Event Menu Planning 101

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Whether you’re revamping your menus, launching a catering venture or upping your private events game, the menu creation process can be overwhelming. Between determining a stylistic approach, deciding on courses, and determining dish options, it can be difficult to know where to begin.


That’s why we’ve compiled this guide for everything you need to know about creating events menus that will draw in clients and delight their guests. Plus, you’ll hear from experts and industry pros about how they create event menus that keep their clients coming back time and again.



Gather talked with Tyler Hammer of SHACK and Denise Erwin of Centurion Restaurant Group about elements they think belong on a private events menu, what should be avoided, how to make yours stand out, and more.


What do you think makes a stellar private event menu?

Tyler: A stellar private event menu needs to contain a variety of different options to suit all types of events, from the casual business meeting to wedding receptions. Meeting the guests’ needs and having flexibility on your menu is always an easy way to satisfy your customer. Be sure to make the menu easy to read. Include all pricing and descriptions for items without making it hard on the eyes. Include pictures of the food and setup on a separate sheet. It’s an easy way to catch the potential event holder’s eyes without overloading the menu itself.


What are some elements that you think should be included on a private events menu?

Denise: It’s important to offer options — from gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan options to bar packages, and a kids menu. We also have a referral list of vendors if our clients want recommendations for things like linens and flowers. Your prix fixe menu should have at least three courses, and we think wine pairing is also important.


What do you think should be avoided when it comes to creating a private events menu?

Tyler: Attaching clip art and bright-colored font on any menu will take away from the menu items themselves. These items become distractions. Avoid any disclaimers at the bottom of the event menu, if possible. Be straightforward with your guests, and make sure your event holder is aware of any gratuity charges or fees ahead of time. This will ensure a happy customer and a clean menu.


How does your venue approach event menu planning?
Denise: We offer prix fixe and a la carte options. We try to push prix fixe because it’s the best value. We also offer sharing-style, since we’re a tapas restaurant. It all depends on the number of people, the day, time, and the customer’s budget. Our sales managers will advise what’s the best fit for their event. It’s important for us to ask how they envision their event. As far as menus, we have three options for lunch and four for dinner, one of those being a reception menu.


How are event menus different than regular restaurant menus?

Tyler: With event menus, you are not only trying to satisfy the event holder’s taste buds, but all of the guests’ as well. Being able to choose a variety of different items without breaking the bank is what our guests are looking for.


Options, options, options

Industry experts are pretty unanimous in their emphasis on having plenty of options when it comes to events menus. It makes sense: the more variety your venue or catering company offers, the wider your appeal to potential clients. Most venues opt to give clients a choice of either multiple served courses or a buffet-style selection. From there, it’s wise to have at least three or four sample menus that feature all courses and dishes. (Bonus points if you also include cocktail or wine and beer pairings.)


Take dietary restrictions into account
When building event menus, particularly if your venue’s food falls under a certain theme (like seafood, steak or barbecue), highlight that you offer dishes for those with dietary restrictions. This will keep prospects from looking right past your space. Then, during initial correspondence (or even better, on your website’s event page), make it clear if you can accommodate guests who are vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free or have allergies to things like nuts or shellfish.


Know your audience

It’s no surprise that a menu for a Sweet Sixteen party should be quite different from a 50th wedding anniversary celebration. In order to build the best menus for your event customer, you need to get to know their demographics. Ask questions about the event up front, from the number of people to the type of celebration and the average age range, and you’ll ensure less back-and-forth about menu selection between you and your clients.


Highlight seasonality

Experts recommend having at least three entrees, a handful of side dishes ranging from comfort food to healthy options, and a minimum of two desserts. When crafting what these dishes will be, it’s helpful to keep seasonality in mind. Not only will this make it easier to find fresh, local ingredients, but it’ll show prospects your attention to detail. Simply create sample menus for each season, then rotate until you find new dishes to sub in.


Timing is everything

It’s all in the details — especially when it comes to menu planning. Don’t forget to ask about crucial details that will affect the event menu. Things like the event time, the expected temperature that day, the type of event and how long it’s slated to be should all be taken into account. If your client wants brownie a la mode served at the end of an outside event with no freezer in sight, you’ll want to be prepared (or offer alternatives).


Embrace your culinary niche

Your kitchen team may be overwhelmed at the prospect of building multiple special menus. If your staff is having trouble getting started, a simple trick is to play up the cuisine you already offer or have catered with success in the past. Is your venue a rustic American farmhouse? Does your head chef specialize in hand-tossed pasta or Asian fusion? Going back to your team’s culinary niche will make your staff feel valued, inspired, and likely give them more confidence in menu creation.


Convenience is key

It doesn’t matter how delicious a dish is if it’s not executed properly. You want all of your meal options to be as non-fussy and fresh as possible throughout the entire event. This means menu options that are easy to cut, serve, eat, hold, and keep heated or cool if necessary. Passed apps, low-maintenance sides like crudite or tasty salads, and miniature versions of things like cheesecake are always crowd pleasers that are easy to enjoy.