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SHARON OLSON OF Chicago-based Olson Communications admits that combining chain-restaurant foodservice pros with the prestigious Culinary Institute of America may seem an unlikely match. But the pairing, devised as a way to help her clients — prepared-dessert manufacturers Heidi's Gourmet Desserts and Edwards Fine Foods — make contact with key foodservice clients, proved a sweet success.

The concept for the spring “Culinary Visions” event came out of her clients' desire to connect conduct “meaningful dialogue … not just a passing conversation” with industry chains including Starbucks and Carl's Jr., Olson explains. Coordination of the event became a group effort between Olson's marketing communications company and her clients — both part of Sewanee, Ga.-based Schwan's Bakery Inc.

To start, Olson's company sent handmade invitations to a select list of 120 representatives from major casual and quick-service restaurant chains. While the invites ultimately yielded an intimate group of only 15 participants — fallout from the conflict in Iraq — fewer attendees meant more concentrated communication, she notes.

The communication itself took place over three days of programs at Napa Valley, Calif., locations including the CIA's Greystone campus and food mecca COPIA. Through a series of hands-on culinary presentations, seminars and tastings, the restaurant industry participants interacted with both professional chefs and senior executives from the sponsoring client companies.

Among activities Olson counts as favorites was a cooking class at the CIA, where institute chefs guided teams of two participants each through preparation of different international cuisines.

Another instance found each event participant instructed to cut, plate and garnish a sample of the clients' pre-made dessert items “so it looked like a professional pastry chef had served their signature dessert in a restaurant,” Olson says. The activity gave her client the opportunity to demonstrate the flexibility of its product to potential buyers.

Olson says the event achieved its aim, and more. Participants — many of them involved in menu development — got the chance to “be immersed in a creative environment and inspired by some of the leading chefs in the world.” Olson's clients, meanwhile, got ROI results that exceeded their expectations. “The [clients'] national account team and corporate chef were able to set up meaningful sales appointments with all of the guests who participated in Culinary Visions,” she reports.

Olson Communications 445 W. Erie, Suite 109, Chicago, IL 60610; 312/280-4573;

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