An excellent event starts with the appropriate menu. Two seasoned planners, Lynn Armstrong and Holly Hambright, shared their insight on making the food a memorable part of an event.
For a planner, the first item on the menu is to choose a catering company.
That should ideally be done at least three months in advance of the event.
Then, planner and caterer make decisions about menu selection and any event themes. Some planners have an idea of what food to serve; others are open to suggestions.
“I will collaborate with my executive chef to come up with some fun and unique menu proposals for these types of events,” Armstrong said. “Others will ask us to come up with menu proposals, and they will either confirm or make changes to the menus we propose.”
The type of event also can steer the menu, said Holly Hambright, owner of Holly’s Eventful Dining.
“We did a fundraiser for the William Blount Mansion and named the dishes in that manner,” Hambright said. “For an event like the Glass Ball, we used our knowledge of Tommie Rush and Richard Jolley’s preferences and created the menu based around that. We take the lead from the client in that regard. We don’t ever want to be trite or kitschy – theme for a theme’s sake.”
The Glass Ball at the Knoxville Museum of Art celebrated the glass-and-steel installation of Jolley’s Cycle of Life: Within the Power of Dreams and the Wonder of Infinity. Rush, who is also an artist, is the wife of Jolley.
While the selection of a caterer often is made a few months in advance to be certain of availability, logistics such as precise menu and exact budget can be finalized about a month before an event.
“The biggest struggle we have planning menus generally comes down to budget and managing the expectation of just how far your dollar won’t go,” Hambright said.
Armstrong explained that new planners sometimes have sticker shock when they view pricing for a catering venue.
“Most meals at a catering facility include salad, entrée, starch, vegetable, rolls/butter, iced tea, water and coffee service, tablecloths and napkins, as well as the kitchen, banquets and stewarding staff to prepare, serve and clean up the event, so it is actually a very good value for the money,” Armstrong said.
A seated dinner is ideal for formal events that include a presentation and need to stay on schedule, Armstrong advised.
A buffet will take longer as guests fill their plates but can be perfect for more casual events or ones that don’t need to meet set deadlines for a speaker or awards show.
As far as hors d’oeuvres, the length of the reception matters. They are a must with a cocktail reception, Armstrong noted. Planners can save costs with hors d’oeuvres by going with passed offerings, where portions are more controlled, as opposed to open table. Hors d’oeuvres can be selected from the Convention Center’s standard menu or customized for an event.
Planners also need to make sure they have enough food for an event without overage that runs up the price. That is where professional caterers really can make a difference.
“We use a formula for production of menu items based on length of the event and whether or not alcohol is involved,” Hambright said.
Buffets are handled a little differently, Armstrong noted, and the Convention Center has considerable expertise in that area.
“We use experience, information about the group – men vs. women, for example – in order to determine which items will be most popular so we can prepare accordingly,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong reminded planners not to “play it safe,” when it comes to large-scale events. Planners often choose simple chicken entrees to make sure everyone is satisfied.
“Based on my experience, I believe guests enjoy coming to a banquet so they can try something new, inventive and exciting,” Armstrong said.
Put your trust in a professional caterer, and attendees are more likely to depart happily with full stomachs – something that would make them come back again.
“On the day of the event, I am here for the duration of the event to ensure the event runs flawlessly for the client,” Armstrong said.
Hambright can manage every minute detail of the meal or oversee the planner’s vision of how the event unfolds.
“We have several clients with whom we have a longstanding relationship that merely give us the general parameters of the event and allow us the freedom to do whatever we want,” Hambright said.
“Then, we have the clients who have been recommended to us or who have attended an event at which we catered, and we collaborate the menu based on their needs and our suggestions.
“We have a general menu that shows our range of dishes and prices but we always say that ‘additional items are limited only by your imagination.’ ”
Michael Tremoulis, an intern at Moxley Carmichael, is a senior at the University of Tennessee studying public relations. He daydreams about meeting J.D. Salinger, smoking a cigar with Winston Churchill or sharing a beer with Jack Kerouac.