When it comes to catered events, finding the right beverage mix can be challenging, especially on college campuses where alcohol is often an issue. For Candyce Gordon, director of catering for Flavours Catering by Sodexo at the University of Louisville, soda bars and mocktail stations are very popular due to their universal appeal.
“Everyone can enjoy these drinks, though at the more exclusive events for campus officials and the community, bourbon cocktails are in high demand,” says Gordon. Those requests frequently lead to cocktails such as the Bourbon Bellini Manhattan or Strawberry Maker’s Lemonade, she says. Gordon recommends that operators read their customers to gauge what will work in their region.
Dawn Aubrey, associate director of housing for dining services for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, can relate. Her team likes to customize catered beverages based on customers’ preferences, creating one-of-a-kind drinks like fruit-infused iced teas and flavored Italian sodas. The school’s colors (orange and blue) often make their way into catered beverages, such as Orange and Blue-tini and Orange Crush.
“We were tasked with creating drinks for alumni that would demonstrate their Illini spirit,” says Aubrey. “These cocktails are as enjoyable to drink as they are to look at, and are often chosen two to one over other mixed drinks. Distinctive beverages that reflect your business differentiate you from your competitors, and it’s good for customer satisfaction.” She adds that operators who are struggling to come up with ideas should look to local establishments to see what’s trending, attend trade shows and conferences and survey customers after events.
A well-trained bar staff is paramount to running a successful beverage program, says Aubrey, who recommends one bar with two to four bartenders for every 100 guests, depending on the length of the event. All of her bartenders attend training classes, watch instructional videos and are trained in TIPS (Training for Intervention ProcedureS) to prevent overserving customers and serving underage patrons.
“Bars contribute positively to the bottom line when you manage them well and ensure you do not overserve,” she explains, noting that her catering team has been able to maintain a food cost of 40% for her bars by marking up drinks 2.5 times their cost.
Glassware and presentation are key. Gordon uses a frosted pint glass to showcase the rustic lemonade, which highlights the drink’s “fresh, picnic-inspired taste,” while Aubrey’s team uses martini glasses, highball glasses or wine glasses to showcase the colors in their array of catered beverages. Likewise, James Burback, director of catering for Flavours Catering by Sodexo at the University of Denver, has created many non-alcoholic beverage stations with a focus on delivering visually engaging presentations. For example, Burback uses submersible LED lights, which can be washed and sanitized by hand, to add a new and exciting dimension to the station experience.
“We drop them into different vessels and containers, like water goblets, hurricanes or martini glasses, and we pour fruit purees for our lemonade on top,” says Burback. He also uses mirrors and various levels and shapes such as glass blocks, tile remnants, wooden crates, antique decorative teapot sets, hat boxes and creative plant stands to add interest. “There are lots of ways to make any display have a modern feel, the kind of thing you might find in a nightclub. There’s a whole world of interesting shapes, textures and design out there, and I’m not afraid of putting just about anything on a buffet to make it pop. The key is to utilize what you already have within the catering program and give it new life.”