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Event Catering

This is The PR Pod, the podcast that brings you expert tips for working in PR and finding your niche with your host Brooke Burns. So today's episode is all about event catering and I'm joined by Tess Hodgkinson from The Style Maison to talk about event catering and the elements you'll need to think about when you are managing event catering for your upcoming event. Hello!

I guess to put it simply when it comes to event catering, this really means the food and the drink that are associated with this event. And that sounds very simple. And in some times it can be a very, very simple and easy thing for you to think about. And other times it can be far more challenging.  In addition the food, probably more so than the drink can have a huge affect on an event and how successful it is.

What can happen if the food and the drink doesn't work out particularly well?

I mean, it does leave a bit of a sour taste in your guest's mouth. For example, if there's not enough food, they leave going hungry. They're probably driving in the cab, picking up Maccas on the way home. And we've all either been to 21sts or weddings or work events where you have not had enough food.

I find picking the menu and the drinks, one of the funnest part of organizing the event. I love it. I think you can have so much fun, so much creativity with it. There's so much you can do. And even if you are having your event in a restaurant with a chef, you know, a lot of the time they do create a special menu for your event, depending on what it is. And it's so much fun creating that with them, or if there's a special ingredient that you need to use in the menu as well.

I think another thing that people perhaps don't understand is like, just as much as styling plays a part and location plays a part, the type of food plays an enormous part in the style of event you've got. So if you have a canapé event that is full of really interesting food, that sticks in people's minds versus, you know, we've got a selection of party pies and sausage rolls, and sure people will get full on that, but they're not going to full.

Even if it is an event that that's the type of food you want to present, you can do that in a gourmet way. And I always say, if it is a bit more of a casual event or even a breakfast event that you think, Oh, we can only do fruit, or we can only do little croissants, make them fancy croissants, you know. Make the fruit platters, exotic fruits, have beautiful juices, fresh juices, and things like that. You can make a breakfast event, super fancy, and even down to, you know, kind of playing with details, whether it is a sausage roll, have a fancy ingredient in it that makes it taste delicious. Also the way it’s served when it comes around, I always find super important and it just sets the tone for your event and all those little details. Really people walk away being like, wow, that was cool.

So when it comes to event, I guess the three main execution styles, if that's the right word for it, kind of canapé style event and by canapé that is small finger foods that gets taken around by a waitstaff, a grazing table. So a long table that's set up with, it could be an assortment of cold things, or like a dessert table with a number of different little things that you could snack on. Or, a seated dinner. Those kinds of the three.

Yes. I also say, now you can have a fourth option, which is an integration of both. So you can start off with canapé service and that's kind of seen as your entrée and then you sit down for main and dessert, right? So I think that's quite popular nowadays having that integration with guests, that it can mingle around and mingle with your client as a canapé . And then if you want to sit down and serve them something super special, and you want their undivided attention at a sit down, you can do that for main and dessert as well. So you kind of have best of both worlds.


Good point. You've mentioned that what kind of atmosphere you're going for, for your event. Obviously, if you're going for a party or something's a little bit lighter or you're celebrating something, then you're probably going to be going with the canapé events with food that's circulating. But like you said, if it's a little bit more serious or you, or you require speeches or you are celebrating the launch of a new alcohol product or something like that, where you want them to be a little bit more engagement with that product, then having a seated dinner, we can control those elements a little bit easier is probably the way to go.

Is it appropriate to ask for a tasting prior to the event and should you get charged for that? That's a good question. I think it is appropriate if the client wants to taste the food, say if it is a wine matching, definitely, but no matter what, I think a lot of people do charge for it. Sometimes if you, as an agency or even if you are engaging your event stylist, to help with that relationship and that communication with a caterer, they might waive that fee. If it is someone you do have a good relationship with, but again, you have to think about these people are creating the food for you. They're in the kitchen, they've got to buy the produce and all that sort of thing. So if you're going forward with them and you just trying to select a menu, maybe you can negotiate, waving that tasting fee. But if you're just trying to see what do they like, what they can produce, I think that fee is reasonable to ask for. Yeah. I agree with that.


 In terms of dietary requirements, we laugh because it's changed so much. There’s many different requirements that you need to consider for a seated media dinner. I always ask guests for their dietary requirements always, and I ask them to make sure they let me know their guests, dietary requests. I think a lot of people forget about that and think, well, we just have to care about the main person, but if they're bringing a guest, that person could have their own selection of things that they are allergic to or intolerant to. So I always ask to get dietary requirements and always require those to come in about five days prior to the event. And the reason for that, for those that haven't organized events before is the kitchen may need to tweak dishes to manage the seafood intolerance or the fact that someone can't have garlic or they can't have garlic and chili and dairy and they're vegan. Yes, exactly. So that takes a lot of time and effort for the chef or for the kitchen to be able to make those modifications. And generally they're very happy to do so, but they need that time in advance when it comes to canopy events. Yeah.

Do you ask for dietary requirements or do you just make modifications for canapé events on what you assume? Yeah. We usually make modifications, but with canapé you just make sure you can cater for those needs. You think about always have a vegetarian option, hands down, no matter what you're doing, you always have a vegetarian option. Cause usually that can cater to a lot of dietary requirements. Great. So if you don't like seafood, you can have vegetarian.

Yup. Exactly. And then maybe on the back of that, you do have a gluten free option. You know, even if it's something on the side that you have, that the caterers have just put on the side, but if anyone does ask and we've done that before too, cause I think gluten free is quite high. Now it seems to be a dietary requirement that pops up quite a bit. So if it is a stand-up canapé event, we usually just think about the main dietary requirements and just make sure we have enough canapés for them.

Then sit down, as you said, definitely ask and for the guests as well. For a canapé event usually you'll have more than 20 people. You have seated event it might be 10 to 15 people so that you can ask for those dietary requirements.

I think it's also important to ensure the wait staff are briefed. So if they have someone come up saying, are there any gluten free options they can say, yes, we don't have any coming around right now, but I can go out and get it.Yes, absolutely. And if you are doing a sit down event, you probably do a seating plan. And in that seating plan, write down the dietary requirements next to that person's name and give that copy to the kitchen. So they're fully aware of what's being served and where that person's sitting. If someone does come into the event prior to guests arriving and they make a change to the seating arrangement, which can be done, just make sure you inform the catering or the kitchen of that change, because you would hate to give someone who's allergic to seafood, a seafood dish or something would say food in it.


Great. All right. So what I do when I do my seating plans up for seated media events is, you know, very clearly have the name and who they're writing for because quite often the client is keen to see who's there and where they're sitting. And then I in bright red or highlighted in yellow, make note of any dietary requirements, just so it is very, very clear.

And back to the canapés,  like you said, a vegetarian option, think about it logically you're at a two or three hour event and you have one vegetarian canapé that person or that number of people, if you've got a 100 hundred person event, it's highly likely that you have at least 10% vegetarians there and also non vegetarians eat the vegetarian food. Yes. If you've got one vegetarian quiche, and that's it for three hours, you can only eat so many of those.

That's not a particularly nice experience. So have a think about what that experience might be like for those key allergy or intolerance dietary requirements. And I always say, have a meat option, a seafood option, vegetarian option. And because with the seafood, you might have a pescatarian. So that means they only eat fish or seafood. So you're kind of catering for them as well, have a range of different options to make sure that everyone is fed.

I have also found before if anyone's got some, really, what's the word, not high in tolerances, but things that they are super, super allergic to, let's say something like peanuts, I wouldn't necessarily with canapé ensure there's no peanuts in everywhere. But if someone has a major intolerance, they're going to let you know, because it's for their safety, they need to not come in contact.So they should be letting you know in advance. Then you can let the kitchen know and they can kind of make their adaptions and modifications to make sure they've got something. And that's a big thing. If you're doing a kid's event, for example, like they do at schools just don't have peanuts. They’re just something that I always waive for catering for kids' events, just do not have canapés there. Something to keep in mind. It's just a note or any nuts really because kids' allergies are quite strong and we've done a few kids' events before we haven't had any issues cause we haven't had any peanuts there, but it's better to be safe than sorry.

Let's move on to alcohol. So in my opinion, and don't get me wrong. I love a drink, but I find alcohol is not as important as food because you can get away with having one nice red, one, nice white or sparkling, a beer and soft drinks. And generally people are more than happy. Yes, there's really lots of different and fun ways where we incorporate alcohol to make your unique and have some points of differences. So we're talking about those now.

One of the things that I also wanted to highlight, and this is from years of doing events. If you want a really, really fun event where people are having a great time, then you need spirits. I love wine. I can drink wine all night long. I can drink white wine. I can drink a rose. I can drink red. But the tone of event completely changes when people have a choice of a vodka and a gin and a whiskey or something like that. So, and served in a fun way. Yeah. Picking your cocktails and type of cocktails, the way it's served and presented is so much fun to do when you're planning an event and with our past events it's something that I really focus on because usually you serve a cocktail when people first arrive and that's, you know, that first interaction that you guess are getting as they walk into your events. So think of something that's fun and exciting. If you are going to serve spirits at your event, we've put gold leaf in a cocktail before done fairy floss in champagne coups, which was so delicious and went down a teat, edible flowers as well for a Prosecco event, we had beautiful edible flowers. It just looks super pretty for a summer time on the beach event. So again, think about the look and feel of the event, the style of the event and how to incorporate that style into your drink and even your catering.

And you don't have to necessarily have an open bar. You could have just three or four types of spirits and people can have whatever mixers they want with them. It's not about necessarily just opening up a whole bar when it comes to fun ways to serve alcohol.


What are some of the things that you've done before? So, we've had a bar and we've created cocktails using dry ice. So if you don't know what dry ice does, it creates this kind of a whimsical beautiful kind of like salty, smoky, smoky, foggy, feel to it, which was super cool. We've also had, as I said before, edible flowers. So this was for a Prosecco event where guests could come up and pick what flavor they wanted and what they wanted to add to their Prosecco were like, garnishee kind of making a bespoke drink for themselves. So they garnished with fresh fruit or garnish with edible flowers. It was called Pimp Your Prosecco bar, which was fun. Another thing we've done as well is a champagne tower, which can be very nerve wracking.

Gosh, I think I've definitely done them with you. I think once or twice. Yes I do. Yes. Yeah. For Champagne Taittinger. Yes. And and I've also seen them a number of times and I have to say they just scare the crap out of me. They are very nerve wracking, but if they're done well, it's such a cool thing to do, especially if it's an opening to something and you have people popping the champagne and pouring it on the top. I guess that's something to clarify. If you've not seen a champagne tower before, essentially you have a pyramid of champagne glasses or on top of each other. So literally in like in a pyramid shape and then you pour in champagne, usually from a huge Magnum or it could be from multiple bottles from the top. And then it starts to flow down and fills up the other glasses. Maybe not all of them perfectly, but it's about the impression of that.

If you are doing a champagne tower, my advice is have someone who's done one before, create it. There are companies out there that do create it for you, but have someone to man  it so that when they take the glass, guests aren't coming up and taking it, cause then you're going to have all sorts of bang, everything. No doubt.

Have you had any major issues with champagne towers? We've actually been really lucky touch wood. No, we, I actually can't think of any. I've only done three though. I think it's great and fun, but I try and stay away from it if I can, because it is super new. I'm standing there just worrying. Cause we had it as an entry to an event before and as people walk past, I'm just like, Oh, can you stand over this way? And I, I think, and I, I guess it's depends on the, the guests that are attending your event, if they are media or people who go out and about, and they're socialites, a champagne tower, isn't that new and exciting. So if you're working with a champagne client, it makes a lot of sense if it's for a corporate event where perhaps they wouldn't have been exposed to it, then sometimes can be fun, but just have a think about the people that are attending the event and what would be appealing to.

Yeah, definitely. Absolutely. And also think about if it is a champagne brand, you don't want to put anything into the champagne glass unless the client is trying to promote it as a cocktail mix,  you want to be able to taste it for what it is. And again, that depends on your guests that you have as well. If you are having wine media there, they won't want to taste that champagne mixed with a spirit or anything like that in cocktail form. So really think about your guests and what they're there to experience.

And matched wines can be a great one. And that's not just for a seated dinner. I know one of the events that we did together with Champagne Taittinger, we, I think it was for the launch of a new champagne. And I think that was, we did a tasting throughout the evening. I think we had five champagnes that were matched to canopies or a selection of canopy. So two canopies would come out with champagne, number one and number two would come out with champagne #1. And then what kind of space? Maybe every 20 minutes. So the guests there got the experience of trying five different champagnes over the evening. They were then matched those to the canopies. And so the waitstaff would talk about, and you know, you'll notice the floral notes of this or whatever it may be. And it was a really nice way of getting people to engage with the different types of champagne that, that particular brand offered versus just having five champagnes on offer that they can drink throughout the night and not really having much engagement in what they're drinking at any time.

Yeah. If you can, food and wine match at your event, it makes it work a lot nicer. It makes the guests feel like what they're drinking and eating mixed well together. I remember it would be a couple of years now we did an event with Lynx and they were launching three new fragrances. And so we did an event where all the drinks and all the food were matched to one of the new fragrance from links. I mean, one of my favorite was this lime and peppercorn popcorn. It was like savory kind of pay that went around. Oh, it was so good. I just kept eating it up. It was delicious. And they had this truffled egg caviar kind of served in an egg shell sitting on top of this amazing wooden straw. And that made it look like it was like from a farm yard. And that's another thing that you would work with your caterers and your restaurant is the way it's delivered to guests. Cause it was just so cool thinking, yes, this is a creamed caviar dish yet it's served in an egg shell with a little spoon, what a cute and fun way to eat a canopy and people are going to take photos of that and say, look where I am.

And you mentioned before about your pimp up your prosecco bar. I think carts are a great way to you know,  they visually look right and they can be, they will come as they are meant to be, which was looking beautiful or they can be styled up even more. It could be good as a welcome drinks as a little Aperol spritz cart on your arrival or there's espresso martinis that get served from a cart at the end. I know one of my hotel pub clients a couple of years ago for a Melbourne cup event had a number of these. So it was a, it was a ticketed event. And I think it was for 200, 300 people. And I think they had three or four carts around the event space as well as a normal bar. And I, I think they just had on those available throughout the event. So again, that makes it a more engaging element for guests too.

Oh yeah. If it is a cocktail event or stand up style, try and have an integrative way for guests to touch and feel what they're eating and drinking, especially if it's like two hours, three hours, instead of just standing there at a cocktail table, give them something to interact with. And that's a great way to do it, whether it's food stations or as you said, all those bar options with food stations though, I would definitely recommend having a waiter there. If you are doing a cheese table or an antipasto table, which can look phenomenal, which we've done quite a bit, they do amazing antipasto plates and tables in the center of the room. We always just have someone there sprucing it up a bit. So it doesn't look like the cheese being hacked into. Because I mean, that's can easily happen. People can start hoeing into one section of it and then it looks a little bit gappy. Yes. So, you know, having someone responsible again, that can be from the catering team to just make sure it's all looking neat and timely for the next guest to go in and try something to aid.

Yeah. And you know, if you've got a big event and you're in a big event space, you can have food carts or food trucks or something like that going around the edge. So, you know, you may not have canapé catering at all, but people are welcomed to go and eat whatever they want from any of these food trucks. And again, that can make it really nice and interactive enables them to actually choose what they want to eat as well. Exactly.

So one of the things that you should consider with an event is the fact that you may be able to get

your alcohol sponsored. Can you talk to me about what alcohol sponsorship is? How does it work?


Yeah, I guess it's thinking about, or looking into a partnership with an alcohol brand and bringing them on contract. So it means they give you the alcohol for free for your event, but you give them something in return, whether that is social media posts, or maybe they have a logo on the invitation or media on a media or a media wall. Yeah, absolutely. It's really, it's the negotiation between you and the brand and what they might require. Sometimes they're happy to just donate the stock because they think what you're offering is right on brand and who you're inviting to the event is who they want drinking their alcohol. So make sure when you approach the alcohol brand, that you let them know what type of event your hosting, who is going to be invited. So I think the guests for them is super key. And then as well, you know, what can you can offer them? As I said, how many social posts, whether you can have their logo branding, they could have, like, for example, we've done some sponsorship partnerships with a brand that had an espresso martini cart and that's something they had at the event. And they manage that. We work closely with them, but it's something that they had control over. So if that is an option at your event, that's a great way to save money, but also have a fun, interactive element.

They may be launching something, but you don't know about it. They could have a, a new range or perhaps they've, you know, they've launched a new version of their vodka a month or two prior. So they're in the prime stages of wanting to get awareness for that out there. And your event matches the demographic of, of who they really want to target for them. And like you mentioned, that's really important to think about is it's not just a case of whether someone will provide the alcohol for free. Think about it from the fact that that company or the agency that's managing that alcohol stock has, let's say a hundred cases. They're able to donate for sponsorship throughout the year. So they need to make sure they're getting a return on investment. Absolutely. For providing that. So you therefore have a requirement, like you said, to provide them with the details who's attending your event. What are the demographics age range? They're roughly going to be journalists between the age of 25 and 45, 60% female. They write for beauty publications, blah, blah, blah, blah. If you approach a blokey beer brand, I think it's unlikely. They're going to provide you with free beer because the people consuming that product are not in line with who their natural demographic.

Yeah. Do your research look at what, who their target market is. Do they align with what your target market is and have a look at other events they might've done in the past? Is that something that aligns with what you're looking for? So you don't just approach something that you like to drink. It might work. It might not, but you know, really think about your client and what you're trying to offer at the event.

And something you touched on prior when you were talking about wine and making sure there may not be certain things in a, in, in a champagne or a sparkling wine that the brand wouldn't appreciate. It's the same with alcohol. If you've got these grand ideas of having this amazing cocktail that you've come up with the invention for and involves 17 different ingredients with a particular vodka that may not be how that vodka brand likes to showcase their drink. They may something like Hendricks, Hendricks, gin, and cucumber. So if you have a cocktail that goes beyond what their brand scope of how they like to present in that drink, then they're not going to provide you with the alcohol. So just have a think about any restrictions that they may have on what they, on, how that drink needs to be consumed.

So, one thing that is, you know, we've talked about this previously and it's notoriously difficult to get, right.  How much alcohol is appropriate for guests?  So it's a question that gets, I get asked all my friends get married. I always get a message. So how much alcohol do we need? Yeah. Okay. So let's think about, let's do a media dinner first. So let's say it's a two hour media dinner. What kind of guideline would you work with? I mean, I always think about it as in each bottle, there are five glasses usually. And so if it is a sit down dinner, you would think between an entrees, usually a half an hour, you know, timeframe. And then you've got a five, 10 minute clearing. So say 40 minutes before mains are even served. So I think someone would consume one to two glasses while they're sitting there. Mains usually, again, 40 minutes, it's a bit longer. And then another five to 10 for clearing. So you might get another one to two glasses out of that, and then you have your dessert.

So that's probably a, a bottle of person. And that's, if they're drinking the full amount in that time, again, if it is a sit down and you're doing wine pairing with your food, usually they only have one to two glasses as they sit there and the waiters top them up. A lot of the time with wine events you've got two different wines they want to serve with entree. So you will have you two white. So usually white, you serve first and then you go into your reds and then your dessert wines and, and you start with a champagne on arrival. So usually we'll have like two or even sometimes it's three whites. And if there are that many options available, usually they'll only have one glass for that sit down. Yep. And then it turns over to your red and then you dessert wine as well.

So on the basis of that, maybe do one bottle per person and maybe add an extra case or two as a backup with catering and catering for alcohol and food, always cater more than less. The worst thing that can happen in an event that you run out of something. And look, it's unlikely. In fact, it will not happen if you're at a restaurant, because if they run out of that particular type of wine, they can always supplement with another one. But if you have told a caterer to bring in X amount of wine to a warehouse space, when you went out, that's it you're gone. Yeah. And then you'll have sad guests. Well, you have guests that will leave. Yeah. You don't want to run out of alcohol. That's a no.

And when it comes to a canapé style event, so I guess a little bit more casual, obviously they can be a lot longer those events. So let's say a three or four hour canapé event. Then I feel you can cater more in terms of your beverage offerings. So you might have beer as well, and you might have champagne as well as your white and your red. And you might even have a rose option in there too, depending on your client and their needs. So again, look at the demographic and the split do say male females, males sometimes will drink the champagne, but if there's a beer there, they will probably lean towards the beer. I mean, women as well, drink beer. I love beer. And sometimes I feel like an ice cold beer, and I might have that over my champagne, but usually in my experience with events, the women will go to the champagne and then go down to the white. So with the champagne, you would probably serve that in the first hour. And then you move on to the white. So cater again, thinking that there's five glasses in a bottle, but in that hour, how much would people be drinking? And then you move on to your whites. And again, that same kind of calculations as we'd done before you sit down and beer as well. Some men will just want to drink beer throughout the night. So just think about that at the back of your mind where it, half of them will then also go to the reds and the whites

And another thing to do, if you're not much of a drinker yourself, and you've been tasked with trying to work out how much alcohol have a chat to some of your friends, have a think about which friends are like you and perhaps don't drink much or at all. And which friends drink way too much and find a happy medium, and use them as a guide and ask them, okay, if you were at a canapé event for four hours, how much would you drink? And they'll be able to kind of give you a guide.

There's a couple of other things to consider. When you think about the alcohol consumption, one is what type of event is it. I think in both our experience, people drink a lot more at corporate events. Why is that? They're just there to celebrate, they're there to have fun. I know my corporate events, it is a celebration usually of an end of a development projects or a buildings being built. And they're celebrating that. I think with a media event, a lot of the time they're on the clock. So they, you know, thinking about what they're going to write about. So they need to be a little bit clear headed. Depending on what type of journalists they are, certainly food and drink journalists,  there are multiple events they could attend in a week. So in any one week there could be about out three or four nights a week. So it's not their intention to go out and get drunk. They want to understand what the event is about. Engage with whatever that purpose is, leave the event and that's it. But if you are celebrating an end of financial year event with a team of a hundred people, and it's one of a handful of events you attended a year with that particular company, they're going to celebrate it. So think about that and who your guests are.

And always have still, and sparkling water available, super important. You know, it's our responsibilities for throwing these events for the service of alcohol and drink responsibly and all that sort of thing. But the corporate events differently based on what I've thrown a little bit more of the bigger drinkers, then the sit down, or even canapé style media events, where it is a bit more of understanding the products that we're talking about, tasting everything and really taking it in.

Okay. So let's wrap up and talk through some of our tips for event catering.

So first and foremost, make sure there's enough food. Yes. Oh yes. Make sure that style of food is fitting for the event. And you're catering for most dietary requirements. If it's sit down, ask every guest for their dietary requirements, if it's a canapé style, you know, make sure you have the meat, seafood, vegetarian option, and enough of that vegetarian option too.

Look at getting sponsorship for your alcohol. If you think that clientele is likely to align. So again, a corporate event where if you've got a hundred people from level 24, attending an event at Westpac, I'm very unlikely to get alcohol sponsorship.

One thing we haven't talked about, but it's definitely worth thinking about is being able to return unused bottles of alcohol. So I have had not a lot of experiences, but a couple of times where alcohol suppliers and this could be your sponsored alcohol, but it also could be a bottle shop that you're getting your alcohol from. Some of them are happy to take back to buy back unopened bottles of wine if they've not been consumed. So that could be great for you. It means you can overcater, but you know, you can get that money back. So certainly have a chat with whoever is supplying your alcohol to see whether that could be an option.

And the other thing is, if you are bringing a caterer on to say, you are in a blank space, or you're not working with a restaurant, usually the caterers will assist you with the alcohol purchasing. So when you're chatting to the caterers, just find out if that is a service that they provide or whether you need to bring the alcohol yourself.

Okay. Tess, thank you. It's been great. You covered so much I think. If you would like to get in touch with Tess to discuss anything about events, you can reach her at And if you've got any questions about today's episode, then head to the website and you'll see my details there. And you can drop me an email.

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