed. You need to do your due diligence and do the math to determine how much coffee to order based on attendance. For a group of 200 people I would use the below formulas that I have adapted over the years from the PCMA’s Professional Meetings Management Guide.
AM Break – 200 attendees x 55% / 20 cups per gallon = 5.5 gallons of coffee, 2.5 gallons of decaf (~50% of the regular coffee) and 1.5 gallons of tea (~25% of the regular coffee)
PM Break – 200 attendees x 35% / 20 cups per gallon = 3.5 gallons of coffee, 2 gallons of decaf and 1 gallon of tea
Don’t Be Afraid of the Chef
When you are trying to stay on budget or do more with less, don’t be afraid to ask to meet/talk with the Executive Chef. Contrary to popular belief, the Executive Chef is not some exalted figure that doesn’t talk to the general public. In fact, a lot of them would probably welcome the idea of talking with meeting planners more often. Think about it, chefs are very creative people, and most of the time in a hotel they are churning out the same catering menus day after day. Give them a chance to get their creative juices flowing. Tell them, “Hey, I’ve got about $55 a head to work with. What can you do with that?” Talk to them about how you need to create an impact while staying within a smaller budget. For example, we have an education client that meets in San Francisco each year, but they don’t have a San Francisco-size budget. In addition, their lunches are always during keynote address with a very tight window of time for service. So we have to go with a three-course, plated meal with the first course and the dessert pre-set.
Last year, the hotel’s standard menu pricing started at $89 a head for what we needed. We told the Chef that we had $69 to work with. He and his team accepted the challenge and really went outside of the box to get us what we needed. They did a pre-set hummus and crudité starter, a main course of Mediterranean-inspired couscous salad with grilled chicken and pre-set platters of desserts. They even got creative on the presentation style to fit all of the food on the tables (see photo below). All while coming in at our price point!