Rob’s Rules: Catering Green

April 1, 2008

RobsRules

Featuring Rob Shaefer

This column is meant to provide you with all the practical advice, tips and rules of engagement you need in the meeting and event planning industry. If you have a question, whether it’s how to dress, how to address your guests or what to serve as the main course, e-mail Rob at [email protected] Your question might just inspire the topic of his next column!

 

When I first heard the term “green,” I assumed that people were referring to the color. After figuring out that there couldn’t be that many green-colored events going on, I did some research and started changing my event planning habits. It is amazing how the movement toward eco-friendly living has grown in the past ten years.

I am often asked how to plan an “organic menu” or “green” event. My best advice is to remember that “green” applies to all aspects of an event. From invitations, transportation, table settings and centerpieces, to catering, cleanup and favors, all areas of an event can be examined. To me, “organic” is more than a product, it is a process. And although we like to use the term “organic” and feel better buying it, we must first understand what it means.

The USDA defines organic in the following categories:

• 100% organic

• Organic – 95% of the product is organic

• Made with Organic – Minimum 70% organic.

Organic simply means that food products are grown without chemicals such as pesticides, man-made fertilizers or food additives. It also means that the natural items have not been altered by radiation, bioengineering or sewer waste. The soil the items were grown in has to have been chemical-free for a certain number of years. Animal protein and dairy must come from hormone- and antibiotic-free livestock.

I find that cost is the number one factor when clients are deciding to go “green.” Does it cost more? Depending upon the product and season, it can. But as popularity grows, the cost will go down. I often cite the example of the microwave oven. When it first appeared, it cost $800.00 to $1,200.00. Now you can get one for $40.00. It is far easier and cost-effective buying organic product if it is in season and grown in your area.

One organic grower in Missouri is Ozark Forest Mushrooms. According to owner Nicola Macpherson, “Organic is not a trend or fad – this is the food of the future.” Macpherson states, “People want to know where their food is coming from – we are what we eat.” Her company employs local people using skills passed down for generations. They even use draft horses to haul logs so that the Ozark ecosystem is not damaged. Macpherson grows and distributes organic and wild mushrooms and other organic products. She notes that her products may cost more per pound but they do not lose a lot of weight in cooking and therefore there is less throwaway later. Her mushrooms are grown on oak logs, not on sawdust, and are meatier with more earthy flavor. Chefs around the state have taken a keen interest in her products. Check out her Web site at www.ozarkforest.com.

I think it is important to remember that we live in an age where almost anything can be shipped, including organic items. We don’t grow bananas in Missouri but we can get them anytime from the local grocer. Large banquet facilities get most of their products in bulk through food distributors. A 600-person banquet may not be able to get enough quantity from a local grower so some items may need to be shipped in. Organic farmers are often smaller operations and do not receive large government subsidies. However, buying locally whenever you can minimizes transportation costs and supports our local economy. If your priority is having an organic menu, the savings will ALWAYS appear in your health, your well-being and that of our planet.

When planning a menu, talk to your caterer or chef about your organic options. There may be no way a facility can do a 100% organic menu, but there are probably areas of focus such as regional vegetables, spices or dairy that can be highlighted. According to Chef Patrick Thirion of the Coronado Ballroom in St. Louis, “Organic products are becoming a lot more accessible. People are taking it very seriously.” Thirion is extremely impressed with organic flour and notes that it produces a better bread. He states, “As cost comes down, organic product will have a positive future as an industry standard.”

Remember, earth-friendly also means caterer-friendly! Some companies have invested in energy-efficient equipment, recyclable materials and even biodiesel/hybrid vehicles. They may use eco-friendly cleaning products, phosphate-free detergents and cloth rags. Perhaps the caterer gives back by donating leftovers to local food banks or has adopted earth-friendly waste management techniques. Facilities may include organic beers and wines in their bar packages. Everyone contributes in his or her own way.

Because organic items are free from dyes and additives, I have seen clients note their color varies from processed foods. Beef may not be brilliant red and asparagus may not be emerald green. But you will more than make up for that in flavor and nutrition. A great deal of the appearance depends upon the creativity of the culinary team, but keep in mind that organic product can look different – au naturale!

Although I prefer washable china, glassware and linens over disposables, I appreciate the new biodegradable products on the market. We see plates and bowls made from plantation palms that are 100% biodegradable and compostable. No chemicals, dyes or synthetic materials are used to manufacture them. Polylactide flatware and dishes made from plant starch look just like clear plastic and biodegrade in four months. Sugar cane fiber products are also biodegradable and come from a sustainable resource. I prefer paper napkins, packaging, signage and invitations made from recyclable paper and printed with soy ink. If you are having an event and using disposables, you can label containers for disposing paper, plastic, glass, aluminum and food scraps for composting. This allows your guests to help minimize waste and may just empower them to do the same at their next event.

Finding organic products is easy through the use of the Internet. Local health food stores generally have lists of organic farmers and distributors in their areas. Entire aisles are now devoted to organic product in most major grocery stores. If you can’t find what you are looking for, ask if it is available to order. Visit your local farmer’s market, buy locally and ask who they recommend. Look for eco-friendly event decor, and ask your vendors questions. Make every effort to conserve energy and recycle.

Rob’s Top Ten Tips:

1) Read labels and find out if a product meets USDA criteria or is certified organic.

2) Point out the benefits of planning green to your clients and guests.

3) Avoid excessive waste with food and beverages. We all want to impress but there is a limited amount the human body can hold at one time.

4) Use biodegradable products and recycle disposables.

5) Even if it means spending a little more, buy from your local vendors and support their “green” initiatives.

6) Change your light bulbs at home and in the office to compact fluorescents and consider energy-efficient lighting options for your event. Soy or beeswax candles look beautiful in the evening.

7) Transport guests using biodiesel shuttles or buses, or even a hybrid limo!

8) In lieu of the traditional wedding favor, make a donation to a local food bank or shelter.

9) Make a difference with your company’s stationery and packaging. Find an attractive yet eco-friendly way to send a message to your client.

10) Be an example at home and at work. The difference starts with you!

(Rob Schaefer is Vice President of Steven Becker Fine Dining in St. Louis. Please send questions or comments to [email protected] Rob will be presenting at the Missouri Meetings & Events 2008 St. Louis Regional Expo – PLANit GREEN – March 24-25. To register for this event, please visit www.MissouriMeetingsAndEvents.com.)

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