Banquets a la Carte

By Robert Trainor Exec Chef, Hilton | October 28, 2008

Banquet dining is no exception to the laws of evolution. Hotels that emphasize creativity and quality in plate presentation and ingredients will capture the lion's share of banquet business in their market. The industry is trending towards consumer expectations that they will enjoy a better banquet experience at a good hotel, than at an independent restaurant. It's a cyclical trend; in the past, consumers expected the best food to be found in hotels, where the owners and managers could better afford to hire, train and retain skilled employees.

To become competitive, independent restaurants increased their emphasis on quality and personalization of banquet menus. They became specialists at off-premise catering as well, capturing a share of the market that had traditionally been the purview of hotels. To cut costs, hotels began to serve more formulaic banquet menus, stereotypically know for their starch and "rubber chicken." The hotel became the venue of choice for event planners that wanted to save money and serve safe, if somewhat bland, fare to banquet attendees. They lost much of their off-site catering business, as well as rooms revenue from lost attendees who neither ate nor stayed at the property.

Today, hoteliers know that to be competitive, they must present a banquet menu that rivals the a la carte experience customers expect from the finest restaurants. Doing so not only brings in food and beverage revenues, but helps put heads in beds as well. Gone are the formulaic days of flat plate presentations that featured a starch, veggie and meat all on one plate. In terms of appearance and ingredients, a plate of banquet food should now be indistinguishable from an a la carte meal presented to a solo diner in a fine restaurant. Banquet menus now emphasize creativity, seasonality and diverse, complimentary textures and flavors. Each plate bears evidence of the chef's personal touch and the old "rules" have been set aside in favor of a more artistic approach.

If you want to stay at the forefront of catering, it's important to give the guests a "restaurant feel" in both food and service. At Hilton Short Hills, we have devised a menu packet that features four a la carte-style menus that are seasonal and reflect what is readily available at the markets during the different times of the year. These menus are generally used as a tool to guide the clients. Approximately 75 percent of our social catering events, where food plays an important part in the success of the evening, have menus that were created for that specific event. In the business segment, the food has become just as important over the last few years. There is more focus on what is available and the quality that will be served. We have found that we now need to take the same approach with our business and social events.

Of course, this evolutionary process, which advances with each banquet we do, takes place in the context of what the client desires for his or her event. Our standard banquet menu has become just a guideline, more of a starting point for discussions with the clients on how to personalize the menu to meet their needs. In the old days, we never did tastings for clients. The menu was the menu and they sort of knew what to expect. Today, clients expect to experience the customized menu as their guests will experience it.

Without a doubt, the increased emphasis on personalized, a la carte-style banquet menus can generate more work for your banquet staff. However, with good planning practices, you can use a growing arsenal of equipment now available to help produce better quality food for large numbers of guests. The versatility of this equipment, and the improved availability of high quality ingredients, can offset increases labor demands on your staff. Thanks to these products, from heated serving tables to hot boxes, menu customization can be achieved with good planning and staff training.

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