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How You’re Overspending and Underwowing with Your Dining Experience

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By Susan Saldibar

One thing you’ll rarely find at an elegant gathering are potato chips, right?

But picture this: a colorful array of freshly prepared chips – potato, sweet potato, carrot, and beet – all cascading gracefully down in the center of a large table. (Nobody can see the milk crate acting as a riser, hidden beneath layers of linen tablecloths.) Positioned at its base are bowls of dips with intriguing names like “curry mango” and “truffle”. Ingenious! Who comes up with ideas like that?

The “who” in this instance is the creative team from Strategic Dining Services. They’re big believers in the idea that you can spend “peanuts” for innovative food ideas for events and get a million dollar look. (Strategic Dining Services is a Senior Housing Forum partner.)

Lobster and filets will lighten your wallet. But they won’t guarantee a “wow” factor.

I caught up recently with David Koelling, President of Strategic Dining Services, and RonnDa Peters, VP of Marketing and Sales. I asked them why the knee-jerk reaction to a senior living event always seems to be to resort to serving filet and lobster. According to RonnDa and David, it is an expensive symptom of a lack of creativity. “People will say, ‘Oh this event has to be so special!’ So, they open their wallets and blow their budget to buy filet and lobster tails,” RonnDa says. “Little do they know that it’s the presentation of the food that’s going to get them the ‘wow’ factor. And, for the most part, they can use items they already have around the community – they just use their creativity to produce the displays,” she adds.

I asked RonnDa and David to share some of their cool ideas. Just to give you a few samples:

  • Instead of regular sandwiches, prepare 4 different sandwiches and serve “mini” versions of each for all guests.

  • Devise scintillating descriptions for each dish. Instead of “chicken salad,” try “mango, tarragon chicken salad.”

  • Create special sauces, such as “curry mango” or “truffle sour cream.”

  • Instead of just “coffee and rolls” for a meeting, cut up fruit and serve it in wine glasses accompanied with freshly baked focaccia bread.

  • For more affordable “wow,” use your more expensive ingredients as a sauce or stuffing rather than the main entrée, such as fettuccine with lobster sauce, or shrimp stuffed breast of chicken.

What’s great about RonnDa and David is how energized they are about finding new ways to liven up each dining experience. “Let’s say you’re hosting a bridge party,” David says. “Don’t just do a coffee service. Instead, take 20 coffee spoons, dip them in chocolate and sprinkle crushed peppermint or coconut on them. Then add 2-3 flavored creams, such as vanilla bean and amaretto. Voila! You’ve just differentiated your weekly bridge party from the one at the other community down the street.”

And which community do you think they’ll go back to? In other words, don’t miss an opportunity to show-case your commitment to excellence, hospitality and the dining experience.

Your event food presentation says more about your community than you think.

As for the cascading stream of potato chips, it comes with a story of its own. As David tells it, the community found itself up against an event that they hadn’t properly planned for. Strategic Dining was on site, only to hear the chef bemoaning the fact that he had no shrimp or any other impressive food items available. According to David, it became a “teachable moment” for the staff.

“They were used to putting out expensive dishes but, for this one, they had zero budget,” David tells me. “What they did have were a lot of sweet potatoes, as well as some regular potatoes and raw vegetables. We took those and made fresh chips with 4 different dips. Then we created this mountain of chips cascading down a linen table cloth with various dips to which we gave elegant names.” It was the beginning of a culture change, he tells me. And they have continued to come up with their own creative ideas ever since.

RonnDa believes that the creativity you put behind food presentation says a lot about a community’s culture. And she and David continually urge leadership to involve the staff and residents whenever possible. “It sends the message that their input is important,” says David. Not to mention the fact that creativity can come from the most unexpected sources. “I’ve seen the maintenance crew come up with some really great ideas.”

“You had me at ‘truffle’ sour cream.”

If there is a takeaway to all this, it’s that while your food has to taste great, it’s the presentation that makes for a standout event. As RonnDa says, “Presentation tells the story about what the team has created. Presentation demonstrates a commitment to excellence,” she says. At Strategic Dining, they like to say they work with clients to put the “grand” back into “grand opening” (or any event for that matter).

And the reactions of attendees seem to be a testament to their success. When David asked one of the attendees how she liked the appetizers, her answer said it all. “You had me at ‘truffle’ sour cream!”


For more information about Strategic Dining Services, please visit their website.

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