A 99% portable operation feeds conference-goers in Austin

katherine paynter putnam

At its biggest event of the year, the South by Southwest entertainment and technology conference, the Austin Convention Center in Texas hosts more than 100,000 visitors, participants and exhibitors over a 10-day stretch.

Feeding those folks is the job of General Manager Katherine Paynter Putnam, FoodService Director’s August 2015 FSD of the Month, and her team of 75-100 employees plus temporary staff.

Paynter Putnam took FoodService Director on an exclusive tour of the foodservice (a Levy Restaurants account) at the Austin Convention Center during SXSW to see the facility operating at full throttle.

from boat to bun food truck

Austin is known for its food trucks; nearly 2,000 roam the city streets year-round. Paynter Putnam subcontracts with a handful of select “truly local” food truck vendors, who sign three-year agreements allowing them to park their trucks just outside the walls of the convention center. Part of the decision is making sure the trucks can execute for the quantity of visitors the venue sees during the year. The arrangement has been successful for both parties. “We’re making sales outside the building, [as well as inside],” says Paynter Putnam.

hat creek burger company

In addition to selling food outside, food trucks that subcontract with the Austin Convention Center also participate in catered events, giving guests an authentic taste of Austin. During the last fiscal year, Paynter Putnam’s team organized four or five such food-truck receptions inside the building.

southside flying pizza

Paynter Putnam subcontracts with other vendors as well, including Southside Flying Pizza, which has three brick-and-mortar locations around the city and two stands inside the convention center. The relationship has helped Southside and others grow their businesses.


The convention center also operates several in-house concepts—all of which are branded and designed with an authentic Austin vibe. Arno’s is its barbecue concept. It and other in-house concepts are reimagined every year to keep the foodservice offerings fresh and on-trend.

wild bills

The convention center’s foodservice operations are 99 percent portable, Paynter Putnam says, meaning all can be rearranged depending on the layout and needs of the conference being hosted. The mix of concepts also can be tailored to the audience. Wild Bill’s is a concept specializing in old-fashioned soda pops that was rolled out specifically for the gaming portion of the SXSW conference.

trinity eatery

Paynter Putnam was lucky to hire a director of sales who happens to have carpentry skills; he built the wooden planter-style dividers that double as merchandising stands for chips and snacks at Trinity Eatery, a grab-and-go stand. 

protein packs

To meet consumers’ demand for healthful options, Paynter Putnam’s team added a variety of protein packs, which are made in-house and sold in its grab-and-go refrigerated cases. In addition to managing its own menus, her team works with subcontractors, including food trucks, to regularly rotate their menus to keep offerings exciting and updated.

hot coffee good food

One of very few permanent concessions stands in the convention center, this one saw an incredible amount of foot traffic as hundreds lined up adjacent to it to register and pick up badges for the SXSW conference.

Future plans for the events venue include adding a tasting kitchen to host potential clients and catered events, as well as plans to build out a permanent cafe that will serve wine and cheese in the afternoon and offer a convenient place for attendees to meet up, Paynter Putnam says.



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