By Kelsey Casselbury 2015-04-27 19:41:31
When it comes to hosting a food show, you must wrangle a number of details. After reading “Tasting Is Believing” (on page 18), you’ve decided to take your traditional approach to student taste tests and kick it up a notch or two. While this can be a tried-and-true method of finding new products for your operation, sometimes the taste-testing pool just isn’t large enough to get the most accurate opinions about whether you should add a product to your line-up—after all, kids can be finicky based on their whims of the day. So, you’re ready to try hosting a larger food show that goes beyond the short lunch period and involves a greater number of students and maybe even teachers, administrators, parents or the community as a whole. However, don’t just jump headfirst into planning this event without taking stock of the challenges, too. While the advice from school nutrition peers who’ve already blazed such trails is invaluable, School Nutrition also wants to offer another expert perspective. We turned to Crystal Harper-Pierre, SNA’s long-time Exhibit Sales Manager. Anyone who’s attended SNA’s Annual National Conference (ANC) probably is familiar with her work—she is, in large part, responsible for the annual success of the Exhibit Hall, which contains nearly 850 booths each year! Of course, planning a food show comparable to the magnitude of ANC’s is a different beast than a typical community show for your school or district. Still, despite the reduced scale of your event and the variety of show models available for you to adopt, some tenets hold true across the spectrum—particularly when it comes to the area of utmost importance: food safety. Read on as SNA’s Exhibit Hall expert offers up dutiful reminders of what you can’t afford to ignore when planning a food show of any proportion. When It Comes to Recruiting “Exhibitors”… You probably won’t have any problems, truth be told, in requesting participation by your local food broker—he or she likely understands that the end result could be a large purchase from their company! However, if you do run across a representative who’s more tentative and needs some convincing to sign on to participating in the event, “Stress that decision-makers can be in the audience,” Harper-Pierre says. For SNA’s national Exhibit Hall, she typically recruits exhibitors by sharing details about the numbers of directors (with direct purchasing power), as well as managers and employees (with significant purchasing influence), who attend ANC every year. You, on the other hand, can explain the importance of student acceptance when it comes to determining which items wind up on your menus. You might add value to the deal by offering the broker the opportunity to set up a culinary demonstration. “These really capture the audience,” Harper-Pierre notes. “People see firsthand how the food is prepared; [they] can ask the chef questions and do a taste-test.” Parents at a community food show, if invited, might particularly enjoy the chance to get a true up-close-and personal look at what items are on their child’s school meals menu—and they are another stakeholder with some influence in your buying decisions. When It Comes to Your Facility… Consider storage, preparation, staff and electrical needs right from the start, Harper-Pierre advises. If you plan to receive food samples directly from vendors and have your team members do the preparation, “Ask yourself: Do you have the space to store and cook the food?” she questions. Do you have enough staff members to perform all the prep work and the equipment to keep it at food-safe temperatures? Depending on the size of your event—both in terms of the number of attendees and the number of products you are showcasing—this could require a significantly different approach than batch-cooking for a multi-lunch period meal service. You might be hosting the food show in your district’s largest cafeteria, in which case you probably have what you need in terms of cooking equipment, walk-ins, freezers and even cafeteria tables. However, off-site food shows or those hosted in smaller cafeterias mean you must make alternative arrangements for these important logistics. If this is the case, it might be better to require the companies of the products you’re testing to send a representative to transport, prepare and serve the food. Additionally, be sure to take stock of how many electrical outlets are in the room where the sampling will occur. Work with a district electrician to determine where to set tables and how much wattage is required and available. When you have dozens of people plugging in to keep food warm or cold or do quick cooking demonstrations, the last thing you want is for the system to short out, Harper-Pierre notes. Be sure you communicate any electrical specifications and restrictions to vendors participating in person. When It Comes to the Legal Matters… Ring up the local health department office to determine if there are any municipal or state requirements that pertain to your event. You may have to acquire a temporary foodservice permit, particularly if you’re hosting your event off-site, or the individual companies exhibiting at the event might have to obtain their own permits. Laws will vary by jurisdiction, so do your due diligence in questioning your local health department. If you have outside vendors coming in, keep in mind, that “you have to chase after people and make sure they’re in compliance,” Harper-Pierre confides. You don’t want the county health inspector showing up and shutting stations down just as things are getting started. You also want to confirm that you have liability insurance for events held onsite and that any outside venue you’re working with also has appropriate coverage. “If anyone gets injured, a lawsuit can occur,” Harper-Pierre notes. You will want to determine if there’s blanket coverage provided by your rental agreement or if the facility requires that vendors have their own insurance polices. Make sure that coverage applies to all attendees, school/district employees, facility staff and your vendors’ official representatives. If you are transporting students to your event using school vehicles, this should be covered the same way that field trips are managed, but make time to perform the necessary checks. Will you be inviting press to your event? Be sure you have signed media release forms for participating students—and that you have some method of identifying for press (and for your archives) any students whose images cannot be publicized. When It Comes to Food Safety… Don’t cut any corners. Ever. This is the No. 1 concern in the ANC Exhibit Hall, Harper-Pierre says. If using your staff to prep and serve the food, you have less to worry about—after all, they’ve already been trained in food safety. A problem can arise, though, when companies send sales staff who are not trained in proper food handling procedures to be their onsite representatives at your food show. One way to preempt any potential issues, if you have the team available during the event, is to assign one staff member to partner with each vendor representative, ensuring everything is on the up-and-up. Prevent potential problems by giving companies a copy of the applicable regulations from the health department via both email and snail mail. You really can’t go overboard in making sure they have the most up-to-date and appropriate information. Consider giving a copy to your staff, too; it’s not only a good refresher for them, but might also highlight different required procedures if you’re hosting the show outside of the cafeteria. One regulation you cannot overlook: a hand-washing/ sanitation station. Hand out checklists and a diagram of what’s required and follow-up regularly during the event to verify that rules are being followed. As your staff knows, anyone serving food must have their hands covered. “These are basic things [food servers] should do, yet people seem to have a problem doing them,” Harper-Pierre laments of her observations at large food shows. “The worst thing that can happen is if someone gets really sick [from the food] and the media gets a hold of it.” When It Comes to Setting Up Displays… Don’t forget that kids—scratch that, all patrons—are drawn to brightly colored displays. Bring in a rainbow of vibrant tablecloths for your tasting “booths” and ensure that signage boldly and clearly details each of the food and beverage items the customers will be tasting. In particular, be sure to include allergen information for all foods being served. Make certain that the person staffing each table or booth can rattle off the specific ingredients in the menu item, but also prominently place at the front of the table any details about potential allergens. If your event will allow attendees to wander freely among the different tables or stations, provide your vendors with participation- building tips drawn from Harper-Pierre’s experience. She notes that booths that offer a game or some type of giveaway usually get the most attention; mascots or staff in costume are also highly popular, because people love to take “selfie” pictures with them. (Even if you can’t get a brand mascot from a particular vendor to attend, consider making arrangements for someone to dress in your high school’s mascot costume to roam through the area, ramping up the energy at the event.) The staff at each booth—whether it’s a representative or one of your own employees— should be personable and upbeat. “They need to know how to market their booth,” Harper-Pierre asserts. When It Comes to Serving the Food… Keep portion sizes moderate. Harper-Pierre recommends splitting the samples into 2-oz. servings for food and a maximum of 6- to 8-oz. servings for drinks. This is particularly appropriate given the standard portions for school meals—but also to be mindful that you don’t want your food show attendees getting filled up too fast! She’s found that company representatives often don’t want to take the extra time or spend extra money on the necessary equipment to divide their prepared food items into smaller sample sizes. However, “It’s beneficial to the exhibitors to take the time to portion food, because the customers will sample more and the companies will save money,” by not overserving, she adds. When It Comes to Troubleshooting Problems… “Things happen,” Harper-Pierre cautions. She’s certainly run into her share of snafus on the ANC Exhibit Hall floor. “But you just have to think of a quick solution.” She recalls one time when a burst pipe in the convention center destroyed several boxes— including electronics—that a company had brought in for its display. How did she deal with it? “Apologize, apologize, apologize,” she says. Put on your creative thinking cap to solve the problem as best you can. In this case, she tapped the resources and expertise of SNA’s audio-visual vendor to work with the exhibiting company to ensure that they had all the equipment essentials that they needed for a successful display. You might run into a situation where a shipment of food doesn’t arrive on time and the company representative doesn’t have enough samples for everyone in attendance. In that case, Harper-Pierre recommends that someone high-tail it to the grocery store (if the item is one sold at retail) or contact another area broker to get extra product delivered in a jiffy. Insufficient samples can hurt the reputations of both the company and your operation. When It Comes to Cleaning Up… Put plans in place for handling any leftover foods at the end of the show, especially if this is a large event with an unpredictable number of attendees. “I try to tell exhibitors…you’re not going to feed everybody, so find a charity to donate the extra food to,” Harper-Pierre suggests. This might not be the case for a small show, but it’s good to have an option on standby, so you’re not left with a great deal of surplus product and little available storage or no easy means for continuing your sampling efforts at another time and place. You might find a local hunger charity in your area and coordinate delivery of one large donation or request that each company manage its own surplus. Finally, don’t forget to make arrangements for extra dumpsters and sufficient custodial support! Even if you donate the leftover food to charity, there’s plenty of waste to manage during the event and after the fact, from the food to disposable foodservice ware to empty product packaging. If you are left with a surplus of event-specific information handouts and evaluation forms, you might want to direct these to paper recycling collection. Ready, Set…. As you can see, there are so many considerations you must think about when it comes to putting together a community food show, large or small. Assemble your team and get moving on the logistics. Keep all your notes in one place, so that you continually jot down any of the easy-to-overlook aspects of the event as they come to mind. Make sure your to-do list is very comprehensive and detailed so you can be certain everything is in order. Finally, after it’s all over, review all aspects of the event with your team to identify areas for improvement next time. Kelsey Casselbury is the managing editor of School Nutrition. Photos courtesy of Orange County (Fla.) Public Schools.
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