Twisted Picnics – Creative Picnic Ideas

Yes, summer is in full swing. What does that look like for those of us planning a family, church or work picnic? What to buy? Where to buy? As planners we have options when it comes to deciding what to eat. This morsel is designed to help you put a twist on the everyday picnic.

The basics: If you’re hiring a catering company there will be an extra charge for paper goods. If budget really is a concern, tell the catering company to leave it off the proposal and bring these items yourself. Also, negotiate the garbage. Who’s bringing garbage cans and trash liners? Where does the garbage go at the end of the event? I’ve been in situations where caterers had to take the garbage back to their offices and put it in their own dumpster.

Twisted: Have everyone bring their own plate, silverware and cups. Make a contest out of who can bring something that’s the most eclectic.

Start with the obvious: Hot dogs and hamburgers.

Twisted: Set up an exaggerated hot dog or burger bar. By exaggerated, I mean load up on interesting condiments, artisan cheeses, for example. If you have the money, take the quality of the protein up a few notches. Let attendees know where your product is coming from and the story behind it. This will assure them that they are getting a better-quality product than standard fare. A recommendation: Call the butcher at the local grocery and talk to him about grinding your meat fresh. By doing this, you can get a higher-quality meat that will taste better on the grill.

Research area farmers and their method of raising cattle. Since I’m always lecturing my readers on the importance of communication, convey this in the invitations. Explain that you are purchasing higher-quality proteins, and you will have their mouths watering as they read the invitation. Another suggestion: A turkey burger is too predictable, so twist it and do turkey sausage. They’re available at the grocery store and delicious on the grill. And they come in spicy and sweet just like their Italian cousins.

Twisted condiments: This is where the fun begins. Have graphics made that show variations for making burger or hot dog “fixins.” Then name them, either by making up your own names or borrowing them from — and crediting — restaurants. Hard Rock Cafe, for example, has a Hickory BBQ Bacon Burger that is very good. For hot dogs, do a dogs-around-the-world theme with regional flavors. Hot dog fixings for the Carolinas are famous but not to be confused with those in Chicago. And don’t forget about the bun.

Side dishes (not twisted): What turns me off most at a picnic is how side dishes are displayed, which is not safely enough! When making or ordering these dishes, I encourage people to maintain a better food awareness and keep food fresh for longer periods of time. One of the better solutions to me means that food items are in several smaller containers so they get switched out more often. This works best because it’s hard to display food on ice, which melts and gets messy. Do bring several spoons for serving because these get messy as well. Stay away from mayonnaise-based items and go to more vinegar. Anything you can use that is fresh from the garden with interesting herbs is best.

Twisted desserts: Look at church cookbooks for ideas about baked goods that are interesting and come from the heart. They have more varieties of cookies then imagined.

Drinks (not twisted): I don’t even need to touch this one because everybody has their own ideas and popular recipes. I do recommend using gallon jugs that have their own ice in separate containers to keep drinks from getting watery.

So that’s my checkered-cloth story for now, and I’m sticking to it,


Six Tips for Banqueting Innovation

When the good folks of PYM asked me to write an article on innovation as it relates to banquets, I, of course, agreed to step up to the dinner plate. When we discuss innovation with banquets, please know that it’s very different from innovation with a restaurant kitchen. Restaurant kitchens prepare food that’s cooked to order. They cook for a small number of people at a given time. Therefore, what is a great restaurant choice doesn’t always translate for banqueting. The following suggestions will work well in a banqueting environment.

Innovative suggestion No. 1: Begin your planning by asking if anyone on the culinary team has any specialties. I recently was working inOrlando at the Portofino Hotel. I made a workspace for myself back of the house and, one afternoon, the pastry chef came in. Turns out he is a high-end chocolate guy who competes on a national level. Had I known that, I would have created a tasting for our guests that deep-dived into just dark chocolate.

Innovative suggestion No. 2: Use the skills of the culinary team to customize a menu. If the kitchen is diverse, and you have a smaller group, do a meal called “home cookin’.” Have it focus on the items that the culinary staffers do best when they have a large family meal. Your guests will have a good time participating in a meal that is special to those who prepare it.

Innovative suggestion No. 3: Everything has a story. You’ll be surprised by how often people want to know that story. Share with your guests the history of some of the ingredients in a dish or why it was chosen. It engages them in the meal and creates conversations. A few years ago I did the menus for an event in New Mexico. None of the guests had ever been there, so I designed a progressive dinner that had each course tell a story about the history of  New Mexico. The amuse-bouche was Spanish tapas, and we ended with modern-day flavors.

Innovative suggestion No. 4: Have a guest chef prepare a meal. Ask the executive chef at your venue about his or her chef friends in the area or contact chefs at the city’s most popular restaurants. You’ll have to pay for the chef’s time, so this will cost some money, but it gets your attendees excited to have someone well-known prepare some specialties, especially if their schedules are so packed that they don’t have any free time.

Innovative suggestion No. 5: If you’re doing a big meeting, add a culinary corner on the event website. It can house information on area restaurants and include local chef bios. Contact a local food critic and hire this person to write a few articles about the area. You also can write teasers about what food is going to be served throughout the conference.

Innovative suggestion No. 6: Church cookbooks. There are no finer recipes in this world than those in a church cookbook. I get recipes — mostly baked goods and desserts — from them all the time and share them with chefs.

Last, I ask that you please keep this in mind: Something that is popular should not be confused with something that is innovative. They are two very different areas. “Popular” has a time frame to it. “Innovative” will have a sense of timelessness.

Please, No Chocolate Fountains!

Valentine’s Day — Feb. 14 is here (or gone). The day we either love, or hate, or the day we would love to hate. It’s always a bit awkward for planners who have an event falling over Cupid’s holiday. Especially if your attendees are primarily men and the destination is out of town. So what’s a planner to do? I recommend embracing the day with a certain amount of political appropriateness. Even the biggest Scrooge warms to a little lovin’ whether they’ll admit it or not.

Here are some suggestions that I have found successful. These ideas can be used all year long, too. Lean to the “cheeky” side with your fun factor. Make the dessert a bit more special at the primary meal of the day. Example: An ice cream sundae bar with lots of toppings. Display a note letting attendees know you are doing something special for them.

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Banqueting Venue Options – Looking Around

Usually I write my monthly morsel about an experience after it happens.

Today I am writing it at the beginning of an event. A client of mine hired me to do an event in the Washington, D.C.-National Harbor, Md., area. The event instructions were simple: casual get-together with beer and wine for 150 to 200 guests. The food instructions were to purchase what made sense for a limited budget.

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