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Everyone in the events industry knows that a well-fed attendee is a happy attendee. So while venues prepare to reopen for business events of up to 50 people, the Food & Beverage divisions have been hard at work designing new menus and ways to serve them up that are in-line with the latest safety standards to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and which will cause a ripple of delight in their guests. The Planner spoke to some leading South African venues to find out what they have in store.

 

Thought for food

Casper Nieuwoudt, Sun International F&B Services Manager: Hospitality, believes that simplifying the preparation and plating of food will be critical going forwards, to minimise physical interaction in the kitchen while still producing a quality offering. This will be especially true for large events, when they are eventually allowed.

He says, “Prior to COVID-19 if we held a banquet for 500 people, we could have had 25 chefs standing next to each other in a production line doing plated starters. Now that is obviously no longer possible and as an industry, we have to revise our menu options. COVID-19 is testing our creativity and adaptability.”

“Prior to COVID-19 if we held a banquet for 500 people, we could have had 25 chefs standing next to each other in a production line doing plated starters. Now that is obviously no longer possible and as an industry, we have to revise our menu options.”

Nieuwoudt also notes that lockdown will test and strain our food supply systems, with potential blockages for the delivery of fresh food posing the biggest risk. This could drive the trend of eating locally grown food and farm-to-table dinning that has flourished in recent years.

Spier is one such venue that grows many of the fresh vegetables that go into its dishes. (You can read more about this here.) However Eugene Myburgh, the F&B Manager, believes their differential now will be to serve more complex dishes. He says, “After so much time spent at home in recent months, I think people are hankering to enjoy restaurant-quality food; the kind of dishes they wouldn’t typically make at home (either because it is too time-consuming, too difficult, or both). With this in mind, we’re creating various delicious dining options where guests will be able to sit back and truly make the most of their time together with friends and family.”

Examples of what they will be serving up include dishes such as Farmer Angus beef bone broth with celery, burnt leeks, carrot cubes, shredded beef with garlic & rosemary bruschetta, or (for vegans) hoisin baked aubergine with broccoli, cauliflower rice, fried tofu, red cabbage cassolette.

“After so much time spent at home in recent months, I think people are hankering to enjoy restaurant-quality food; the kind of dishes they wouldn’t typically make at home.”

 

 

Food service gets a makeover

A second challenge is how to safely serve food. Spier is planning to forgo self-service buffets and distribute small plates and individual portions – an idea they were considering pre-COVID, to help reduce food waste.

However, buffets will not be scraped entirely. Sun International, which is known for its wide and varied buffets, will be offering a “form of semi-buffet” says Nieuwoudt. This will involve a deli style display of food behind glass counters, be it readymade dishes (individually portioned, and in single serve disposable packages) or the ingredients of dishes that can be prepared on request. Rather than self-serving, guests will be handed their selection.

Tracy Mkhize, the General Manager Operations: Food & Beverage at the CTICC, says they will also continue to offer buffets to clients who want them. However, the design and layout will be adapted to facilitate social distancing, less food will be on display and replenished more often, and staggered refreshment breaks or lunches when hosting multiple conferences will help to avoid congestion in these areas.

The CTICC is also looking at novel ways to serve food and install protective screens between their staff and guests – for example with décor fixtures designed for this purpose, turning a functional need into an aesthetic feature.

The CTICC is also looking at novel ways to serve food and install protective screens between their staff and guests – for example with décor fixtures designed for this purpose, turning a functional need into an aesthetic feature.

Another option to cater for large events quickly and safely is serving pre-packaged meals. Mkhize says, “The new menu-only option at CTICC will include meal packs, individual bowls or nifty little lunch boxes. People rarely enjoy buffet queues, so we have created ‘stations’ where pre-packed meals can be collected from a number of locations within the CTICC venue. Another safer option for our clients would be boxed meals placed on seats.”

Inside the boxes, delegates will find light meals such as barbeque pulled lamb shoulder with aioli, red onion and corn salsa served on a soft roll, or smoked salmon, tomato, feta, cream cheese and iceberg lettuce on a seeded bagel.

Mkhize adds that the CTICC Executive Chef, Roberto de Carvalho, has used the lockdown period to research safe food packaging and presentation options, so there will be no compromise in the visual appeal of their pre-packaged meals.

 

The return of single use plastics

With heightened hygiene measures coming into play, an increase of single servings and pre-packaged meals seems inevitable, and concerns have been voiced about how this will impact the waste footprint of events.

Fortunately, the venues we spoke to have not abandoned their commitment to sustainability in the current crisis. “Whatever changes we introduce to meet safety regulations must, at the same time, have longevity and not be quick fixes,” says Nieuwoudt. As such, Sun International has decided to skip disposable single-use plastic cutlery and polystyrene packaging, and instead use standard cutlery placed in cutlery sleeves with a serviette and toothpick, handed to guests once they are seated. Biodegradable packaging or re-usable receptacles that adhere to COVID-19 preventative policies will also be used.

“We are currently testing a biodegradable cling-film; this is a game-changer as it is one the most used single-use plastics in kitchens the world over.”

“We took a stance at the beginning of the lockdown, to not forget about our responsibilities,” agrees Myburgh. “At Spier, we are fortunate to have a large network of eco-friendly suppliers that we work with, who are constantly coming up with new products – or replacing outdated practices. We are currently testing a biodegradable cling-film; this is a game-changer as it is one the most used single-use plastics in kitchens the world over.”

CTICC is similarly committed to exploring the best options for their events and the environment. Mkhize says, “In the green space, it really is the ‘small stuff’, the little things that count. Like glass bottled water, as opposed to plastic.” She says that where there is a need to use single-use items, they will make use of biodegradable options (such as bamboo crockery and cutlery), while continuing to look out for innovative green packaging solutions.

 

No such thing as a free meal

The increased safety standards that COVID-19 necessitates are adding to the costs of events, at a time when most businesses are under extreme financial pressure. Additionally, social distancing means venues will need to operate at as much as a 50% reduced capacity. As a result, Mkhize believes that new pricing models need to be developed. She says, “We are exploring options that will strike a delicate balance between clients and their constrained budgets, and our ability to continue to host events in a manner that is still financially viable for us. Some of these options may include splitting the cost, reducing our margins, or it may well be a hybrid.”

“We don’t view this ‘new environment’ as a challenge, but rather an evolution of the way in which we service the needs of the broader ‘coming together’ industry, otherwise referred to as the events industry.”

However, despite all the challenges that lie ahead, it’s clear that these businesses are eager to get back to doing what they love and do best.

“We don’t view this ‘new environment’ as a challenge, but rather an evolution of the way in which we service the needs of the broader ‘coming together’ industry, otherwise referred to as the events industry,” concludes Mkhize.