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Catering at Events in the Wake of COVID-19

Catering pro Abby Borden suggests innovative ways to serve event guests safely.

As a foodie, I have been worried about the restaurant industry, wondering how to support my favorite small businesses, local haunts and friends who are chefs, waitstaff and bartenders. As an event producer who specializes in food and beverage, I’ve been contemplating “what now?” and how do we accommodate our guests while maintaining social distancing?

I love working on the food side of events, as it’s hospitality on a grand scale. The definition of hospitality is “the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors or strangers.” This tradition started years ago, with simply hosting someone in your home to share a meal--with social distancing, how can we still maintain that personal touch?

Many in-person events have pivoted to live-virtual events. Technology has not yet gained us the ability to taste, touch, smell or savor things virtually--so how can we still enjoy food?

  • Many chefs have showcased their restaurants take-out offerings, and included a Zoom cooking class alongside--the best I’ve seen has been done by Billy Harris here in Los Angeles. It’s a great opportunity to get some facetime with your favorite celebrity chefs beyond their Instagram Stories!
  • Some caterers and planners have thought “Gala at Home”: Host 10 friends for a dinner party in your living room, while enjoying a virtual broadcast! We’ll provide everything from table, chairs, centerpiece and food--and even pick up the dirty dishes when you’re done!
  • Curating one’s own meal kit or giftbox.  JJ |LA is taking cues from Blue Apron or FabFitFun subscription boxes, and delivering the goodies to attendees ahead of time.

Undoubtedly, guests are going to want the opportunity to enjoy a night out--so here is what I anticipate they’ll see when they get there:

  • Food trucks! Grabbing your order at the window? Sure! I think we’ll see more trucks pulling up to events, and producers getting creative about dressing up the window, or thinking about how we can serve guests faster from them.
  • Goodbye, buffets! Waiting your turn in a social distancing appropriate line to serve yourself is unlikely. I think stations with pre-packaged items are more likely, encouraging “grab and go.”
  • Similarly, lines at the bar will have to be expedited. Perhaps the pre-batched cocktails found on recent take-out menus will follow us to events!
  • Staff wearing masks and gloves. Event teams are going to get creative—think black or colored gloves and masks to match the theme of the evening, so the guest experience doesn’t feel overly sanitized.
  •  Seated dinners may convert to cabaret-type setups. This could be intimate tables of two, rather than sitting with strangers, all facing the stage, at least 5 feet away from the row in front. Guests won’t have to say “excuse me” while squeezing in between chairs.
  • Plate covers and cloches won’t just be utilized in a “Beauty and the Beast” montage! These may be brought back for seated dinners to “protect” food from kitchen into dining room.

Some challenges to consider with these actions:

  • We can’t expect guests to wear masks if they’re going to be eating.
  • How do we make prepackaged items still look appetizing?
  • How will all the extra protection--masks, gloves, plastic wrap and boxes--affect our environment? Packaging and disposables generate a lot of additional waste, just when the industry has made moves to support sustainability!

What I’d love to see:

  • Bento boxes! Growing up in Japan, I enjoyed quite a few of these convenient meal boxes in the school lunchroom and even at baseball games! If you look at these on Pinterest, you will find they can be themed, include cute characters and offer beautifully arranged food art. Bento boxes would offer a fully curated meal for each guest that is appetizing for both the eyes and stomach.
  • The development of apps for events. Apps have already been used for check-in and auction bidding, why not expand their use to placing your drink order and meal selection on your phone, to be served at your table?
  • Smaller, intimate events at restaurants. This encourages guests to dine out again, while supporting local businesses that will already have precautionary measures built in.

Working from home when event production is typically “hands on” has been a transition. I miss my event family--the vendors, caterers and team members whom I have spent countless late nights, early mornings and weekends with. Now, we’re spending a great deal more time on the phone brainstorming--while I pace my living room to get those steps in!

This time has expanded our capabilities, encouraging each other to think outside the box, and I look forward to celebrating a victory with the family, as soon as possible.

Abby Borden is the owner/principal producer of Los Angeles-based Table Set Go, offering freelance event planning and catering coordination. She was included in the 2019 edition of the Special Events “25 Young Event Pros to Watch.”

TAGS: News
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