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One of the biggest line items on an event budget is food and beverage. So when costs need to be trimmed, naturally, planners will look here first. But considering how important F&B is to the attendee experience, cutting back on meals could risk hurting the gathering.
Fear not. Just because a meal doesn't come with a big price tag doesn't mean guests have to miss out on flavor or impact.
"When you think of 'budget-friendly,' you think of not-so-great food or no choice, but that's not the way it has to be at all," says Christine Couvelier, an executive chef who runs the online Culinary Concierge and creates an annual list of top food trends. She emphasizes that being creative is not synonymous with spending lots of money. In fact, she says, budget constraints can bring out your event chef 's innovative thinking. Here are six tips from Couvelier and other savvy event planners for cutting costs without compromising quality.
Review Event Goals
Every decision a planner makes should be filtered through the question: What is the goal of this event? This makes it easier to identify the essential elements. For example, if the focus is to create networking opportunities, a sit-down dinner not only might be more expensive than something more fluid, but also a less effective way to meet that goal.
And switching to a stand-up event can save money. "Staff and rentals are usually the biggest cost, so you need to first figure out a way to reduce those," says Amaia Stecker, owner and lead designer at events company Pilar & Co. in Washington, D.C.
"Having your attendees stand also reduces both furniture needed and the number of staff to serve them, because you can do food stations."
Determine the Menu's Place
Where the particular meal or break falls in the schedule also helps shape F&B decisions, says Valerie Bihet, director of the Vibe Agency in Miami Beach. "If planning a multi-day event, remember that people will eat the most they can consume on the first day," she says, adding that their consumption falls more and more each subsequent day.
Accordingly, Bihet says that having a buffet on the first day would be a mistake if you are trying to lower the budget, because the constant stream of food will be prepared for a group that will just continue eating. Instead, she suggests going with plated meals or food stations on day one and saving the buffet for later in the itinerary
Increasingly, groups prefer to serve themselves, says Stecker, who encourages planners to incorporate a build-your-own bar so attendees can prepare their food to their own taste and dietary restrictions.
"Again, less staffing and less food waste," she notes. "Also look for food on sticks, which uses fewer utensils and can still be both savory [meatballs, risotto, falafel, Spanish croquettes] as well as sweet [ice cream pops, lollipops, French-toast sticks]."
Taste What the Locals Love
"Spend time at a destination's farmer's market and experience the local tastes," says Couvelier. "Go to local gourmet stores, see what's on the shelves and talk to the people who work there. Identify artisan and local producers."
It might be a beloved baker who makes a great muffin, or a brewer who makes a beer specific to the destination. In talking to people and immersing yourself in that region, you'll come up with experiential flavors and products to put on the menu.
"Then, when talking to the F&B manager about planning your event and fitting it into the budget, throwing in some of those ideas makes it a lot more fun," says Couvelier, who notes that adding just a small local touch like salt from a nearby producer or a sprinkling of local cheese atop a pasta dish can give dishes more flair.
This destination focus should extend to the main ingredients and dishes selected for the meals, dictating what goes on the menu.
"I work in a lot of international destinations, and what might be a lower-priced food in America could be more expensive abroad if it's not readily available locally," cautions Bihet. "This is just one of the many reasons I think it's important to loop the executive chef of the venue or catering company into your menu planning."
Get Creative with Classics
One of the food trends Couvelier identified in her most recent roundup is "cauliflower 2.0" -- the reintroduction of this budget-friendly staple in unconventional presentations and dishes, such as in "steak" form or as the base of a mini pizza.
The "dish of the year," according to Couvelier's trend report, is doughnuts -- in part because of how versatile these snacks are proving. "It doesn't have to be chocolate-dipped," she says. "It could be a savory or sweet-potato doughnut with a buffalo mozzarella center. A client and I once challenged an executive chef to create something with doughnuts, and he made a beautiful doughnut tree on one of the buffet tables -- it was so much fun, but it didn't break the bank."
Another option is organizing a street-food cart festival outdoors, which will get attendees moving and networking while also helping you save on expenses and reduce food waste. Speaking of which, finding ways to cut down on waste is not only good for the environment, it's better for your bottom line. For example, "We're cutting down on the amount of bread or rolls that we're putting out before meals, and no one is saying they are missing it," says Couvelier.
The development of an event menu should be a true collaboration with the executive chef and F&B team. Holding brainstorming sessions together and taking part in tastings increases the likelihood of a more memorable meal for a less onerous price.
"If you go with the basic packaged menu, you could be missing out on more budget-friendly options," says Bihet. "Talking with the F&B team about two to three weeks out from your event will give them a chance to be creative, which they'll always appreciate, and potentially negotiate better prices with their vendors."