The Main Course Toward Perfect Parties:
Making the Food Fit the Special Event at Destination Locations

Food is an essential ingredient in throwing a successful party, especially one hosted at a venue. Whether a client knows exactly what they want or not, it’s up to the staff to guide the choices so the menu will be sure to please the client and the guests. And at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, on the grounds of Mount Hope Estate and Winery, in Manheim, Pa., clients who book private parties can choose pretty much anything, said Scott Bowser, general manager.

“We’re not your typical catering operation,” explained Bowser, a former chef and microbrewer who oversees the menu creations. “We’ll do whatever the client wants.” Indeed, the venue is equipped with 20 kitchens, an in-house textile department, a costume wardrobe with 15,000 pieces, a Victorian mansion, two wineries, two breweries and the fairgrounds, so it can easily throw elaborate costumed parties with menus to match.

The list of themed private events it has hosted include a Kentucky Derby party with juleps and derby pie, Renaissance wedding feasts, a Jimmy Buffet-themed fundraiser with a Caribbean fare, a German-themed party and a Wild West gambling party with white chili, Texas brisket and pulled pork.

Bowser said there is no catering menu. Instead, the client is interviewed and typically has a theme in mind and he and the chefs take it from there. “We do a lot of research for the menus,” he said, “and we make it modern. It keeps it interesting for our chefs.”

The winery and fair has booked private events dating as far back as 1997, and no promotion is done for this part of the business. “It’s all word of mouth,” said Bowser. “It’s not our bread and butter. The renaissance fair is. The special events are the icing on the cake.”

And that icing just had its best year yet in 2010, according to Bowser. The staff still takes care, though, and stays in touch with the client leading up to the event and follows up afterward to see how things went. Service and food issues are discussed and addressed. “Most of the time, people are just blown away,” Bowser said.

On the other end of the spectrum, clients booking private events at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk are looking for just one thing—a beach party. The boardwalk, a classic seaside amusement park in Santa Cruz, Calif., is more than 100 years old and offers plenty of nostalgia, with vintage rides and postcard views.

“Our most popular group event areas are outside, on or by the beach,” said Kathie Keeley, director of sales. And the park keeps the menu simple, with casual barbecue-style items, such as hamburgers, chicken and ribs, that Keeley described as “perfect for fun beach parties.” And clients can select from eight barbecue-style entrees, a choice of three salads, beans and garlic bread.

The beachfront amusement park has hosted private events for 31 years, with business peaking in 2007. The rough economy, though, has taken its toll and Keeley said business has dropped significantly.

After an event, the outreach includes a client evaluation and phone call, so Keeley and staff can determine what changes are needed for the future. One thing that’s being explored now, she said, is “how to best utilize social media to reach event planners.” Something that might come easy, since the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has over 100,000 fans on Facebook and is on Twitter and YouTube.

And when clients book parties at Strike Miami, now part of Bowlmore Lanes, they’re looking for an upscale bowling experience. With 34 lanes, a menu by celebrity chef David Burke and a modern design, the bowling party can be sophisticated or simple. Still, most people want fried foods, such as chicken tenders, hot dogs and cheese pizza, said Crysty Polanco, event representative. “Kids really love them,” she said. “And it’s easy to eat while bowling.”

Though the bowling alley has stickier items on the menu, such as chicken wings, she steers clients toward “easy-grabs,” especially if it’s a children’s birthday party. For corporate events, she’ll suggest having a buffet with more menu choices, such as shrimp dumplings and the “killer grilled cheese,” which has tomatoes and bacon on it.

Strike Miami’s parent company, Bowlmor Lanes, dates back to 1938 and the original location is in Greenwich Village in New York. In the last 14 years, the company transformed the original location and rolled out upscale, event-friendly bowling alleys in five other locations in the country. Just hours after a private event is held, a client is sent a survey.

Backed by corporate marketing efforts, Strike Miami benefits from the company’s Web site, which shows off red carpet photos, its celebrity following, as well as to book private parties. Also, clients also post thanks on its Facebook fan page; Tweets about people’s private party experiences are retweeted; and high-profile party photos are on Flickr. –

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