CMP Series

These Chefs are Meeting the Challenge of Attendee Dietary Restrictions

The rapidly expanding and sometimes exhausting number of dietary requests made by meeting attendees is not likely to slow down any time soon. What do convention-center chefs and culinary staff say is the most important ingredient for dealing safely — and gracefully — with them? Communication. 

The rapidly expanding and sometimes exhausting number of dietary requests made by meeting attendees is not likely to slow down any time soon. what do convention-center chefs and culinary staff say is the most important ingredient for dealing safely — and gracefully — with them? communication. 

When members of Jen Cafferty’s family were diagnosed with health conditions that required that they eat a gluten-free diet more than a decade ago, Cafferty was glad that she knew how to cook. Gluten-free prepared foods weren’t widely available at the time, Cafferty said, and even so, they were expensive. She had access to them, she said, but not everyone was so lucky. “If you were on a very limited budget, or if you didn’t know how to cook, it was very difficult.”

Jen Cafferty

The desire to share her knowledge about gluten-free cooking led Cafferty, who is based in the Chicago area, to begin producing live cooking shows at shopping centers on the weekends. Chefs participated in the shows, which drew 200 or so people, along with one or two gluten-free product vendors, who were invited to help Cafferty cover her costs. Five years ago, with the number of vendors who wanted to sponsor the cooking demonstrations expanding rapidly, Cafferty flipped the model. A health and wellness exhibition, featuring vendors offering gluten- and other allergen-free products, became the main attraction, with cooking demonstrations as the sideshow.

In the last couple of years, “business has exploded,” Cafferty said. This year, Cafferty will present the Gluten & Allergen Free Expo in five different cities — Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas, Des Moines, and Secaucus, N.J. — where she expects between 30,000 to 40,000 people to attend. Her rate of growth is “easily 100 percent a year,” she said. “It’s crazy what’s going on out there.”

A similar story is being reported throughout the meetings and events industry by those in the front lines of food preparation: convention-center chefs and catering services managers. Just five to seven years ago, there were very few requests for special meals, said André Beauchamp, general manager at Capital HRS, which provides catering service at the Quebec City Convention Centre. Today, special requests make up 10 to 15 percent of meals, he said.

Similarly, at the Vancouver Convention Centre, there’s been a “dramatic” increase in the number of requests for special meals, said Executive Chef Blair Rasmussen, who has been cooking at the center since 1993. Requests for peanut-free meals have doubled and orders for vegan meals have doubled or tripled, he said, and requests for gluten-free meals have outstripped both. All together, Rasmussen estimates that special dietary requests have increased tenfold.

Gary Prell, vice president for culinary development at Centerplate, which runs more than 45 convention and exposition centers across the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, uses a dining-related metaphor to describe the phenomenon: food trucks. “Once they were an anomaly, then they were a fad, and then a trend,” Prell said. “And now they are the norm.”


Safety First


Chef Robert Gilbert

At the most basic level, fulfilling dietary requests is not a matter of hospitality trends, but of risk management. The increase in dietary requests, including for gluten-free meals, is “part of a larger trend around special diets and allergies,” said Robert Gilbert, executive chef for special events and catering at Walt Disney World Resort. “We’ve always been focused on food allergies, but that focus has broadened as our guests’ needs have changed. It really is one of the most important things we focus on across the resort, because it’s often a safety issue for our guests, and safety is always our No. 1 priority.”


According to the Food and Drug Administration, an estimated 30,000 anaphylactic reactions to foods are treated in emergency departments each year, and result in 150 deaths. In addition to those with life-threatening allergies, approximately 1 percent of the world’s population has celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that is treated with a gluten-free diet. An additional 6 percent may have non-celiac gluten sensitivity, a condition about which there is little medical consensus. (See “What the Science Says,” below)

It’s likely that some of the recent increases in requests for gluten- and wheat-free meals also can be attributed to the effect of the top-selling book Wheat Belly, which was published in 2011 by cardiologist William Davis and links wheat and gluten consumption to myriad illnesses — as well as advertising by the food industry. Gluten-free foods represented an estimated $4.2-billion market in 2012, and are projected to grow to $6.6 billion by 2016, according to the research firm Packaged Facts. The cumulative effect is that, according to a survey released earlier this year by the NPD Group, nearly 30 percent of Americans said they are trying to cut down on or eliminate gluten from their diet.

Despite debate about whether strict avoidance of gluten-free is medically necessary — or wise — for such a large segment of the population, “if you are choosing to feed people today, you need to assume that people have life-threatening food allergies,” Cafferty said. “If you treat it like a big fad, you could ultimately end up killing somebody.”

“Regardless of how we have gotten here,” Centerplate’s Prell added, “we have arrived.”


‘It’s Part of Our Job’

The rise in special requests undoubtedly adds to the complexity of meal planning. Kristy Glass, meetings manager for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), reports that, for a recent meeting for 50 people, she received requests related to nine different allergies or dietary restrictions. “In the past,” Glass said, “you could generally accommodate requests by offering a vegetarian option something almost all food-service facilities are used to providing. Today that doesn’t always work.”

The traditional policy was to prepare an overage of vegetarian meals in the amount of 5 percent of guaranteed meal counts, unless otherwise stated by the client, said Doug Finney, general manager of convention and catering services at the Pasadena Convention Center. But vegetarian-meal requests alone are up to 10 percent for some groups, he said, and many requests are significantly more complicated. As you would expect, all of the meals were customized for the 250 people who attended the two-and-a-half-day Celiac Disease Foundation (CDF) National Education Conference at the Pasadena center in May. But the kitchen also was asked to prepare more than 80 special meals when 400 attendees of a health-care association held a luncheon there in April, Finney said.

Many chefs and culinary professionals, including Finney, told Convene that they take pride in meeting such dietary requests and find the challenge professionally stimulating. Providing service “to groups with dietary issues, particularly those people at risk, is a very delicate and serious a matter, and we do take it to heart,” Finney said. “For the other dietary requests, it challenges us to stay ahead and allows for us to continue to be creative. We accommodate the best we can. After all, we are in the hospitality business.”

And people with creative minds often like to work within constraints. “I fall into that group,” Rasmussen said. “I don’t mind when there are restrictions, I like rising to the challenge.” Walt Disney World’s Gilbert concurred. Guests with special diets are “not a hindrance to us; they actually make us better at what we do,” he said. “Our special events and catering operations team creates hundreds of custom menus throughout the year, and we love the challenge of creating something special and building it right into the menu package. This way guests with special diets don’t feel out of place, but rather feel like we took the time to include them in the whole program.”

André Beauchamp


“It’s part of our job,” HRS’s Beauchamp said, gamely adding: “It’s no problem at all.” Beauchamp recently introduced an appetizer at the Quebec City center that eliminates virtually all of the major allergens, with the exception of traces of sulfite. The appetizer, made of tapioca on red pepper coulis — a thick sauce — with fava beans and leeks, is “no drab salad,” Beauchamp said.

Professional kitchen staffs also have risen to the operational challenges, standardizing the procedures around serving guests with special requests, said Centerplate’s Prell, who prefers the term “customization” to “special meal.” By preparing food themselves and being able to procure ingredients efficiently Prell said, Centerplate kitchen managers are able to minimize costs associated with the demand for alternative ingredients.


Keeping Track of What’s What

Dylah Hughes Wallenius, CMP


Meeting planners, for their part, also have devised ways to keep track of burgeoning dietary requests — and keep costs down. “We ask during the registration process if anyone needs special accommodation and communicate it to the hotel well in advance,” Dylah Hughes Wallenius, CMP, meetings director for the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel (ACTEC), wrote in an online Meetings Community discussion. Wallenius maintains a spreadsheet of attendees for each meeting that lists their known special dietary needs and which events they’ll be attending. “I then work closely with the chef to come up with one or two alternate selections that will suit all of the special needs group, whenever possible, rather than providing 10 or more entirely different meals.”

Some planners are relying more on buffets, where food is clearly labeled. “But, even then,” Glass said, “it is difficult to have every ingredient in each dish listed.” During pre-cons, Wallenius emphasizes to food-services staff that anyone waiting on her attendees needs to know the ingredients — or at least the usual allergens — in the food they are serving.

“Another concern,” Wallenius said, “is food that is sometimes outsourced and no one on staff knows exactly what’s in it. I’m finding more and more hotels that buy their baked goods.” At a recent ACTEC meeting, the hotel served what it thought were lemon poppy-seed muffins. “It was only when one of our guests who’s allergic to almonds ate one and started having a reaction that anyone looked at the package to see that although they were billed as lemon poppy-seed, they contained almonds,” Wallenius said. “Luckily, his reaction was mild, but things like that can kill someone and should never be taken lightly.”


Sorting Out the Serious Cases


Executive Chef Blair Rasmussen

It’s become very common for planners to collect information about dietary restrictions during the registration process, but Rasmussen suggests that the process could be finessed. “It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, if a conference organizer has been very diligent and vocal about soliciting comments about dietary requests,” he said. “It’s a good thing,” he added, but given the ease of communicating electronically, sometimes people check boxes indiscriminately, and without much thought. For example, Rasmussen has been given lists of allergies that include “cats,” he said. “I’m certainly not going to be serving any cats.”

Instead of just asking a blanket question about dietary restrictions, Carol Galle, CMP, founder of Detroit-based Special D Events Inc., asks attendees whether their requests are “a preference, allergy, or life-threatening allergy.” “We always label all food items, but we are also careful to let the chef and banquet staff know when an allergy is life-threatening,” Galle said. “We do our best to accommodate everyone by making broad menu selections -which means fewer plated meals and more buffets.”

The biggest headache Wallenius has are last-minute requests by people who don’t have dietary restrictions, just preferences. “Banquet meals are not restaurant meals, and when attendees try to order at the table it slows down the process for the entire group,” she said. It’s frustrating “when people who don’t have special requirements see someone else’s special meal and decide they’d rather have the same.”

There is even a term for those last-minute changes of mind: order envy. And it’s not confined to people who see food that looks more appealing, Rasmussen said. It’s not uncommon for a high-status person at a table, such as a CEO, to request a low-fat, low-salt meal and cause a domino effect, with everyone at the table then requesting the same thing.

Although chefs are prepared for last-minute requests, “I have to be honest,” Beauchamp said. “It’s not an easy situation. It can take as long as three days to go through all the steps to prepare [some allergen-or gluten-free] food.” Even knowing a couple of hours in advance “would be very difficult.” Planners might consider making sure that attendees know how much more difficult it is to accommodate special-meal requests at the last minute. “The most important thing is to be straightforward,” Beauchamp said. “Don’t create a food allergy where one doesn’t exist. And make sure the kitchen knows in advance, so we can have the food prepared.”

Finney and Beauchamp both advocate a system where attendees are issued tickets at registration; and then hand them to wait staff at mealtime. It doesn’t work perfectly — even when planners will commit to managing special meals with coupons, Finney said, sometimes not all of the attendees check in at registration.

His staff anticipates such things, Finney added. “For all groups, ‘Planning 101’ is crucial, as well as working with an open mind and compassion,” he said. It’s a business of “detail, details, and more details.”


Back to the Future

Technology has been a tremendous aid to serving attendees with special requests, said Prell, who spoke with Convene in the midst of overseeing meals at a five-day, 11,000-attendee tech conference in New Orleans. Special meals made up about 6 percent of the total — more than 650 meals in all.

Prell started in the business 30 years ago, he said, when a “special meal” meant removing protein, or serving a fruit plate. With registration procedures identifying delegates with requests far in advance of the meeting, it’s now possible to know within a reasonable margin of error how many and what types of meals will be needed. The New Orleans meals were organized so that attendees who had ordered special meals could go to a particular location where staff had lists of their names and checked them off. A majority of the custom meals were vegetarian, with gluten-free a close second, Prell said. He expects to see more requests for diabetic meals in the future.

Although Prell said he is proud to work for Centerplate, a company that embraces customization and attention to detail, he doesn’t see the ability to deliver meals that fit varied dietary profiles as something to tout, but rather as an expected norm in a professional hospitality company. He said: “It’s the price of admission.”

What the Science Says

Discussions about whether people are unnecessarily complicating things by eliminating ingredients, including gluten, are simmering — not just on meeting-planner discussion forums, but in the medical community. Here are few basic facts.

More than 160 different foods have been linked to adverse reactions, but the top eight are milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The public health agency Health Canada lists the major allergens slightly differently: eggs; milk; mustard; peanuts; seafood, including fish, crustaceans, and shellfish; sesame; soy; tree nuts; sulfites; and wheat and other cereal grains containing gluten.

About 1 percent of people in the United States have celiac disease, which has been linked to arthritis, cancer, diabetes, and kidney and liver disease. It is on the rise worldwide, according to Peter H.R. Green, M.D., director of Columbia University’s Celiac Center. In the United States, most people who have celiac are unaware of it — although, because of increased awareness of the condition, it’s estimated that the number of undiagnosed cases has dropped since 2010 from 95 percent of the population to 83 percent, said Beckee Moreland, director of gluten-free industry initiatives at the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA).

Some gastroenterologists say that for every patient with celiac disease, they see six to eight who have the same symptoms, but without the antibodies or intestinal damage that confirm celiac disease. Although medical experts now largely agree that there is a condition related to gluten intolerance that is separate from celiac disease, Kenneth Chang reported on The New York Times health blog, much is unknown about how many people may be affected or how to reliably diagnose it.

Test Time

Once you finish reading this CMP Series article, read the following material:

Gluten Freedom,” an article from the December 2010 issue of Convene that outlines the basics about serving gluten-free meals at events.

Gluten-Free Diet,” a guide to gluten-free food, including lists of frequently overlooked foods, from the Celiac Disease Foundation.

To earn one hour of CEU credit, visit to answer questions about the information contained in this CMP Series article and the additional material.

The Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) is a registered trademark of the Convention Industry Council.

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor of Convene.