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Melissa Johnson is now vice president of Cameron Mitchell Premier Events.

Event Trends In The New Normal: A Catering Expert’s Perspective

Catering and event expert Melissa Johnson of Cameron Mitchell Premier Events shares tips for events during the COVID crisis.

As events slowly return, it can be a challenge for event planners and guests to navigate protocol and state-to-state requirements in the “new normal.” Melissa Johnson, vice president of Cameron Mitchell Premier Events, based in Columbus, Ohio, has been working closely with planners to develop guidelines and practices to ensure that health and safety are the top priorities for any event.

CMPE generates more than $15 million in revenue for Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, one of the largest and most successful independent restaurant groups in the U.S., best known for its Ocean Prime restaurants. Here are some of her best practices and trends she sees evolving:

Photo courtesy Cameron Mitchell Premier EventsJohnson_bread_service.jpg

Bread service by Cameron Mitchell Premier Events.

CMPE exceeds Ohio’s health and safety guidelines. All guests attending CMPE events are required to check in upon arrival at a “Welcome Wellness Table.” They are required to sanitize their hands, provide their names, and sign a waiver that they are symptom-free, do not have a temperature over 100, and agree to all of CMPE’s health and safety protocols. “This helps us with our own contact tracing in case it’s needed,” Johnson says. Other practices include:

  • Hand-sanitizer stations are placed at each entrance, at restroom entrances, and throughout the venue.
  • "Sanitation stewards" clean common areas and restrooms, fully stocking sanitation items and ensuring safety protocols are followed.
  • Restrooms are limited to two people at a time.
  • All associates wear masks.
  • Associates are required to stay home if they show any symptoms and have a wellness check prior to each shift, as well as have a signed acknowledgment on file of COVID-19 training and safety.
  • Proper glove use and hand washing are required by all staff. The kitchen team must wear gloves, and they have scheduled station-sanitation times.
  • ServSafe-certified associates are on-site at all times.


Photo courtesy Cameron Mitchell Premier EventsJohnson_distanced_tables.jpg

Socially distanced tables from Cameron Mitchell Premier Events.

Currently, Ohio allows groups up to 300 people.

No matter what type of event, guests must be responsibly socially distanced, with tables or guests spaced six feet apart. So Johnson and her team work to ensure the floorplans for each event can fit in the venue. A general rule is 60-inch tables with six to seven people at each, or up to eight to 10 for tables with family members.

  • All food and drink must be served. No one can congregate at the bar. Instead, guests can walk up to a bar to get a beverage from a masked bartender.
  • The line for the bar is marked with indicators of where to stand to maintain social distance.
  • Dancing is currently the most challenging aspect to organize. Johnson says event planners can allow limited dancing that is responsible and maintains social distancing.

Photo courtesy Cameron Mitchell Premier EventsJohnson_serving_preplated_hors_doeuvre.jpg

Pre-plated hors d'oeuvre from Cameron Mitchell Premier Events.

Menus and service have changed for full-service events, with most moving to a plated-style meal.

  • Salt and pepper are available by request.
  • All guests must be seated to consume food or beverages.
  • Hors d’oeuvre may still be tray-passed, but this has to be done in a way to ensure no other guests are touching or able to contaminate any of the food. This is more easily done by offering a pre-plated hors d’oeuvre plate to each seated guest.
  • Johnson and her team can also set up a station with a server or chef attendant, who will place food on plates and pass the plates through an acrylic partition.

During shelter in place, CMPE began offering family meals and kits for curbside pick-up or contact-free delivery.

  • These menus focus on comfort dining as well as being convenient and providing a value for the quality and quantity of food provided.  
  • As many events and meetings are still virtual, these options are a great way for meeting planners and hosts to help participants feel connected, by delivering a meal kit to each participant.
  • The options are also ideal for large families and social gatherings.
  • Johnson and her team are also creating individually bagged meals for offices, corporate clients and virtual events. The sponsors of the event can personalize these bags with added items such as wine or other amenities, notes, names, etc., if they so choose.

Johnson and her team have been getting requests for outdoor weddings and social events. Backyard weddings, birthday parties, graduation parties, holiday events and neighborhood gatherings are on the rise for groups of 25 to 50. While she can provide these events “in a box,” Johnson says she is seeing an increase in requests for catering staff to serve at these events.

  • Johnson has created a “Weddings Protocol” brochure to help couples plan their special day during these uncertain times. This includes specific ideas and guidelines for everything from table seating to dancing, music, and how to set up and serve the wedding cake.
  • A fun item she has created are “Patio Packs” for the now very popular socially distanced happy hours. These are small, individual packed bags with a themed snack and beverage, personalized with the name for each person.

Melissa Johnson is managing director/operating partner with Columbus, Ohio-based Cameron Mitchell Premier Events. She manages 75 full-time and 200 part-time team members, generating more than $15 million in revenue for the Cameron Mitchell Restaurant group, one of the largest and most successful independent restaurant groups in the U.S., best known for its Ocean Prime restaurants. In addition to overseeing Cameron Mitchell Premier Events, she is a part-time lecturer at Ohio State University for the special events class and serves as a member of the university’s hospitality management advisory board. She also serves on the Greater Columbus Sports Commission Board.

TAGS: Weddings
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