Food restrictions in events increase

Each day dietary restrictions increase as part of day-to-day of event organizers and catering suppliers. Allergies, religion and lifestyle choices are among the reasons for a number of constraints that must be safeguarded. We talked to some companies and catering specialists in Portugal in order to understand what is the current reality.

Food allergies such as lactose, or other substances, intolerance, or personal choices, such as not eating meat, are realities with which catering professionals have to deal with when preparing an event. José Pedro Santiago, responsible for the supply and control of food quality at Grupo Imppacto, estimates that they exist in more than 50% of events. "For example, last August we held an international scientific congress in which we served individuals from 49 nationalities, having managed to provide familiar delicacies to them all, as well as complying to all restrictions requests, in what intolerances or religious options were concerned," says José Pedro Santiago. And if these situations have always happened at events, he admits that there has been a "slight increase" in regard to restrictions related to lifestyle choices.

Nuno Januário, Culinary Services Manager at APTECE (Portuguese Association of Culinary Tourism and Economics), truly believes this is one of the greatest challenges of modern catering. "It is not about having options for those with restrictions anymore, but equating the menus to try to respond to this need immediately. We're not just talking about the cases where these restrictions are due to health issues, but mainly about a healthy lifestyle. Juices are an example. People increasingly tend to abandon the industrial fizzy drinks and prefer diverse natural juices." The cases have increased in number and specificity. "Portugal is increasingly in the map of major international events and, because we are involved in most of them, we get this perception more and more," he says. The same opinion is shared by Bholding Catering Chef António Bóia, "The growth of these requests is due to several factors. In some cases, it is because each day there are more and more people with allergies and diseases, but there are reasons related to religion and life choices, and also some requests just to be different and because it's fashionable."

At Três Séculos the situation is similar. "We host international events with a rising number of guests from all parts of the world, due to the exponential increase in the number of flights and tourism development, which is reflected in a huge variety of cultures and religions among the participants and influences the gastronomy presented at each event. But this is not only an international trend, as at a national level we have also hosted an increasing number of people with different dietary habits, in which the veggie options and lactose intolerance are those that stand out," explains Miguel Cunha, Events Manager at Três Séculos.

Artur Junqueira, from Ibersol Group, confirms the increasing number of requests for dietary restrictions, indicating that the most frequent are the vegetarian. "Next, there are the allergies and intolerances to certain products, with great preponderance of lactose and gluten. Finally, restrictions also appear motivated by religious reasons. The most common are inhibition of pork and beef and Kosher. Recently, we've had some orders for Halal meals." Other less frequent restrictions are shellfish (seafood) and derivatives and nuts (walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, etc.) intolerance.

Fulfilling these needs is not easy. "On the one hand, it requires knowledge about the characteristics and dietary restrictions of each type of food; on the other hand, between the customer's request and the kitchen there are several intermediaries that can lead to misinterpretations of the information first provided, either due to initial lack of clarity or to inexperience and insufficient knowledge of the organizer in getting to explore the allergy types and dietary restrictions," explains Chef António Bóia. Good communication is thus fundamental to manage all the details. Artur Junqueira, Ibersol, explains the company's system. "We always ask information about dietary restrictions in advance. On the event day, we contacte the person responsible to learn how they are planning to identify the guests who have dietary restrictions. At the production level, we are able to secure any type of special diet, except for Kosher and Halal, that we have to subcontract."

Três Séculos adopts a similar process. "Before each event, we ask the client or the organizer, in the case of conferences, meetings and incentives, to provide us with a series of data in order to do an internal planning and prepare the whole structure and team. Information concerning dietary restrictions is one of that data we try to determine and, in case it is provided, we can prepare ourselves accordingly, guaranteeing a higher level of service quality," says Miguel Cunha.

Nuno Januário, from APTECE, remembers that if everything is well planned, normality is the dominant note. "While vegetarian menus are getting more elaborate, religious ones require more work, but not even those are now very complicated, just watch the amount of Portuguese products with Kosher and Halal certification we have available in case we need specific menus for the Jewish or Muslim communities," he explains.

Costs impact?

In most cases, the impact of these constraints in terms of cost is not relevant. "In what operating costs are concerned, the only oscillation that exists is due to the raw materials cost, which, when not consumed as often as the most common, have a higher cost," explains José Pedro Santiago. "In terms of cost impacts, they are minimal, whereas in terms of efficiency sometimes it becomes more difficult, especially if it is a catering service," says Chef António Bóia.

Três Séculos Event Manager explains that, whenever possible, they try to not exceed the stipulated budget. "If possible, we always try to provide the guests with restrictions with the same type of menu other guests have, which can increase costs due to the use of rare and expensive products, but this careful and detailed treatment usually generates a positive feeling from guests, reflected in the degree of satisfaction of the event organizer regarding our service, turning a cost into an investment.”

Artur Junqueira also warns that if the volume of guests with food restrictions is too high, that fact can cause some disruption in the event. And so "the important thing is to come up with the necessary information in advance, which sometimes does not happen."

Curious stories

We challenged our interviewees to share some of the curious stories and strange requests along their professional path.

Chef António Bóia

"In terms of food, it was requesting a meal where in each dish was an edible insect. We have already had requests from customers who do not eat pork and but then eat dates with bacon; very complicated requests for Kosher and ultimately ending up eating everything; requests for menus without lactose and, in the end, asking for vanilla ice cream, whose base is lactose - when informed about it, the customer said that in ice cream, he could eat it... "

Artur Junqueira

"We had a severe case where the guest was allergic to fish. We served sea bass ravioli and the guide forgot to indicate where the customer with this dietary restriction was seated. Because the seabass filling is white, the same colour of ricotta cheese, the customer ate it and almost immediately had an allergic reaction. We had to call the INEM (emergency medical assistance). In the end, the client was in a very good mood and said that at least the ravioli was terrific."

José Pedro Santiago

"Although we we accept and respect all customers' options, we have had some cases that may be considered less common, such as a request made in a wedding, in which we could not even move with cinnamon around the premises, such was the degree of allergy of a guest.”

Miguel Cunha

"We've had several diverse requests regarding this matter, however, without specifying any particular case, I'd highlight the difficulty in providing guests with options for Kosher consumption due to the careful handling this type of food requires. Regarding this topic, we innovate with our own production of Port wine with this specificity, our Cordovero Fine Ruby, leaving our guests pleasantly surprised. "

Nuno Januário

"We served an American personality in his 90's and we were told that he was on a strict diet during the two days we'd be providing the service. The surprise was when, after a few requests, we were informed about the contents of the diet: a plate of fruit at every meal ... accompanied by pure vodka."

Tags: Catering