Farm-to-table, craft cocktails and global cuisine are three of the hottest trends in group dining, gracing tables at restaurants as well as from catering operations.

While these trends aren’t typically considered “budget dining,” there are steps planners can take to make a fantastic impression without breaking the bank.

Farm-to-Table
Farm-to-table refers to the trend of using seasonal, locally sourced food, and covers everything from cultivation to distribution and consumption. It also is a backlash against GMO (genetically modified organisms) in our food supply. And, the food just tastes better. You cannot compare a vine-ripened tomato with one that was picked green and has been sitting in a warehouse being artificially ripened with ethylene gas.

“A farm-to-table menu should be less expensive,” says Patrick Cuccaro, from Atlanta’s Affairs to Remember. “Fewer food miles translate to less fuel for transportation, and buying local can mean cutting out the middle man.”

Yet, there are other factors to consider in pricing a farm-to-table event, he explains.

“If you have a client request such an experience, ask why it is important,” Cuccaro adds. “There are generally three reasons that the farm-to-table movement has gained traction: local and seasonal foods generally taste better if freshly harvested; the food is often healthier if your farmer uses sustainable farming practices; and buying from your local farmer supports the local economy. None of these reasons leads intrinsically to less-expensive food. Local produce, for example, and animals that have been humanely raised for consumption can be considerably more expensive.”

Given such issues, he believes the choices are limited for today’s meeting planners, who he says must be budget-conscious when serving their farm-to-table clients.

“Proteins are the biggest difficulty,” Cuccaro continues. “If it’s winter, less-expensive cuts of beef, pork and chicken can be braised. At a party with attended stations, braised meats can be one component of a small plate featuring a less-expensive starch and vegetable. There’s nothing more delicious than smoky braised brisket atop a dollop of mashed sweet potato garnished with sauteed kale. In summer, smoke the brisket, put it atop a potato salad true to the region of your meeting and top that with fried okra or a thick, crispy onion ring. Make sure that it’s composed and served by an attendant, rather than offered at a buffet, so that the protein portions are limited.

“With produce, saving money is about what’s available in the moment,” he adds. “Any farmer can tell you what he or she hopes to be available during any given week, but a true farm-to-table experience is unpredictable more than a few days in advance. Weather patterns rule, so the best antidote to bad weather is to trust your chef to make the decisions for you. Give her or him some parameters. (‘We don’t like eggplant.’ ‘Please, no radishes.’) But the freedom to choose what’s plentiful in the moment is the money-saver when it comes to produce. We live in a world where choice reigns supreme. With a true farm-to-table approach, choices are limited and last-minute. For the right client with the right party, that can be exhilarating.”

At the Four Seasons Hotel in Las Vegas, a highlight of the property’s banquet menu is a farm-to-table menu for those seeking fresh and organic options. Salad options range from an organic red quinoa salad to Weiser Farms grilled vegetables or hummus served with potato crisps. Entrees include grass-fed beef vegetable kabobs, organic-herb grilled salmon, whole wheat pasta with vegetables and eggplant bolognaise sauce and tofu marsala. Following the entree, dessert options incorporate fresh fruits, warm scones and artisan breads.

Kennesaw State College, outside of Atlanta, has instituted a degree in Culinary Sustainability and Hospitality. The college has its own 65-acre organic farm, where future chefs learn how to grow herbs and heirloom-variety fruits and vegetables. It also harvests honey from 42 bee colonies. Future plans are to produce aged cheese, an organic dairy, olive orchards and an oil press.

Craft Cocktails
Novelty drinks are extremely popular with millennials.

Craft cocktails are more complex because each element should be fresh and designed specifically for an establishment or an event, so meeting planners can expect them to be pricey.

Mary Ann Reilly, chief creative officer of M.A. Special Events, has a tip for saving a few dollars, however.

“When working with the mixologist or F&B director at a property, ask them about classic cocktails that can be batched in advance without taking away from the flavor of the cocktail,” she explains. “Then you can utilize bartenders with one lead mixologist who can put the already batched cocktail in a shaker and give a bit of a show. Then slowly pour it in a circular motion and finish with the appropriate garnish. If you are going to rim a cocktail glass. only rim half a glass. If someone does not like the rim they can drink out of the other side of the glass.”

All juices should be fresh. Fruits can be mashed, muddled in the glass, or pureed in to juices. Many craft cocktails contain fragments of fruit and/or herbs. Some drinks may be seasonal, depending on what fruits are available locally and in season.

Simple syrups can be infused with a variety of flavors, including ginger, cardamom or cucumber.