As originally seen in Associations Now.
No one wants the same turkey sandwich boxed lunch or boring dinner buffet line at their next meeting. While over 50 percent of meeting planners are trying to reduce their food and beverage budgets, according to Successful Meetings, you don’t have to overextend your budget when offering unique, fun, delicious food at your next conference.
The final day of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) conference every year is a Zoo Day or Aquarium Day, handed over to the host site to plan. In 2017, the AZA annual meeting was hosted by the Indianapolis Zoo, the location for Zoo Day. The zoo and the culinary team at its catering partner, Centerplate, knew they wanted to create food experiences guests would be talking about for weeks. Here are four tips that helped AZA and the Indianapolis Zoo wow attendees:
Cook or assemble food in front of attendees—or even let guests create their own concoctions.
Zoo Day included a lunch, happy hour and dinner all built around stations. During the two-hour happy hour, attendees could stop at the Pretzel Galore station to choose from a wide variety of fresh pretzels—rods, twists, nuggets, squares and chocolate-covered—before selecting from items to sprinkle on top and several dips for dunking. The chip station provided fresh kettle chips with a choice of three toppings: Japanese bonito spice, truffle and sea salt. The happy hour included a beer garden with local breweries offering craft beer samplings.
Dinner included a salad station with three varieties of salad. Each was served in a martini shaker and shaken before presented to a guest. But the day’s food highlight was one of the dinner desserts: liquid nitrogen popcorn on corn-cob–shaped cornbread with a blueberry chutney on top. The popcorn rested at the tip of the cornbread so it appeared to be popping out of the corn.
“Everyone had so much fun with the liquid nitrogen popcorn because once you pop it in your mouth you’re blowing smoke out of your mouth,” says Pat Cummings, Centerplate general manager. People were asking strangers to take photos and videos of them eating the popcorn—and sharing the images on social media with the conference hashtag.
Attendees returned to the station, asking for more popcorn, and guests “oohed” and “ahhed” when the chef would make the popcorn, causing smoke to billow out of the back of the pavilion.
“Anything you can do live is a wow factor—that’s how I try to approach everything, from the biggest event to the smallest event,” says Indianapolis Zoo Executive Chef Edward Yows.
Beyond the extraordinary visual of the popcorn, the team focused on aesthetics with even the simplest of food. A fruit station sounds straightforward, but the Zoo Day fruit station was a multi-tiered, colorful display of carved animals that guests noticed as soon as they entered the room.
The team added flowers to another display, but went a step further. They placed tiny mechanical butterflies in the flowers. Attendees thought they were real butterflies until they inspected them up close.
Yows and his team created the Zoo Day menus by first considering what was available locally. Indiana ranks No. 2 in popcorn production in the U.S. and is one of the largest pork producers.
Fried pork tenderloins are a huge Indiana tradition: Indiana tenderloins hang over the bun on all sides, the size of two or three regular-size burgers. They’re nearly impossible to finish in one setting. The zoo culinary team wanted to showcase this tradition without stuffing attendees. They made small pork tenderloins but put them on slider buns so they’d hang off the edge just like their larger cousins. Instead of serving them with traditional pickles and yellow mustard, they elevated the condiments, offering pickled vegetables and locally made whole-grain mustard.
Other dinner options included locally produced duck and beef that were humanely sourced. Vegetables, cheeses, charcuterie and condiments were also purchased from local providers.
“Whenever possible, we encourage food service partners to create food and beverage menus with eco-friendly options in mind,” says Melissa Howerton, AZA senior vice president of member services. That includes buying local and “customizing menus that combine our desire for sustainable choices and the need for varying dietary requirements. This allows for flexibility to do what they do best and gives them a little more room for creativity,” she says.
While focusing on offering extraordinary food, don’t forget to analyze the room setup. A large room with just a few food stations will look bare and boring. Yet, a small room with too many stations will be cluttered and confusing.
Make sure the room is set up so the flow is obvious for attendees. Include clear signage indicating what each station is, with smaller signs on the tables labeling each food option. Be sure to include and easily identify which foods are gluten-free, vegetarian or vegan.
The room setup also needs to minimize wait time. If attendees have to stand in long buffet lines, they’ll be frustrated no matter how delicious the food. “The last thing we wanted was a 12-food, double-sided buffet line where people had to stand in line,” says Liz Mok, Indianapolis Zoo special events manager. “We knocked that obstacle out right away when we were planning.”
AZA and the Indianapolis Zoo reached high in taste and presentation, but they also aimed to maximize sustainability. The zoo wants its green efforts to serve as a model for new projects and inspire guests to incorporate green practices into their lifestyle. In 2015, the zoo began converting used fry oil from its kitchens into biodiesel that fuels its service vehicles, reducing the zoo’s carbon footprint. The program has the ability to create nearly 32 gallons of fuel every two days.
Furthermore, the zoo eliminated plastic lids and straws on beverage containers several years ago, and the packaging for pre-made grab-and-go items is entirely biodegradable. Specifically for Zoo Day, AZA and its partner aimed for a zero-waste event. Each Zoo Day attendee received a reusable cup, and water and beverage refilling stations were available throughout the zoo. Each food station had descriptive signs for refuse and recycling and lunchtime leftovers were available to volunteers later in the day. The zoo worked with the city of Indianapolis, separating everything into compost, recycle, biodegradable and waste. At the end of the day, 73.5 percent of the waste was diverted from the landfill.
AZA and the Indianapolis Zoo achieved their goal of wowing their attendees while staying within budget and maximizing sustainability. “So many people at Zoo Day go to conferences, go to meetings, and they’ve seen it all,” Mok says. “So we tried to beat what they thought they were going to get.”