The past few months have been tough for our industry. A lot has changed and will forever be changed, including how we serve food and beverage at events. Personally, I hope (and think) we will get back to having fancy buffet displays, preset salads and desserts, and passed hors d'oeuvres, but it will take a while.
According to a recent Dataessential survey, 74 percent of respondents said safety and health are the biggest factors preventing them from dining out in restaurants. The study also revealed that nearly 40 percent of consumers are worried about touching items others have touched, 15 percent are worried about how staff are preparing and handling food, and 43 percent said self-serve salad bars and food bars were seen as "too risky." While this was based on consumers eating out at restaurants, I think we can safely translate those same concerns to event food-and-beverage experiences as well.
So, as you begin think about what hosting the next meal function might look like for your organization, I wanted to share some information and guidance that I have collected by talking to chefs and food-service experts at large hotels, conference centers and catering companies.
To be quite frank, no one really knows all the answers, but what is crystal clear is that communication, transparency and visible food-safety practices are key.
Safe practices have always been important for our food-service partners, but to be honest, most meeting organizers — myself included — often overlook it, relying on or taking for granted that our food-service providers would handle it. The communication about food safety practices typically has been kept behind the kitchen door
Last year, I compiled "A Food-Safety Management Plan Is Essential for Your Event," which offers questions for planners to ask their food-service providers about the food they are serving, where it was sourced and food-safety practices around managing attendees' dietary needs. It did not really cover the nitty-gritty that the U.S. Food Code or international food codes require.
COVID-19 has changed that. Food safety is no longer an issue simply designated for the catering companies, hotels and venues we contract with to provide meals and cocktails at our events. Our stakeholders — clients, attendees, boards, sponsors, vendors — are going to want to know exactly what we are doing to create safe food-and-beverage experiences for them. So we'll need to work with our food-service partners to maximize our confidence in them and minimize attendee concerns.
As we meeting professionals know, the devil is in the details. Therefore, to make this easier on you, below are questions you can add to your catering checklist, to strengthen your knowledge and vetting process of your food-service providers.
Staff Training & Practices
- Who oversees up-to-date food-safety procedures
- How many of the staff are ServSafe food handler-trained and who are they? ServSafe, administered by the National Restaurant Association, is a widely recognized designation for individuals in entry-level positions
- How many culinary-team members have been trained or recently retrained on food hygiene? When did that last occur? How often do you provide the training?
- How many front-of-house staff (servers, banquet captains) have been trained on food hygiene? When were they trained and how often do you provide training?
Sourcing, Delivery, Storage & Prep
- What hygiene practices do you have in place for the kitchen? How often do you clean?
- How do you address the possibility of food-borne illnesses?
- Which food-and-beverage items are sourced locally
- Are you practicing social distancing in the storage, kitchen and prep areas?
- How are you managing social distancing on the loading docks?
- Are you buying prepackaged foods or are you prepping on site?
- What practices do you have in place for third-party delivery drivers and other suppliers who come on site?
- From where do you purchase foods and what are those companies' safety practices?
- Do you have contactless systems for ordering, receiving and storing food?
- How are you handling requests for food allergies and other dietary needs in the kitchen prep areas?
Food & Beverage Outside the Meeting Space
- How can attendees order food in the hotel?
- Do you have restaurants and will they be open? Have the restaurants been redesigned to manage social distancing?
- Are your restaurants managed in-house or by a third party?
- Are you maintaining minibars or have you eliminated them?
- Do you offer room service? What food-safety practices are in place for delivery to the rooms and food being served in rooms?
- Do you have refrigerators in the guest rooms?
- How is the disinfecting and sanitization being handled for them?
- Who is responsible for purchasing food and beverages for your sundry shop? Which food-safety practices are being followed there?
- Will you have complimentary coffee and/water stations
- Are there any other dining options outside of the meeting space?
Cleaning, Disinfecting & Sanitizing
The coronavirus is a small-enveloped virus, which means disinfectants can be used to kill it on most surfaces, so it's important to know how those surfaces are being cleaned.
- What sanitation certification(s) do you have?
- What cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing practices do you have for the kitchen and prep areas and for the meeting spaces?
- What is the frequency of surface cleaning and sanitizing in the kitchen and the front of the house
- Who provides server uniforms and who cleans them? How often are they cleaned?
- How often are linenless tables cleaned, disinfected and sanitized?
- When and how often are linens cleaned and by whom?
Food Service in the Front of the House
- What service methods are you putting place? Do those include boxed lunches, contactless meals, buffets?
- If we need to use buffets, do you have sneeze guards? Do you have enough staff to serve the food so only one person touches the utensils?
- Will items for table service, such as sugar, and salt and pepper — be preset or offered as tableside service? If they will be preset, when and how will each of the items be cleaned?
- Will your servers wear gloves and masks?
- What are your policies about kitchen and banquet workers coming in when they're sick?
- How will you handle coffee, tea and water service?
Ask what the room capacities were pre-COVID-19, and what they are now when based on 6-foot and 10-foot social-distancing measures. The configurations should take into consideration service areas as well as guest areas.
- Can we do staggered eating times to limit the number of people in the rooms at one time?
- How many people fit around the various tables sizes you have available? Learn the established maximums that have been approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (cdc.gov), and/or approved by local and state government.
- What is your plan to limit contact between waitstaff and guests?
- Are face coverings mandated in your state/city? Can we require your waitstaff to wear face coverings if they have direct contact with guests?
- For action stations, can you add partitions between the food and the attendees?
- Do you have hand sanitizer and/or contactless hand-sanitizing stations for attendees to use?
- How can we minimize the number of attendees congregating in the reception area and bars?
- Do you have a process to ensure attendees stay separate while waiting to enter the food-and-beverage room?
- Where will our group enter the space?
- Can we use different doors for the entrance and the exit?
- Where are the bathrooms in relation to the room where food and beverage will be served? Do the bathrooms have entry/exit doors with handles?
- Can we limit the number of employees allowed simultaneously in break rooms?
- With larger staffs, do you have communication boards or digital messaging to convey preshift meeting information?
Some other new factors to take into consideration have to do with how closely we want people sitting next to each other.
Technically, to keep attendees six feet apart at a typical 72-inch round table, you would have to triangulate three people at one of these tables. Seating four keeps the diners six feet from the person across from them, but only four feet from the person next to them. And then you have to keep the tables themselves at least seven or so feet from each other.
The amount of square footage you'd need for such a dinner would have to skyrocket. By my calculations, you would need two-thirds more space to get everyone in while giving them enough breathing room.
Time will tell how planners and attendees choose to handle this situation.
There are so many questions we can come up with. Those listed here will help guide you to finding the right partner for you.
It is important to note that policies will vary immensely between hotels, convention centers, restaurants, conference centers and caterers, and not every event scenario will align. Nor does each of your suppliers have the answers already compiled. And since so many people were furloughed during the past few months, many staff members might not have been trained for the new reality.
The chefs and culinary experts I have talked to are definitely working together to find solutions and ways to keep us and our attendees safe. They realize they need to communicate more and be more transparent. Ask the questions. Get the answers you need, and be sure to share what you find out with your stakeholders on your event websites and apps.
One final reminder: While COVID-19 is highly contagious from person to person, it has not been shown that it passes to humans through food. However, dealing with the pandemic has heightened our awareness of food safety, which, in my opinion is a good thing for meeting organizers, attendees and food-service partners.
Tracy Stuckrath, CFPM, CSEP, CMM, owner of Thrive! Meetings & Events, is an expert in food safety and allergies.