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Food for Thought

As states begin to relax restrictions spurred by the coronavirus and face-to-face meetings slowly resume, conference dining will no doubt look different. How will we sit together yet apart? Will servers don gloves and masks? Will we ever again stand in line for a buffet?

Tracy Stuckrath has been talking to food service professionals about these and other issues. Before she started helping planners address the needs of people who have dietary restrictions, Stuckrath was an event planner. During a free one-hour webinar in May offered by Meeting Professionals International (MPI), Stuckrath talked about possible changes and modifications to the way we dine and drink at meetings.

Here are five takeaways to keep in mind as you plan future meetings and menus.

To learn more about Tracy Stuckrath and her company, Thrive Meetings, visit

Reset the Table, Reimagine the Room

To accomplish the six-foot gap that defines social distancing, there will be fewer of us at the table, Stuckrath said. Going forward, a 72-inch round will seat three or four, and those seats will also be six feet from those at adjoining tables. Online room layout calculators will come in handy for such reconfiguring, Stuckrath said. There’s no question, though, that room capacities for everything from banquets to breakfasts will shrink. Interesting ideas for handling mealtime logistics are starting to emerge. Among those Stuckrath has heard: dining in shifts so fewer diners can be accommodated in a space, with cleanings between shifts; spreading diners out among more spaces, including outdoors, weather permitting; and having attendees return to guest rooms and having room service deliver meals there.

Goodbye to the Buffet

Self-serve, two-sided buffets will go the way of the Studebaker; they pose too many problems, Stuckrath said, from people squeezed together to sneezes, not to mention shared serving utensils. If serving lines are used, wait staff will do the serving. That means meal service will take longer and labor costs will increase, which will affect agendas and budgets. Box lunches might prove popular because they eliminate a number of contact issues. Plated meals could be served by servers schooled in social distancing and wearing masks, gloves and aprons. More bars will be needed to prevent lines; more bars and bartenders will mean increased costs. Clients will want to ensure that a venue’s personal protection equipment meets the client’s standards. If not, the client may have to budget extra money for PPE.

Working Out Kinks in the Food Chain

From outbreaks in meat processing plants to kinks in distribution, the pandemic has caused problems with the food supply. Stuckrath said those problems could continue in the fall, as farmers, in anticipation of falling demand, cut back on what they plant in coming months. To assuage those problems, some chefs might turn more to locally sourced products. Others, though, have told her they plan to stick with well-known corporate food distributors because they know the processes and procedures those distributors have in place to ensure safety. There could also be a shift from customized meals and menus back to standard menus, Stuckrath said, because having standard menus allows a kitchen to operate in a simpler, more streamlined fashion, which helps with everything from maintaining social distancing to purchasing.

Considering the pressures on the workforce, food supply and transportation, planners should expect food and beverage costs to increase.

By Sharing, Chefs Will Help Diners Feel Safe

Those who prepare and serve your food want you to feel safe, Stuckrath said. “Every chef I talk to says they are going to be more transparent about their practices. They are opening the door to the kitchen.”

Planners will have many questions about safety and training, and they shouldn’t hesitate to ask them, said Stuckrath. Among them are the following: How do venues accomplish social distancing in the kitchen and prep areas? Is the venue supplying uniforms and cleaning them, or is this left up to the staff member? What are the facility’s cleaning schedules and procedures? What PPE is staff required to wear and use? Among the most important questions to ask, Stuckrath said, is whether a food safety manager is on-site and whether staff have been certified by ServeSafe training.

Being Proactive Is a Recipe for Success

By being proactive, planners can supply the answers to the inevitable questions and concerns that attendees raise about food. Stuckrath suggests making an FAQ page about food service and safety a part of every event’s website or app. It’s also a good idea, she said, to make attendees aware that in the current environment, supplying information when they register, whether about dietary needs or attendance at a food function, will be even more important. It may not be as easy to make adjustments and changes at the last minute. To emphasize the need for this information, planners might add disclaimers in registration materials. It is also important, Stuckrath said, to spell out everything to a venue that will be required to assure food service safety. Food safety requirements should be clearly spelled out in the request for proposal, contracts and BEOs.