Feeding 6,000 people a day over a six-day period may seem like a huge undertaking—and it is—but for Holly Keeter (corporate events manager for Walmart Corporation) it’s all in a day’s work.
“Food is an experience within itself and can make or break someone’s experience within your event,” she says. “If they leave hungry, they may not have a good experience.”
It was up to Keeter (with the help of Chartwells at the University of Arkansas) to ensure that the 6,000 Walmart and Sam’s Club associates who descended on the University of Arkansas and the surrounding area for the annual Walmart Associates Week and Shareholders Celebration did indeed receive a good experience.
“It actually gets pretty crazy for us,” says Jack Ervin, Vice President of Operations for Chartwells at the University of Arkansas. “When you bring in a large crowd like this from so many different places, the one thing they have in common is breaking bread.”
Communication is key
When planning to feed thousands of people, Keeter said it’s not that much different from feeding a few hundred.
“As an event planner my approach is the same regardless of the size of the event: partnership and clear, timely communication,” she says. “I need to trust the caterer and they also need to trust me.
“There will always be some type of challenge within your event, but teams who manage one challenge well together go into the next event stronger.”
Throughout the week, Walmart and Chartwells worked together to feed the out-of-town attendees. The key to successfully feeding such a large number of people is open lines of communication, Keeter says. “Also, we follow a very strict agenda to keep groups moving.”
Ervin agrees with Keeter, it’s all about the sharing of information.
“We definitely need to get started early,” he says. “We keep copious notes so that we can always stay way ahead of the game, but it really comes down to constantly sharing because there’s only so much we can plan ahead for—we do a lot of it on the fly.”
Feeding so many people (in such a hot environment) proved to be a challenge for Walmart and Chartwells.
“Due to the location of the event, we are challenged with finding creative spaces to feed large amounts of people,” says Keeter. “Most all our eating locations are outside and in Arkansas the weather can be quite unpredictable.”
Fortunately, Walmart was able to solve this challenge several years ago by utilizing a one-level parking garage located under the University of Arkansas’ Razorback training field. For six days, the parking garage is converted into a meal-prep area and dining hall for multiple waves of up to 3,000 Walmart and Sam’s Club associates at a time.
“We pressure wash it, set tables and chairs, and the concrete keeps the rain out and the temperature cool,” Keeter says. “Our caterer does an amazing job building a portable kitchen inside.”
To help transport the food from campus kitchens to the parking garage, Chartwells utilized several large 18-wheeler trucks.
“We need to ensure that the food is still quality, still good, and it’s fresh,” says Chartwells Executive Chef Phillip Schaaf.
In conjunction with meals, Walmart also partnered with a local company called Food Loops, which diverts food waste. For the event, Walmart purchased compostable plates and service ware, and then Food Loops came on-site to divert waste. In that area alone, Walmart was able to divert 9,280 pounds of food waste and recyclable materials.
Another consideration that Walmart and Chartwells had to keep in mind when feeding thousands was the current eating patterns coming out of a pandemic. Are people eating the same? Have their patterns changed (healthier options, consumption quantities, etc.)?
“We have to have enough food options available, so the attendees have some say in what they eat within what is provided,” Keeter says.
When feeding 6,000 associates, it’s not surprising that they will bring with them different dietary restrictions and different tastes.
Together, Keeter and Chartwells worked in consort to ensure that all dietary needs were met for thousands of attendees. Attendees indicated during the event registration whether they required any special accommodations.
Keeter also looked to Chartwells’ catering expertise for recommendations on what to serve since they have a much broader understanding of how to satisfy diverse tastes.
“When creating menus, I also must keep in mind not only dietary and allergy needs but also feeding palates from all over the world,” says Keeter. “I am the expert with my attendees, but the chef is the expert on food, so we each are bringing something to the table."
The menu for the week included many southern classics including biscuits and gravy, barbecue brisket, and fried chicken.
“We obviously want to showcase the flavors of southern cuisine,” Schaaf says.
However, Chartwells also included items that more globally inspired palates could enjoy.
“We do a lot of rice and black beans because we try to be very thoughtful about everything we’re serving,” he says. “But we also want to offer something that’s unique and flavorful because that’s the reason why they’re here—they want their meal to be special.”
Keeping it local
Beyond the catered meals within the parking garage for associates, Walmart also partnered with several local food vendors for the additional outdoor and off-campus events. For example, during both a vendor expo and an outdoor movie night, Walmart brought in local food truck vendors, such as Carsten’s Concessions.
Walmart also partnered with other local food vendors including:
- For National Donut Day (June 3) Walmart partnered with a local bakery who baked 7,000 fresh donuts
- The Java Dudes coffee truck kept the caffeine flowing during a fast-paced week
- While attendees were on the move touring the Walmart home office, they enjoyed box lunches from Jason’s Deli
“We definitely make an impact with this event on the Northwest Arkansas food scene,” says Keeter. “I know I have said this multiple times but building a partnership with your food vendors is so important to the success of your event—extraordinary customer service is important to Walmart and the same is expected of our vendors.
“My favorite quote from Sam Walton (founder of Walmart) is: ‘We're all working together; that's the secret.’ And that is the secret sauce! I am feeding thousands of people, and how I work with all my partners is truly going to make the difference in how successful this event is going to be—creativity, a team that can pivot quickly, and is easy to work with. Every event is going to come to an end, and it is how you manage through them that matters and determines your success.”