Food & Beverage: Paring Down Rising Costs


When the worst drought to hit the United States in 60 years combined with widespread crop loss in Africa, it sent grain prices soaring, driving up the cost of beef, pork, and poultry. In the second half of 2012, wholesale prices began to rise. Analysts predict prices could jump 3 to 4 percent on some meat items in the coming months.

“Rising food cost is a definite issue with group meetings,” says Glenna Fulks, former site procurement specialist with Synthes and an Elite Meetings Advisory Board member. “It’s a domino effect made worse by the higher cost of gas to transport food to market.”

Fortunately, by employing a variety of cost-cutting strategies, any meeting planner can orchestrate memorable meals that exceed expectations without busting their budget.

Elite Meetings invited Brian Bruce, food and beverage director of Tempe Mission Palms in Tempe, Arizona; and Julia Bogan, president of the LA-Orange County Chapter of National Association of Catering Executives (NACE) and owner of Small Wonders Catering in Los Angeles; to join Fulks to brainstorm ways to cut food costs.

Their recommendations fall into five categories: trust your F&B director, plan a local and seasonal menu, manage the food segments known in the industry as dayparts, contain beverage costs, and control your booking window.fb4

Trust Your F&B Director
Rising food costs force food and beverage directors to come up with creative solutions for their clients, whether by offering more flexible complete meeting packages (CMPs) or creating products in-house.

“We want to get people on programs that generate more efficiency for them,” says Bruce. “For example, we’ll have four or five groups eating off of the same lunch buffet in what we call a ‘conferee’ dining room. Instead of paying for individual private buffets, we drive a lower cost by putting them on the same menu. It saves on waste and they enjoy efficiencies on menu matching and labor.”

Creating house-made granolas, yogurts, and other bulk products saves clients money and expands menu and presentation options. “That way, the client doesn’t have to pay for the portion-control item that is built into our offering, we get the efficiencies of a bulk program and house-made products at a lower cost to us, and we can add creativity in the service,” Bruce says.

Recently, the purchase of a meat grinder led to a wildly successful, budget-friendly lunch discovery. “Our chef ground fresh beef to produce house-made rib-eye sliders,” he recalls. “He then reduces consumption by putting it on an Evo grill with an attendant instead of in a chafing dish, where the quality of the product declines dramatically. It’s interactive, cooked to order, and the guests have a ball.”

Fulks urges meeting planners to level with their F&B directors. “Put your cards on the table, say this is what you can afford to do, and let them help you,” she says.

Plan a Local and Seasonal Menu
Your meeting’s location and season offer numerous opportunities to save money, as long as you don’t cast your menu in stone.

“Seasonal foods are usually less expensive because they require less manpower to produce,” says Bogan. “But if you want fresh strawberries in January when they’re out of season, instead of field-grown, you’ll be paying to grow them in a hot house as well as transport them. You’re paying more for inferior products.”

Instead, ask the chef to suggest fresh local alternatives. “Chefs can tell you what they are getting a good deal on at any given time,” Bogan says. “And you’ll be contributing to sustainable food sources.”

Manage Your Dayparts
When planning a four-day event months in advance, it’s easy to lose sight of how attendees will be feeling on each of those days. Through the years, Fulks learned to tailor her F&B offerings accordingly.

“Don’t wow them on the first night,” she advises. “That day, they’ve probably changed a couple time zones, they’re tired, and they want to settle into their rooms for the busy day tomorrow. Stick to a reception built around local food favorites, and offer to-go containers for those who want to retire to their rooms.”

On Day Two, replate sliced fruit and pastries left over from breakfast and give it a new look by adding granola bars for use as the mid-morning break. Tomorrow, repurpose the leftover breakfast fruit into smoothies for the 10:15.

A final money-saving opportunity occurs at lunch on Day Three. “By then, they’re tired from early mornings and late nights,” Fulks says. “Knowing this is the last lunch, give them real comfort food: hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill, chicken strips, potato salad, coleslaw, baked beans. Tired people just want to be comfortable.”

Contain Beverage Costs

Money saved on a hosted bar at off-site events could help salvage a stretched food budget. The trick: contain the labor costs without appearing to skimp on the hosted bar experience.

“If you’re having an open bar that charges for packages of four, five, or six hours, instead of paying to add an hour at $14 to $20 per person, I might bring in a wine service during the meal,” says Bogan. “That closes the open bar and can save you a significant amount of money.”

Bogan acknowledges that while hotels may charge more for a hosted bar, they can be a bargain for alcohol-free events. “They include a lot of things like linens and tables that you don’t need to bring in,” she says.

Control Your Booking Window
As food costs rise, meeting planners and F&B directors look to narrow their booking windows to avoid sticker shock just days from the event.

“In general, the booking window is much shorter than it used to be,” says Bruce. “If you’re running a catered event, today you’re looking at 30 to 60 days at most, where you once saw four to six months. With banquets, it has shortened but we’re still looking at six months plus.”

The further out from the event date that contract minimums are set, the greater the risk that rising food prices could alter your F&B plans.

“The closer in you can make your menu selections, the more certain we’ll be to have the most seasonal offerings and best cost-saving options,” Bruce says. “If we can lower our price for an opening reception by putting in a grill station and some passed hors d’oeuvres, and reduce the amount of consumption while still delivering a high-touch service and high-quality product, then that may free up some money to put toward the rest of the event.”


Jay MacDonald

Jay MacDonald

Jay MacDonald is an award-winning journalist, author and blogger who incorporates humor and human interest into a broad range of topics. Follow him on Twitter @omnisaurus

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