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is it possible to serve good food for 7,000 people?

I went to my Christmas office party the other night, at the Hilton Hotel in midtown Manhattan. I work for a massive company, and they must have spent $1 million on the party, attended by about 7k people. The buffet food was a different cuisine in each ballroom (asian, latin american, etc.) and it was uniformly appalling. The booze was flowing, there was lots of money spent on entertainment, gift bags, etc. But the food, my god, it was soooo bad. There was huge variety, but it was a variety of shit, so it didn't matter.

A debate ensued -- can you expect decent quality when feeding that many people?

Anybody from the catering/banquet industry have any thoughts?

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  1. Entirely possible, but it costs big bucks and you need to find a "neutral" venue that will allow you to pick the best caterers and restaurants to each present their own specialty. Still missing the big parties that Montgomery Securities used to put on for their clients with various food and drink stations manned by chefs from top San Francisco restaurants...

    1. You can definitely feed a huge group of people with excellent food. I've worked in catering and event management for three years or so and I've seen some really terrible food and a lot of really fantasic meals too.

      The most successful menus for large groups were done with food stations. Instead of having all the food together in one massive buffet area, the food was split up and scattered all throughout the venue. Each station was manned with chefs with live bbq, stir fry, grill, salad, etc stations. Cold stations are good a long as the food on them can be served at room temperature without getting too gross i.e. leafy green salads wilt after a while whereas antipastos can sit out for a bit and not be affected.

      Dessert stations are always a huge hit - chocoalte fondue station, mini brulées, carnival desserts (i.e. candy apples & candy floss), build your own sundae station, etc.

      1. You also need to make the point that you are talking about a cocktail party with food stations. Dinner or lunch for 7,000 sit down guests is done quite well all the time.


        1. How was the coffee? I've been to dozens of large non profit events where the food was good, desserts noteworthy...but then out came the coffee in giant metal pots....horrible.

          Can a decent cup of coffee been brewed for large groups?

          1. Yes, it is possible. I work for a catering company and we routinely serve large groups. Last summer we did a seated dinner for about 7500 pp, and got raves on the food.

            Without knowing the menu served at your party, or specifically what made it "sooo bad," I'd say the key thing is a culinary/sales team committed to the highest quality, both in menu design and execution. Also, as noted by Ms. Wong, a nice budget definitely helps! That increases your menu options, so you get stations w/chefs as opposed to frozen appetizers. (Not that the quality in the frozen app line is so bad, but still...)

            And yes, a decent cup of coffee can be brewed for large groups. The challenge is in serving that many people efficiently, hence the need for large urns. One cup of coffee for 7000 pp is over 400 gallons! How would you serve that much coffee?

            1. About 20 years ago I attended a convention in Atlanta that took up the greater part of downtown area. Rough guess I would say 12,000++ farmers attended it. The food was excellent however no single place was in charge of everything. For example I stayed at the Hyatt Regency, it was fine. Also at different times, went to mingle at another motel and it was just as good.

              Now my restaurant experience tells me that maybe there was too much stuff prepared and too much going on to keep up with quality control. Likewise today alot of food service personal are not trained as well. Bad food could indicate it spent too long in the steam table or got over done in other holding areas.

              All in all, there is about a 2 hour window when prepared/cooked food starts on a quality decline. There needed to be a well experienced person with this duty. Otherwise the person may be more concerned with waste rather than the quality.

              3 Replies
              1. re: RShea78

                Restaurants are ALWAYS concerned about waste. Waste is something that you've ordered, prepared, and thrown away. That's money down the drain. I've done hors d'oeuvres and buffet-style parties for 800+ and it's usually fine ( give or take the small wait time for fresh prime rib, etc. ). 7500 people is a completely different animal. Anyone who tells you that they are doing quality food for that many people is lying to you. It can't be done. I work in what's considered a "fine dining" outlet ( one of the best in the city ) and we do maybe 450-500 on a busy night and the quality suffers tremendously when you do that many. Anything done for more than 1000 people is either extremely simple ( which can be really good ) or somewhat daring ( and will usually fail ).

                Just my .02 cents -- anyone telling you that they do "phenomal food for 7500 people" are either over-exaggerating or they are hiring a huge team that will cost you megabucks. I would expect prices in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions.

                Again, just my humble opinion of being in the biz for several years doing "private" dining.

                1. re: lvmanager

                  I take offense to the "anyone who tells you that they are doing quality food for that many people is lying to you." If you haven't worked in my company's kitchen, then you haven't the right to make that statement.

                  1. re: lvmanager

                    You've "done hors d'oeuvres and buffet-style parties for 800+ and it's usually fine"? USUALLY FINE? That's not good enough when people are paying you.
                    Your experience in "fine" and "private" dining is may be excellent but your opinion is elitist rather than humble.

                    Many of us excel at producing large events that are thoroughly enjoyed by people who are offered creative, high-quality food. Sometimes it does cost a great deal; sometimes it is virtually free to the sponsor because of in-kind contributions.
                    Firms such as ours are used by major corporations, the Academy Awards, governmental organizations, Embassies, charites, sporting events, Presidential Inaugurations, the White House, etc.
                    These clients expect - and pay for - top quality.

                    Obviously your restaurant is not one of the firms that is able to handle this type of work.
                    Top clients expect performance. They won't take a chance on USUALLY FINE.

                2. Im always surprised at how well they do with the food and wine when I've attended mega-events at the Marriott Marquis in times square. For huge groups they are amazing.

                  1. I'll use cruise ships as another example...food can be superb and horrible in the same 9 day cruise experience...the coffee consistenly awful...and if the cruise industry can't get it right 100% of the time..with only half the guests the OP describes, then...

                    I've chosen to switch to tea and cold drinks during a cruise and resolve to either take upscale cruises when possible or eat the local fare at port.

                    I'm sure good food/coffee/service is possible-but is it the norm for crowds of 7,000 or more?

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: HillJ

                      Problem is good coffee/tea service is rare for ANY size group. Thanks for reminding me that Im going on a cruise in 2 weeks. To solve the problem I will bring along a small coffee maker and ground coffee beans to brew my own each morning.

                      Around 5pm I switch to wine.

                      1. re: WineTravel

                        Happy Sails, WT...wine can be a whole lot more consistent!

                    2. by "soooo bad" i mean hunks of hard, cardboard-tasting chicken in the south american paella, along with cut up hotdogs that were supposed to pass for sausage. downstairs in the australian bbq section, the exact same hunks of dry, utterly flavorless chicken appeared, only this time smothered in cheap, sickly sweet bbq sauce. the hotdog pieces turned up in the german buffet as schnitzel or something. all the food was flavorless, except when it tasted like grease or sugar. i saw people eating one bite, then putting down their plates. and there were no chef stations...just grumpy, exhausted looking old waiters dumping new batches of food onto hotplates.

                      i understand to serve 7k people good food, you'd have to spend a fortune. but this party, which took up two floors of the hilton, was clearly already hugely expensive. seems like if they could have spent a bit more, maybe they could have done it right, but i don't know.....

                      4 Replies
                      1. re: sandyhook

                        I have to say they didn't give a rats about quality and ruining the food is no excuse. I also take it their suppliers must offer lame same old base "hot dogs" as a meat and then the cooking staff attempts to cook them in other dishes. That would not fly with me.

                        The grind of meat should have matched the dish. I bet they used a cheap chicken dogs that will literally decay in 10 minutes on the steam table. They are a cook and eat item that has some very poor holding times.

                        I guess I better quit before I loose my own appetite. I am a heading out to an Amish Restaurant that for $12 I can pig out on and rest assure myself there is little processed stuff in their stuff :-D

                        1. re: RShea78

                          Yep - two words about the suppliers: "lowest bidder." It's hard to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear (although...pig ears = yum :), but OT).

                          It's the same reason most public school food (feeding similar numbers of "guests" every day) is appalling. Bad, economies-of-scale driven ingredients are "disguised" with other cheap sauces made from yet more cheap ingredients, and the result is, well - pretty awful.

                          I'd be willing to bet that most attendees of the party the OP wrote of would have been willing to have less swag in the goody bags and a better meal for the event.

                          1. re: cayjohan

                            As far as our local schools, hot dogs, franks, sausages, and so on, are prohibited if the meat processor uses a mechanical separation process. That rather bans a lot of vendors in most cases. Processed food could easily be on the way out.

                            That still leaves alot of room for improvement of our school lunch program.

                            1. re: RShea78

                              I agree on the school food (and our district is making strides, too, along with bringing in some more ethnic dishes), but the lowest-bidder idea, I think, still stands for whatever is allowed by the procurer. And frankly, we have a few more watchdogs looking at school lunches than at corporate events, or cruise ships. Is that nanny state versus free enterprise?

                              This makes me think of something else: is "safe" (vis-a-vis meat processor standards) equal to "good," vis-a-vis large higher-brow corporate banquet standards(and are they "safe")? Even if our school food is "safe,"(if it indeed is) it doesn't mean "tasty," as for sophisticated dining. Different levels of suppliers, no doubt, but I'll stick with the lowest bidder idea.

                              Any caterers (for large events) out there with some more inside scoop?

                      2. Let me guess, you work for a Australian billionaire?

                        Others have more experience say this can be done but I've never seen it happen. When it comes to serving so many it becomes as much logistics as cooking.