azurelunatic: A glittery black pin badge with a blue holographic star in the middle. (Default)
Azure Jane Lunatic (Azz) 🌺 ([personal profile] azurelunatic) wrote2015-08-12 01:37 am

The things I've learned ordering catering for a fairly stable group at work, an incomplete list:

(this started life as a comment on Captain Awkward, but may have gone to moderation because I included a link. However, I felt I should keep a copy here too...)

- Ask for both dietary requirements/restrictions and preferences. You can't always please everybody, but asking for preferences as well increases the odds that you'll be able to delight them on purpose.
- Asking for preferences does mean that the guy who likes to eat nearly an entire cow as rare as possible will tell you about it. You will also hear from people who wouldn't have otherwise felt comfortable sharing their strong aversions, non-life-threatening medical issues, and other awkward food stuff. Those are the people you're asking this question to make life easier for.
- Take people at their word. Don't badger them for details. If you need to ask clarifying questions, be respectful. "Can't you just pick them out" is not respectful.
- Don't take any requirement, restriction, or preference personally.
- Ask for dietary requirements/preferences ahead of time and keep them on file, so if there's a last-minute thing you can order with reasonable confidence.
- Ask for dietary requirements/preferences fairly shortly before finalizing each order, with a deadline, so people know when they have to get their information to you.
- Cross-check and update your file every time someone gives you new information. Stuff changes all the time -- new diagnosis, new medicine interaction, change in tastes, burned out on that thing after having it for 5 straight years in grad school.
- Treat the dietary requirements/preferences as somewhat confidential information unless you learn otherwise.
- Prepare a high-level summary of your team's dietary needs that you can give to catering. This protects your team's privacy (the catering crew doesn't generally need to know by name who goes with what preference) and makes things easier on the caterers who honestly probably don't care as long as nobody's getting something they shouldn't have. For example: group of 40, 30% vegetarian, 3 gluten-free omnivores, 1 lactose-intolerant omnivore, 2 shellfish allergies, 1 tree nut allergy (peanuts ok).
- Not everyone is going to want to eat the same thing. That's OK. Not everyone has to eat the same thing! If the group is large enough, you can order smaller amounts of a larger variety of things.
- Be on the alert for intersecting requirements. If the same person is dairy intolerant and gluten intolerant, it does them no good if all the gluten-free dishes have dairy and all the dairy-free dishes have gluten. The plight of the mushroom-allergic vegan is a sad one. I address this with a spreadsheet and a lot of swearing.
- Be on the alert for requirements that can be collapsed together. The main dish which will serve the uncomplicated vegan will also serve the person with lactose intolerance who can't have pork. I also address this with the spreadsheet.
- My spreadsheet is a matrix of people going down, and dietary restrictions going across. I like conditional formatting that highlights red and green to help me visualize. I also have a separate text document with their original phrasing because sometimes that's important. (Sometimes this is when I find I need to ask clarifying questions, such as if someone said "vegan, nut allergy" and the caterer is proposing coconut in the vegan stir-fry, does that nut allergy include coconut?)
- I assume that at least another 10% of people will like the look of the vegetarian entree than who are vegetarian as a restriction. When my group is 20% vegetarian I order for 30% vegetarian.
- Throw yourself on the caterer's mercy if that's a practical option. I tend to give them the restrictions summary and order "chef's special" which results in cost-effective, seasonal dishes which meet the requirements and surprise my team who are used to cafeteria food (plus) although it's a surprise what they're going to be (minus).
- Demand ingredients labels as a matter of course, with special attention for the dietary requirements in your summary. The mashed potatoes might be: Potatoes, olive oil, salt. VEGAN, GLUTEN-FREE
- My workplace cafeteria is so fucking sick of hearing "the stir fry has bell peppers and the menu doesn't say that it had bell peppers in it", but someday the fuckers will learn that they've got to list all their nightshades.
- Prepare a contingency plan for what to do if the catering falls through or somebody can't eat what's there.
- The best $REQUIREMENT-compliant dishes are not the ones that have a substandard substitution for the forbidden ingredient, but ones which were never intended to have any in the first place.
- I have been using as a guideline on diversifying the menu for a while.
vass: Small turtle with green leef in its mouth (Eat your greens)

[personal profile] vass 2015-08-12 02:47 pm (UTC)(link)
Be on the alert for intersecting requirements.


I used to be a vegetarian (previously a meat-eater, subsequently a vegan, now a meat-eater again.) I have always had a very strong aversion to cheese. (Veganism was such a relief in that respect, not having to explain about the cheese thing except to people who tried to be kind by providing me with vegan cheese alternatives.)

The number of group food orders where there was a vegetarian dish AND a cheese-free dish, but they were not the same one...
vass: Small turtle with green leef in its mouth (Eat your greens)

[personal profile] vass 2015-08-13 12:15 pm (UTC)(link)
Good work, Azz's father.

Out of morbid curiosity, what was the texture like?
vass: A sepia-toned line-drawing of a man in naval uniform dancing a hornpipe, his crotch prominent (Default)

[personal profile] vass 2015-08-15 07:48 am (UTC)(link)
That is impressive. I can almost see the product developer's logic there: replace throat mucous with more throat mucous. Except no.

[personal profile] torrilin 2015-08-12 02:49 pm (UTC)(link)
Mind if I make a link post of this over to Tumblr?
flamebyrd: (Default)

[personal profile] flamebyrd 2015-08-12 04:08 pm (UTC)(link)
I was recently at a work function where the catered labelled coriander (in both options), but not meat. I have no idea what you were supposed to do if you couldn't eat coriander (not due to allergies, I mean, just if you're one of those people for whom it tastes like soap). As a vegetarian I just took a guess at which one didn't have meat in it.

And then they ran out of food 4/5 through the tables. It was great.

Which is to say, this is a Good Post. :D

Although I do wish aircraft wouldn't keep combining the vegetarian, vegan and gluten free meals into one option. I like ice cream, not sweetened tofu dessert.
aedifica: Me looking down at laptop (off screen).  Short hair. (Default)

[personal profile] aedifica 2015-08-12 10:44 pm (UTC)(link)
Oh, thanks for reminding me of that CA post! I have newly complex food requirements (at least for a while and possibly long term) and that will be helpful.
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[personal profile] laurajv 2015-08-13 12:21 am (UTC)(link)

- The best $REQUIREMENT-compliant dishes are not the ones that have a substandard substitution for the forbidden ingredient, but ones which were never intended to have any in the first place.

This is why so much vegan cooking drives me nuts -- because I can't have dairy, a very large proportion of food I cook is vegan, and i don't use substitutes. So I'm used to vegan food that tastes like food, not like a sad mockery of food, which some of those substandard subs...well.
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[personal profile] wibbble 2015-08-13 12:33 am (UTC)(link)
I always work under the assumption that any catered food option won't work for me, to the extent that I've stopped even trying to get something for me and just scout out alternatives in advance.

Which leads me to the weird place where I'm hopefully going to be putting on a workshop/training course and really don't want to include lunch, because *I* never get any value out of those things.

Food is weird.

[personal profile] sithjawa 2015-08-13 01:45 am (UTC)(link)
At the festival, people got to specify what sandwich they wanted. Organizers arranged for it to be boxed/bagged lunches. Unbeknownst to the organizers, the caterers decided to do it buffet style. This had some very bad results:

- The vegan and non vegan sandwiches were next to each other and not labeled. nobody could figure out which to take. Non-vegans took vegan sandwiches. There were not extras.
- Since they cut the sandwiches in half, 1 was too little food. This led to many people taking 3. The correct answer was 2.
- As you might expect, some people did not get their dietary requirements met. Many people did not get sandwiches AT ALL. The festival had to frantically buy people sandwiches from other locations. Then the other locations ran out of sandwiches too. Organizers were Highly Displeased. They refunded money of people they could not acquire sandwiches for in a timely manner, but one imagines the people who did not get lunch were still Highly Displeased by their status of starvation. Fortunately there was copious fruit, and given the nature of the festival, it may be assumed that everyone there enjoyed eating at least some kind of fruit, so the starving people got at least SOMETHING to eat.


+ allergies can be acquired and can also go away (but don't assume "not listed" means "gone" and not "I forgot to say it")
+ if one person is deathly allergic to something, sometimes no one should have it. I know people who can't even be in a restaurant that serves shellfish. Life threatening allergies: Don't assume person sitting next to the allergic person can have it.
+ also a good idea to have caterers label food if it contains secret ingredients that people are allergic to. e.g. if the chocolate chip cookie contains secret nuts, labeling it helps people share w/o death occurring. (You know this! Caterers may not!)

[personal profile] sithjawa 2015-08-13 08:29 am (UTC)(link)
Some of the stuff caterers come up with really takes the cake. As in, when they're done with the cake no one else is going to want it so they better take it.

Oh, also, this one time at Mudd people have been complaining about the lack of vegetarian and vegan options, so the kitchen made a vegetable soup which was labeled as vegan. This was great, except that one of the primary ingredients was bacon.

I forget if that was the same day the vegetarian option was chicken soup

[personal profile] sithjawa 2015-08-13 08:42 am (UTC)(link)
I'm also reminded that not everyone may know gluten intolerance ranges from "I should probably not eat a whole bread" (in which case that bacon thing would be fine) to "no seriously get that stuff away from my plate" (in which one has better not arrange the plates in the order where sandwich crumbs end up in the fruit salad).
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[personal profile] tiferet 2015-08-19 12:11 am (UTC)(link)

If the tray is undisturbed, the topmost layer of bacon will not poison gluten-intolerant people (says the voice of desperation past), but you cannot let people serve themselves in this situation because there will be bread crumbs fucking everywhere if they do.

GO YOU. I should very much like to wind you up and point you at every. single. fucking. caterer. who thinks this is a good idea. Because it's not.
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[personal profile] silveradept 2015-08-13 07:19 pm (UTC)(link)
These are excellent guidelines and will help organizations mightily is they can just follow them.
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[personal profile] umadoshi 2015-08-14 01:44 am (UTC)(link)
This is really useful. *_* May I linkblog it?
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[personal profile] nadyne 2015-08-16 01:33 am (UTC)(link)
ARGH this is driving me nuts. Whoever the fuck orders catering for IT gets this so totally wrong. This is California. Order some damn vegetables. It's not hard.

IT had two catering fails this week. One was a large-ish meeting (~30 people), where they ordered a salad (iceberg lettuce, tomato, cucumber), linguine with garlic and chicken, and spaghetti with meat sauce. Note the lack of vegetarian/vegan option (that salad does NOT count), and also note the lack of drinks. The second catering fail was a medium meeting with external folks where they ordered salads, cookies, and drinks, for about half of the people who were on the invite. Err, thanks, folks.

I know that navigating dietary restrictions can be hard. That doesn't mean that you don't do the very basics (vegetarians! in California! who knew?), and it doesn't mean that you don't count.

(You'll be glad to know that my grand-manager's admin maintains a similar spreadsheet, and this spreadsheet is shared with all of the admins who might order food for anyone within my grand-manager's team (~60 people). Also, ordering insufficient food would be considered one of the biggest faux pas for my team's admins, so we massively over-cater everything. And my grand-manager's admin has a formula for catering for unknown people. Which makes IT's inability to get catering right, or even vaguely right, all the more annoying.)
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[personal profile] sabotabby 2015-08-16 03:50 pm (UTC)(link)
- I assume that at least another 10% of people will like the look of the vegetarian entree than who are vegetarian as a restriction. When my group is 20% vegetarian I order for 30% vegetarian.

Bless your heart. I'm so used to all the stuff I can eat being gone before I have a chance to eat it. I can't help it if my freak-ass diet suddenly looks good to everyone else.
tiferet: cute girl in pink dress captioned "not all bad girls wear black" (Default)

[personal profile] tiferet 2015-08-19 12:16 am (UTC)(link)
I would like to add a caveat regarding gluten-free and vegan interaction.

It is important (very important) that vegan gluten-free people have some stuff they can eat.

However, many gluten-free people rely on meat and/or dairy as major sources of protein given that plant proteins are not exactly abundant in the GF diet, so it's probably not a good idea if ALL the GF options are also vegan.

I will also add one other caveat regarding gluten-free desserts. Gluten-free bakers frequently use strong flavours such as dark chocolate and ginger to mask the taste of things like bean flour and xanthan gum. If you are a gluten-free person who does not like dark chocolate and ginger, life can be very miserable when it's dessert time. I have grown to appreciate the non-beany gluten free brownie provided that it's made with lots of butter (not vegan) but in general I do not want chocolate or ginger in my pastries (I typically won't eat chocolate without nuts or mint in it) and I cannot be the only person in the GF world who has considered doing terribad things just to get a really good vanilla/white chocolate/strawberry/green tea flavoured dessert.
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[personal profile] alatefeline 2016-08-27 09:44 am (UTC)(link)

As someone who has had to forage through badly-ordered catering to eat, AND someone who has boxed up and delivered these sorts of orders I ADORE your guidelines. You're dead right that catering doesn't care about names unless for some reason the ORDERERS want things with individual nam,e-labels.

When I worked at a chain cafe, I followed instructions given me and double-checked lists and separated nuts and changed my gloves handling meat, peanut butter, and noted allergens, but I know of people who didn't, and frankly I was only able to get away with spending any time on being careful because of the privileges that meant I wasn't deathly afraid of losing my job for taking two extra minutes.

I'm vegetarian (with occasional, personal exceptions that I WILL NOT be forced into) and have weird texture issues, do not do tomatoes or eggplant generally, and prefer whole foods, and need major protein, and cannot eat at certain times of day. I frequently eat with someone who cannot have seafood AT ALL, does not eat mushrooms or nuts or most eggy things, is watching sugar intake, and is picky about vegetables. *sigh* I loathe catered sandwiches, they always have SOME kind of dreadful sauce or bad vegetable pairing, and the vegetarian ones always have eggplant or tomato or both. A lot of this could be addressed if people offered more little dishes of whole-food items on a buffet table, but I suppose that's either too much work for the caterers or too weird for the eaters

Which is to say - great advice, and hooray, spreadsheet nerds, unite!