by Haley Wilson Freeman
Remember when having a vegetarian meal option at a convention banquet was considered a food-forward alternative? In these days of diverse dietary preferences and specialty diets from vegan to gluten-free, event planners and chefs have their work cut out for them when it comes to creating menus that are crowd pleasers.
As our society has become more culturally enlightened and embracing of individual food choices, accommodating guests with religious dietary customs has become another meal-planning consideration.
Religious traditions from around the world include simple dietary practices like fasting, to more complex ones like restrictions on certain foods and laws pertaining to food cultivation and preparation.
For instance, the kosher diet excludes particular foods and specifies various requirements for preparation and service of kosher food. For food to be certified as kosher, rabbis must examine it to authenticate its handling and processing. Keeping kosher requires that all dairy and meat items remain separate, requiring separate dishes and cooking utensils.
Similarly, Islamic tradition requires that meats are slaughtered under halal guidance, halal being the dietary standard for foods dictated by the Qur’an. Pork is forbidden. Strict adherents will eat only foods that are processed and stored using utensils and equipment that have been cleansed according to Islamic law.
These are just two examples of religious dietary practices that meeting planners are commonly encountering. Here are a few suggestions for catering to the needs of diverse groups:
Know your guests. Since communication can solve a myriad problems, it is wise to ask a few questions at the time of registration that will signal well ahead of time how many special meals you will need to have on hand. Also, ask your caterers if they can accommodate last-minute requests, so you know what your options are if something unexpected arises at the event.
It may also be helpful to know about the lifestyle or cultural norms of your host region. If your event city has a high immigrant population from a particular area, it may useful to do some research on the religious/social customs of that community, and plan accordingly.
Ask the right questions. We all like to have choices, so if you ask folks if they want a special meal accommodation, many will say yes. To discern whether meal requests are necessary or simply a preference, it’s important to ask the right questions.
According to a 2016 survey of 230 meeting professionals conducted by the PCMA magazine, Convene, 23 percent said they asked attendees whether their dietary requests are a preference or a medical or religious imperative.
Additionally, food allergies fall under the protection of ADA, so it may also be a good idea to ask attendees if they have life-threatening food allergies or a food-related ADA disability.
Calculate the cost. One of the most common concerns around special meal accommodations is the additional food cost. Having complete guest information well ahead of time can make a difference. Finding commonalities in the needs of attendees with special meal requests can simplify the task for the kitchen and keep costs to a minimum. For instance, an attendee who requests a kosher meal may be able to eat the vegetarian option. And generally, foods that are kosher are also accepted under halal.
Even with good planning, preparing special meals may still add up to higher catering costs. In some cases, it may be necessary to charge an additional fee. However, many planners shy away from this option, with concerns that a surcharge could appear discriminatory or violate ADA guidelines. In the Convene survey cited above, only 5 percent reported that they charged a fee for special meals.
An ECN reader recently shared a success story. In 2017, 3,000 people gathered in Grand Rapids for the biannual conference of Bruhan Maharashtra Madal of North America. The attendees were mostly Hindu and vegetarians. AHC+Hospitality collaborated with the Devos Place Convention Center and Experience Grand Rapids to host a successful event, which included preparation of 40,000 meals that took into consideration the group’s religious and dietary restrictions. AHC+Hospitality Corporate Executive Chef Josef Huber worked with the meeting planner, hotel staff and culturally focused vendors for a full year to build a menu that borrowed flavors from various regions of India to accommodate the group with flair.
Travel and conference attendance for any person with a food restriction–whether it is for religious or health reasons–can be daunting. Your guests’ ability to carry the day’s food with them or go off-site for meals will likely be limited, and your accommodation can significantly enhance their experience.
Haley Freeman is a writer and a passionate advocate for the environment and sustainable business practices. Connect with her at www.linkedin.com/in/haley-freeman.
This story originally appeared in the September/October issue of Exhibit City News, p. 14. For more pictures and original layout, visit http://issuu.com/exhibitcitynews/docs/ecnflipbook_septemberoctober_2018_o?e=16962537/64174552