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Special Events

Guest Room: Q&A on Catering Consultants

Stephen Denison explains the next wave in catering professionalism

As special event producers take to the road - replicating events thousands of miles apart or staging them in exotic locales - a new professional is emerging: the catering consultant. The consultant acts as an intermediary between the client and the local caterer to ensure the caterer meets the client's goals. Catering expert Stephen Denison discusses what skills to look for in a consultant.

Special Events Magazine: Why would a client use a catering consultant?

Stephen Denison: Companies who use consultants effectively have learned that a good consultant will save them time and money and provide them with an event better than what they could buy on their own. Good consultants will be able to purchase a great menu well enough to justify their own cost, elevate the existing service and do this while seamlessly enhancing the producer's design.

Q: What makes a good consultant?

A: Good ones should really know the purpose of the party and how

F&B plays into the event. They should know how to purchase effectively, including specifications on portions, pieces and positioning. They should know food costs better than the chef from whom you're buying.

They should interact with the caterer's front-of-the-house [staff] to lift the service level at the event.

Great ones will also have affiliations within the industry. They will have worked with personally or know a close colleague of the chef, F&B manager and general manager with whom they're hired to work - the real decision makers.

They will be able to bring physical enhancements to the party: subcontractors - such as sushi chefs - or special products - caviar, boutique wines - or their own generals - maitres d'hotel, chefs - to work with the caterer, adding value to the event.

Finally, they should raise the standards of the industry, leaving caterers with menu designs and service methods that they will adopt as their own.

Q: Can you give an example of the role played by a catering consultant?

A: Lexus has built a team for its annual dealer meeting. The meeting site changes from year to year - Maui, San Francisco, New York, etc. The two-day event includes an opening night reception followed by a long next day including a business meeting, the new car reveal, a car salon and reception - and sometimes dinner - with a headline entertainer such as Rod Stewart or Elton John. The team includes a travel company, a car salon producer, a business meeting producer, an event producer and a catering consultant - me.

The dealers have come to expect a few things from Lexus parties: an opening night reception with great indigenous "local" cuisine, fine wines and good hooch, as well as a car salon with simple but high-quality sophisticated cuisines that allows the cars to be the stars. Lexus expects us to provide their dealers with something superior to anything else out there in the market.

Q: Who needs a catering consultant?

A: The glib answer is anyone who has a lot at stake. Lexus dealers have been spoiled with great venues and sophisticated cuisine. They also expect a certain level of service that is not necessarily available in convention centers or by some institutional caterers, or even by some four-star hotels.

Sometimes a catering consultant is brought in for one quick specific need. I've seen clients frustrated with numerous marginal tastings bring in a consultant just to fix one menu presentation. I've also given my analysis and suggestions to menus over the phone. I've also simply called the catering manager of a hotel to discuss what it is the client is really seeking.

Q: How are the catering consultant's services priced?

A: Fee plus expenses. Any enhancements for the party that the consultant provides - caviar, sushi, specific staff - get passed on to the client at the direct wholesale cost. Markups are hidden fees and defeat the purpose of a consultant, which is to help prioritize the budget expenditures. Ultimately the client pays; sometimes, though, the quick fix is absorbed by the producer as their cost of doing business.

Lexus considers my cost as an investment, with returns yielding many times multiple their actual expense.

Lexus is great to work with. They give me the simple marching orders, which are to provide their dealers with the best - and no waste, please.

Stephen Denison is president and partner with McCall Associates, a full-service catering firm in San Francisco. He can be reached at 415/552-8550.

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