Feeding the Masses: Expert Formulas to Help You Plan

June 1, 2007


Expert Formulas to Help You Plan

By Nina Rao

The location is perfect. The food is fantastic. The conversation is buzzing along. Your event is a success.

And then, halfway through, disaster strikes. You run out of chicken kabobs, you run low on crackers, no one is touching the stuffed mushrooms but the cookie trays are looking dangerously sparse.

It is every event planner’s nightmare, and for non-professionals, it is not a far-fetched scenario – which is why most non-professionals err on the side of caution and, instead, wind up with enough leftovers to feed a platoon.

Fortunately, catering experts have some basic formulas that will help anyone plan their food offerings with a bit more confidence and, hopefully, avoid ordering either too little or far too much. Unfortunately, those formulas come with a lot of built-in caveats and exceptions, which the experts have learned to plan for, often through years of experience and trial and error.

“This is by far one of the most difficult tasks for a meeting and event planner,” says Angela Davis, catering manager at Branson’s Chateau on the Lake Resort Spa and Convention Center.

And that’s why John Favazza has one simple piece of advice: turn to an expert.

“Most people spend hours trying to figure out amounts of food when they could have called a professional and we could have figured it out in minutes,” says Favazza, co-owner of Favazza’s Restaurant and Catering and the Rose of the Hill by Favazza’s banquet and reception facility in St. Louis.

But just in case expert help is not an option, here is some basic advice:

The number one question and the basics

The most essential piece of information when planning food for an event is the number of guests who will attend.

“It is the number one question,” Favazza says.

Obvious, right? Still, it can sometimes be tough to answer.

Just ask Stephanie Weiss, a wedding planner and the owner of Ella Weiss Wedding Design, a bridal boutique in Springfield.

In her experience, there are always missing RSVPs or last minute changes to previously sent RSVPs, and that can make it difficult to estimate an accurate head count.

“Luckily a lot of caterers can work with you even a week before the event,” Weiss says.

Most often, Weiss has found that the head count ends up a few short of the estimate, which, she adds, is better than a few higher than the estimate.

“But as long as they have a pretty accurate number, it makes it so much easier,” she says.

Armed with a head count, here’s how the Web site www.recipelink.com suggests you plan. Assume you need 6 to 8 ounces of protein per person for a main course and 2 to 4 ounces of protein per person for a first course. You’ll need half a pound per person if you’re serving one side dish. If you’re serving several side dishes, then figure 5 ounces per person. For an hors d’oeuvre only party, assume you need 12 hors d’oeuvres per person for the first hour and six hors d’oeuvres per person for each hour thereafter.

Other advice comes from Joe LeGrand, co-owner of LeGrand’s Market, Deli and Catering in St. Louis.

He figures he’ll typically get five servings from each pound of sliced meat, such as ham or turkey, and three servings from each pound of side dishes, such as pastas and vegetables. He assumes that each person at an event will eat one and a half pieces of fried chicken or one burger. He counts on one and a half rolls and two crab rangoons per person. Five people will eat one foot of LeGrand’s monster sandwich. He allows for two cookies. An 18-inch vegetable tray will satisfy a group of 50 people and a 48-square-inch cake will feed 24 people.

“Trial and error is how you know,” says LeGrand, who has been in the business for 20 years and caters everything from dinners for two people to parties for 1,000 people.

“You can experiment on your family,” he adds with a laugh.

Exceptions and Warnings

Depending on who is attending, the menu mix, the type of event and how long the event will last, the formulas change.

If the event will be mainly men, for example, then LeGrand assumes four servings of meat per pound (instead of five) and two servings of mashed potatoes per pound (instead of three).

“But veggies I leave alone because guys don’t eat veggies,” LeGrand says. “If you tell me there’s going to be all men there, I’ll add two pieces of chicken per person. If you tell me there’s going to be a lot of kids there, I’ll add more drumsticks.”

Then you have to keep in mind the type of person who is attending.

Favazza has catered events for construction companies, whose employees come in after a hard day’s physical labor. “So they need more food than the regular guest,” he says.

Also, you need to consider the menu mix, says Favazza, who has been catering for 30 years and books events for as many as 3,000 people.

If, for example, Favazza is serving one meat option, he knows he’ll need 4 to 6 ounces per person. In other words, a party for 150 people might mean approximately 50 pounds of chicken. But if for that same party, he’s serving two meat choices – say, chicken and beef – then it’s not as simple as 25 pounds of chicken and 25 pounds of beef. Instead, he’ll need more meat in total in case one choice is more popular than the other. In addition, people will generally eat more meat when faced with two options. In Favazza’s experience, people tend to eat more chicken than beef.

Then you have to take into account how long the event will last and how long each guest will stay.

At www.recipelink.com, formulas change depending on the time of a cocktail reception. If it lasts from 2:30 to 5:30 in the afternoon, then you’ll need eight hors d’oeuvres per guest. If it lasts from 3:00 to 6:00 p.m., then you’ll need eight to 10 hors d’oeuvres per guest. For an open house, the Web site suggests you need to think about how long the average guest will actually stay and base your count on the number of guests multiplied by average stay.

If possible, you should also take into account what else the guests have eaten that day, says Chateau on the Lake’s Davis.

“What was the last meal they had? If it happens to be a heavy lunch with cookies and brownies at their mid-afternoon break, you may choose to order (dinner) on the lighter side,” she says.

But in the end, Davis says, it just might be easier to ask for help from a professional.

“Ask for (our) help in crunching the numbers and quantities,” she says. “Our job is not only to ensure that guests have a great time, it is to assist with the meeting planner’s budgeting as well.”

(Nina Rao is a contributor from Springfield, MO)


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