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The Ethnic Explosion

The melting pot cooks for caterers In the United States, nearly 8 percent of residents are foreign-born. As a result, a "traditional" wedding feast could include anything from chicken breast and wedding cake to dim sum and shark fin soup.

Sneh Mehtani's booming wedding catering business-she will cater between 350 and 400 weddings this year-grew bit by bit from her restaurant operation.

A native of New Delhi, Mehtani operates two Moghul restaurants along with a 7,000-square-foot catering kitchen in Edison, N.J. The catering arm was born when Indian brides, unable to order Indian menus for their receptions at local hotels, asked her to bring her food to the hotel. She now caters as many as 24 events a week.

Since she began catering 10 years ago, her menus have changed from strictly Indian cuisine to culinarykaleidoscopes. "Since the Indian community came to this country 30 years ago, their children have gone to college and met and married people [of other ethnicities]," she explains. Her wedding banquets reflect these dual cultures. "I've done Korean-Indian weddings, Filipino-Indian, Greek, Italian, Jewish-you name it, we do it."

In contrast, the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose, Calif., deliberately reached out to new wedding business and saw its effort paid back handsomely.

"When the Fairmont opened, the affluent Persian market was holding its weddings in tiny ethnic restaurants," explains catering director George Patten. "Four years ago, we did a couple of Persian weddings for the first time-and did 22 weddings the next year."

The Fairmont picks up ethnic business by word of mouth from wedding guests. The hotel also advertises in newspapers and cable stations that target ethnic markets.

Of the 75 weddings the hotel does each year, just over half are ethnic, Patten says. Besides Persian menus, the hotel specializes in Chinese and kosher weddings. Because of the unique items the kitchen must inventory-such as whole lambs and fish with both head and tail intact-and the work of preparing as many as 10 courses, the ethnic weddings command a price premium. But their volume is impressive, too: Events with 300 to 600 guests are common, Patten says.

What's the best way to go after ethnic markets? Do your homework, advises diver-sity consultant Suzetta Parks, president of Kansas City, Mo.-based Parks and Pennington. "If you don't know enough about the nuances of a culture, learn more. Partner with people who do that work regularly."

Parks warns against making assumptions. "Don't assume you should use big sombreros for a Hispanic event. That could be offensive and stereotypical." Instead, she advises, ask your clients what they want to see at their event.

As multi-ethnic weddings increase, the role of the professional wedding consultant becomes more important, says Lois Pearce, director of ethnic diversity for the Association of Bridal Consultants. Her company, Beautiful Occasions of Hamden, Conn., specializes in weddings. "Couples are not looking to do an exact replica of what they did back home," she says. "They're looking for the industry to provide them with information that they can pick and choose from."

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