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More than Just a Meal

Edmonton event companies cater to changing tastes

Shaw Conference Centre focuses on sustainability and inclusiveness with all its events CREDT: Shaw Conference Centre.

According to some of the best Edmonton event professionals, their service is all about providing a personalized experience. This isn’t always an easy task—catering to a growing, diverse city means that tastes change fast, and the only way to keep up is to listen carefully.

An Unrestricted Menu

For some people, walking in to an event, sitting down and helping themselves without a second thought just isn’t possible. Dealing with a dietary restriction is a challenge anywhere, but it can be especially difficult at a catered event. You don’t want to embarrass the host or go hungry, but sometimes what’s on the menu simply isn’t an option.

As Edmonton becomes more diverse, cultural dietary restrictions have become more common. Health- and lifestyle-based dietary restrictions are on the rise too, as more people opt to go vegan and gluten-free. Of course this is all in addition to the many people who live with severe allergies, celiac disease and other medical conditions that limit their diet. Over the past few years, Steven Marsh, owner of Elizabethan Catering, has seen dietary restrictions become the rule rather than the exception at events, leaving chefs no choice but to be prepared.

“Certainly dietary issues have come up in a huge way,” he says. “That is way more than it was even five years ago. Every single event we have now, we have special dietary needs to accommodate. It can be tricky, but it’s something we have to do.”

Setting the Scene

When it comes to making an event memorable, venue and setting are just as important as what is on the menu. If an amazing meal is hard to forget, then an amazing meal served out of a neon orange food truck will forever be a vivid memory.

Wendy and Dean Gossen are co-owners of Bully Food Truck Inc. Though many Edmontonians are familiar with the truck as a curbside mainstay of outdoor festivals and the downtown lunch hour scene, they also offer full-service catering at trade shows, weddings, parties and any other event where there’s room to park. With such a unique setup, food operations that would normally be hidden behind the closed doors of a kitchen often become a part of the event. “People see this bright orange truck, and if you have the right music playing, they’ll come out and just mingle by the truck,” says Dean. “People come up and they ask how the truck runs. We’ve even had people at events say ‘can we come on and have a look, just to see how this works?’”

“The bride and groom will sometimes want to take pictures inside the food truck,” adds Wendy. “They like that kind of stuff.”

Even a venue that appears to be a little more conventional can find ways to stand out. For the Shaw Conference Centre, this means appealing to guests’ desire to connect and engage with each other. “Over the past few years there has been a large focus on integrating technology into events,” says Imran Gill, manager of marketing and communications at the Shaw. “From live streaming to social media walls, event apps and electronic delegate bags/conference kits, events have become digitized. It’s a major reason why we’ve focused on providing strong connectivity and WiFi to our clients.”

History and Heritage

Often the best way to recreate the feel of an intimate family meal at a large, catered event is to bring family history and heritage into it. This goes over especially well at weddings, anniversaries, birthdays and other celebrations that revolve around family.

In a city as diverse as Edmonton, this means that caterers must be prepared to provide fare from almost anywhere in the world.

“Ethnic food has come into our menus a lot,” says Steven. “If we’re catering a wedding for example, the bride and groom might bring in dishes from their heritage—Denmark, India, wherever they’re from. So that has certainly become a popular trend.”

He has seen firsthand the impact that familiar dishes can have on guests. “We had a South African groom who was marrying a Canadian girl,” he recalls. “He was absolutely obsessed with these South African sausages they serve over there. I’ve been to South Africa, so I said ‘do you mean these sausages?’ He was absolutely floored that I knew what he was talking about.”

Then Steven took it one step further. “We actually have some sausage making equipment here,” he explains. “So I said ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll make them for you for your wedding.’ The groom said, ‘That’s absolutely incredible!’ It’s the little things, like that, that make events special.”

Steven does caution that requests for ethnic food should be handled in an authentic way. “Basically we do it very, very honestly,” he says. “The Internet is loaded up with every single recipe ever made, but we prefer to find an ethnic chef who specializes in that cuisine and get them in. That’s how we handle it so that we end up with a very authentic presentation.”

Serious about Sustainability

Respecting your guests’ taste in food is important. Respecting their values is even better.

From locally sourced meat to organic produce, event venues are facing more requests than ever to satisfy the taste for sustainability.

“One of the ways our convention centre aligns with the City of Edmonton’s priorities is by being a leader in sustainability,” says Imran. “Some highlights of our industry-leading sustainability program include our very own urban beehive that produces nearly 90 pounds of honey for our kitchen; 204,952 pounds of food waste composted in 2016; 43 per cent of food purchased from local suppliers; and an on-site garden that produces a variety of tomatoes, peppers, herbs, lettuce, tomatillos, strawberries, raspberries, currants, edible flowers, onions, garlic, carrots, radish, beans, peas, celery, corn, cucumbers, zucchini and squash.”

The Shaw’s dedication to sustainability doesn’t end when an event is over. According to Imran, “3,421 pounds of leftover food [were] donated to the Edmonton Food Bank through the Second Helping Program, a partnership between the Shaw Conference Centre, Alberta Health Services and the Food Bank.”

Whether they’re talking about food, venue, or any other aspect of an event, the best in the business all agree: the key to creating a special and memorable event is to personalize it as much as possible.

According to Imrarn, the Shaw Conference Centre isn’t afraid to take a request and run with it. “Hosting over 600 events per year, we’ve seen event planners do some amazing things,” he says. “From bringing in helicopters onto our show floor to having acrobats hanging from the ceiling and pouring drinks, the possibilities are limitless at Edmonton’s convention centre.”

Personalizing an event doesn’t even have to go that far. According to the Gossens, just providing flexible options lets clients know their experience is important. “We have hundreds of menu choices,” says Wendy. “We have pages and pages of all the kinds of foods that we do.”

Perhaps the biggest key to creating a memorable event is the very thing that makes a home-cooked family meal the foundation of so many fond memories: it’s all about the love.

“If we have the time and availability, we don’t turn anyone down, and we try to do whatever we can to make each event special, says Wendy. “We really love our job.”