Meeting Mentor Magazine

July 2024

5 Ways to Make Food Functions Feel Safe Again

Remember when attendees had no idea about all the work that goes on behind the scenes to pull off a great food and beverage event — especially when it came to food safety practices and protocols? What was once considered a potential turnoff now is exactly what will make people feel less wary about group dining during the lingering COVID-19 pandemic.

That’s why, as we continue to work our way back to some semblance of normal — including bringing back some in-person meetings and events — group F&B is going to be all about transparency and communication, said Tracy Stuckrath, CSEP, CMM, CFPM, CHC, president of Thrive! Meetings & Events and a long-standing and outspoken advocate for food safety and inclusivity in meetings and events.

While COVID-19 has not been found to transmit through food — it is passed primarily through respiratory droplets — dining is still going to feel fraught for many people.

“Document the safety protocols that you expect in addenda to all your contracts.” — Tracy Stuckrath, Thrive! Meetings & Events

“Chefs and culinary services have always had food safety policies and procedures in place,” said Stuckrath, who has held a number of webinars on the topic of food safety and COVID-19 over the past two months, including one for Meeting Professionals International and another for MeetingsNet. “Now they, and meeting professionals, are putting additional precautions in place as part of our duty of care to create and maintain a safe environment.”

Here are just a few of her suggestions:

• Find out what the venue’s current overall safety and sanitation protocols are. The American Hotel and Lodging Association (AH&LA) has published minimum sanitation and hygiene standards that most hotel chains have adopted and then adapted to create even more stringent standards, practices, and protocols. Stuckrath advised planners to download those protocols from the host hotel’s website and include them as an addendum on your contract to ensure everyone is clear on what the expectations will be.

• Understand the food safety practices being employed throughout the food supply chain. Before the food is cooked and served to your attendees, it is grown, transported, stored and prepared. Ask your venue what safety practices they require from others in the supply chain. How do they vet their partners and purveyors? What cleaning and sanitizing procedures are in place from the farm to the warehouse to the property’s doors, and then to the kitchen?

• Understand the food safety policies and procedures in place once the food gets to the venue, both in the back of the house and the front of the house. Stuckrath said that, when she asked during a recent webinar about the last time meeting and event planners in the audience had asked about food safety protocols before COVID-19, 71% said never, with only 5% saying they did sometimes. “This needs to be at the top of the list of things we need to talk about,” she said.

What are the protocols, and how are staff trained in them? Are kitchen staff expected to maintain a six-foot social distance while in the kitchen? In addition to COVID-19 issues, how do they handle food allergen cross-contamination control and labeling? How do they ensure that food stays outside of the “danger temperature zone” of 41 to 165 degrees, so cold food stays below 41 degrees and hot food at least at 165 degrees? What are the required hygiene, cleaning and sanitizing procedures? Who is the food safety manager who will be on site during your event? When was their last health department inspection, and what was their score?

• If you haven’t already, draw up food safety standard operating procedures for your organization’s events, including what you expect from your F&B partners. This also should be included as a contract addendum, she said. And include it in your banquet event order (BEO), she added.

“Make sure your expectations on safety guarantees are listed in that BEO: that servers will be wearing masks, and there will be servers behind every chafing dish at the buffet, and buffets will have six feet between every chafing dish. Whatever standards you come up with, document the safety protocols that you expect, and the safety protocols your vendor partners have in place, in addenda to all your contracts.”

• Think about what needs to be rethought. Some elements will be going away: For example, 72-inch rounds can only seat only three people instead of six if you intend to keep them the socially distant norm of six feet apart, she said. Buffets are likely not going to be possible in many locales until a later phase in the reopening, and even then, they likely will involve sneeze guards, rolled silverware, and no self-serve. Water pitchers and coffee urns will be replaced by wait staff service. The 20-minute coffee break will likely need to be rethought as it will take longer for servers to do the pouring and providing individual packets of sweetener and creamer.

And what will you be able to do to provide that fun aspect, the wow factor? “Donut walls will be gone for a while,” she said.

“We all need to eat — it’s the universal experience we all share,” Stuckrath added. “It’s just that now we need to take extra steps so people can continue to enjoy meals together — if a little separated — moving forward.”


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