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When Catering Goes Wild

When thinking about event venues and catering operations, a zoo might be one of the last things to come to mind. Guests usually aren't overly concerned with the type of food they will enjoy, they're more pre-occupied with keeping their kids fed, and might not necessarily be expecting the highest quality. However, one Tennessee-based caterer is hoping to change that.

Richard Harris is the executive chef witth Lancer Hospitality for Zoo Knoxville. Photo courtesy Joy Wildflower Photography

Lancer Hospitality currently works with zoos and museums all across the country, including the Knoxville Zoo. What makes them unique is that each of their locations receives quality food from an executive chef, creating an even better experience for everyone.

Catersource spoke with Richard Harris, the executive chef witth Lancer Hospitality for Zoo Knoxville, and Aaron Janus, Regional Executive Chef for Cultural and Attractions for Lancer Hospitality, to find out why having an executive chef at a zoo is actually a great idea.

Catersource: How long has Lancer Hospitality been offering catering at zoos? Which zoos do you work with? 

Lancer Hospitality: Lancer Hospitality has been a food and beverage partner at some of the country’s premier zoos and aquariums since 1993. Our footprint spans coast to coast from one of the country’s oldest zoos, the Philadelphia Zoo, to Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington. 

CS: What type of catering is offered? (i.e. event-specific, concessions, boxed lunches, etc.) 

LH: Our catering offers run the gamut from retail concessions for the visitor experience to group sales menus, picnic programs, fundraising events, and social entertaining. At Zoo Knoxville, we cater corporate receptions, reunions, picnics, weddings, fundraisers, and group tours just to name a few.  At Lancer Hospitality, we create dining experiences. Our spaces are welcoming and thoughtful. Whether it’s a local beer garden or a wedding we’ve catered at the zoo, customers feel like they’ve stepped into a high-quality culinary experience.  

CS: How do you approach catering in this environment? How is it different from traditional catering? 

LH: Catering at a zoo property operates similarly to other off-premise catering where we can create events in “non-traditional” spaces. We pop up wherever an event is needed on the property from a picnic pavilion or tent to one of our retail locations or even a field. We are nimble and flexible, designing menus for each environment to maximize quality, the guest experience, and value. On any given day, we could start with a coffee break, move to create box lunches, and end with a full-service, five-course seated dinner. 

An example of the dishes that Lancer Hospitality creates for Zoo Knoxville. Photo courtesy Joy Wildflower Photography

CS: How do you approach menu development? How is it different from traditional catering? 

LH: We cater to a wide demographic at Zoo Knoxville and our menus have to match the vision and needs of those clients. Sometimes, that means making a delicious, casual, and affordable menu. We translate that into locally-sourced luxury ingredients and partnerships with local artisan bakers, farmers and makers. It is certainly never boring and always customizable. 

CS: Any tips or tricks you’d like to share? (i.e. menu theming, dish naming, etc.) 

LH: The zoo provides all of our inspiration! The amazing exhibits at Zoo Knoxville and programming allow for our creative juices to flow. We often find ourselves leaning into the exhibit closest to the event. Are we having a picnic in Africa? Then we should embrace African spices and draw inspiration from African heritage recipes. If we are over by the old tortoise, Al, we should make him a rocking Cantina and have a fiesta to add some energy for the old guy. Use what is around you for inspiration so you ensure each dish is authentic and meaningful for your event.  

CS: What are some of the challenges for this style of catering? 

LH: Often we are working without a traditional kitchen and it is our goal to design a menu that will be successfully executed in the location it is served. That could mean building a pop-up kitchen with rental equipment or placing a grill in a field and cooking steaks to order. Our business is also very cyclical and best in good weather. The weather is always changing and can be a challenge for outdoor entertaining, and that’s why we pride ourselves on always having a backup plan. 

CS: Why do you think having a caterer/executive chef at the zoo is beneficial? 

LH: You get better customer service. We can offer highly customized catering that is built to fit the vision and budget of our client. With an onsite culinary department, we can produce better-quality food and more consistent menus at a high volume. The expertise of an executive chef shines through the entire event planning experience for our guests. From menu proposal and tasting to event execution, customers know they are getting a first-class experience when they bring the kids to the zoo for the day. 

Aaron Janus is the Regional Executive Chef for Cultural and Attractions for Lancer Hospitality. Photo courtesy Joy Wildflower Photography

CS: What types of events have been held at the zoo? 

LH: We do a little bit of everything! Our teams have held weddings, fundraisers, picnics, reunions, corporate receptions and dinners, and social events at the zoo. We’ve even had people buy out the entire zoo for the day and catered that experience for them.   

How do you approach events at zoos? 

LH: Our events are fully customizable and people can choose their own adventure. From elegant wedding meals and reunion refreshments to all-day work retreats, we make sure there is something for everyone. We take into account dietary restrictions and preferences so no one is left out. We always strive to make our food feel like it fits into the theme of the event and isn’t an afterthought. Research is key to our success. Our team tracks local food trends, eats at fan-favorite hot spots, and always looks for local artisan food producers to partner with for our menus. 

CS: What do you enjoy about this branch of catering? 

LH: This type of catering is exciting because every day is different and you never know what is coming next. One day you could be catering a beautiful boho-inspired wedding and the next you are planning an event with an elephant as the backdrop of your buffet.

CS: There’s obviously a misconception that food at the zoo is low brow/cheap/frozen, how are you trying to change this perception? 

LH: Lancer Hospitality prides itself on making meals from scratch. We make real, authentic dishes that are as beautiful to look at as they are delicious to eat. We also love to work with local talent to source ingredients that celebrate local cuisine and are therefore more sustainable. Each location is so unique and we want to showcase those interesting flavors no matter where we are working. 



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