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Feeding the Masses

Navigating the Logistics of Catering to Thousands at Major Events

Caterers are well-oiled machines when serving large crowds—but even the most efficient caterer can feel the stress of serving thousands of meals.

Brunch buffet from the LIV Golf tournment. Photo courtesy Behind the Scenes Catering and Events

Industry trade shows. Sporting events. Festivals. If all events are puzzles, large-scale events are the thousand-piece ones, and every piece is a shade of the same color. They require an extra measure of planning, coordination, and catering grit.

“It’s a completely different animal to be able to serve that many guests,” says Susan Lacz (Ridgewells Catering). “It’s not easy.”

Avocado Crisps. Photo courtesy Behind the Scenes Catering and Events

The Superbowl Hospitality Bar. Photo courtesy Behind the Scenes Catering and Events

Events of all shapes & sizes

When talking about large scale events, we’re referring to those events that have thousands of guests in attendance. More specifically, we’re looking at those events that happen on a national stage, such as an awards show, sporting event, or other star-studded affair, thus adding to the stress of it all. 

An American Culinary Team in Paris

Based in San Diego, chef/owner John Crisafulli of Behind the Scenes Catering and Events (BTS) has catered 12 Olympic Games. This year he and his team have been traveling to Paris to source products and vendors for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. After the red tape of Sochi, Russia and being put under house arrest in Beijing, China, for a false case of COVID-19, Paris has been a cake walk.

The team will be creating food for broadcasters and media, working with some top sponsors on their VIP hospitality, and possibly providing the food for one or two National Olympic Committees at a hospitality venue hosted by Paris to entertain their special guests, athletes, and dignitaries.

Between now and the Paris Games, Crisafulli, Chef Melissa Chickerneo, and their team are traveling to Paris almost monthly to:

  • Meet with vendors, check their supply chain safety systems, test and taste certain prepared items that will be purchased in local markets, and work with the Paris organizing committee on the buildout and to install temporary kitchens at competition and non-competition venues.

  • Recruit hundreds of local staff that will be trained to support everything from working crew meals to high-end VIP hospitality for athletes and heads of state.

  • Coordinate sustainability plans with Paris 2024 goals and guidelines for the Olympic Games. There are a lot of moving parts to coordinate vendor deliveries, cold storage logistics, health and safety plans, menu planning based on local market resources, as well as French laws, tax rules, and supply chain systems.

  • Create menus and recipes that incorporate the local flavors and culture of France (Crisafulli and Chickerneo have been creating and testing Parisian-inspired menus at San Diego events).

“As you can see there are a lot of layers to the planning for an event of this caliber,” says Crisafulli. “It’s like creating a new business in every country we operate; working with bureaucratic rules, navigating health and safety, and building important new relationships with vendors from scratch.”

Information above courtesy Behind the Scenes Catering and Events

Bruschetta Board. Photo courtesy Behind the Scenes Catering and Events

Daisies and Disco Charity Gala. Photo courtesy Behind the Scenes Catering and Events

Some examples include:

  • M Culinary Concepts caters the WM Phoenix Open for 800,000 over several days.

  • Proof of the Pudding caters myriad major sporting events nationwide, including the PGA Tour Players Championship (30,000 guests over four days), PGA Tour Championship (24,000 premium guests over four days, plus 50,000 guests in concessions), PGA Tour Presidents Cup (40,000 guests over five days), Circuit of the Americas Formula 1 (30,000 premium guests over three days, plus 430,000 guests in concessions), University of Georgia Football Premium Suites and Clubs (2,800 guests per game), Auburn University Football (7,500 guests per game), and Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show (100,000 guests over five days).

  • Ridgewells Catering has serviced the US Open Golf Championship for more than 30 years (over 70,000 meals). They also cater the Preakness Stakes.

  • Behind The Scenes (BTS) Catering and Events will be catering the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris. They’ve also catered the Super Bowl and LIV Golf.

  • CBK Catering & Events fed 8,000 people during Super Bowl LV.

  • Footers Catering and Good Gracious! Catering & Events teamed up to feed 3,000 plus people during Super Bowl LVI.

  • Chartwells Higher Ed annually feeds 6,000 people a day during the Walmart Associates Week and Shareholders Celebration.

  • Sodexo Live! regularly feeds thousands of people during conventions and tradeshows at the Orange County Convention Center.

Granddaddy Tailgate Bar during the Rose Bowl. Photo courtesy Behind the Scenes Catering and Events

“Large events attract influential guests and provide opportunities to showcase your skills to a wider audience, and they’re always a great networking opportunity,” says Warner Peck (Sodexo Live! at the Orange County Convention Center) “Tackling the complexities of largescale events can inspire creativity and innovation in menu design and execution for future events. They can create new opportunities and solutions to new challenges.” 

Planning to perfection

Large events attracting big crowds can be a game changer for catering companies, and if pulled off with finesse, these large events can put you head and shoulders above competitors.

“It’s an adrenaline rush to be doing all these logistics,” says Lacz. Be warned, however: large-scale events demand a well-organized logistical plan. The key is precision and efficiency.

BTS Catering provides backstage catering during concert tours. Shown: Coldplay’s stadium tour stop in San Diego. Photo courtesy Behind the Scenes Catering and Events

“Event success begins and ends with the planning and execution of the actual food and beverage, but greater success happens with properly planned logistics,” says Jeremy Campbell (Proof of the Pudding). “A detailed to-do list or event blueprint is necessary.” 

Plan ahead

Successful large-scale event catering begins with meticulous planning. Understand the event’s theme, guest count, and any specific requirements. Collaborate closely with event organizers to guarantee seamless coordination and ensure that your catering team is equipped to handle transportation, setup, and breakdown efficiently.

Additionally, don’t forget to consider the venue, the equipment, and the timing of your service. You need to ensure that you have enough space, power, refrigeration, heating, and storage facilities to handle your menu.

“Details, details, details will make or break your success at an event,” says John Crisafulli (Behind the Scenes Catering and Events). “Think of it as steering a ship or boat and you need all those on the ship rowing/moving in the same direction.”

The Power of Food Prep Equipment: Cooking Up Efficiency

Catering operations, whether traditional or in the realm of ghost kitchens, thrive on efficiency and precision, and having the right food prep equipment can be a secret weapon. Caterers navigating this terrain can benefit immensely from strategizing menu choices, playing equipment Tetris, and ensuring ingredients are accessible.

Be intentional about the menu

In the world of catering, where the name of the game is quantity with a side of quality, crafting the perfect menu is crucial. Caterers should apply the Pareto principle, focusing on the star dishes that resonate with their audience. These items should not only be crowdpleasers but also travel well without compromising quality. When selecting food prep equipment, prioritize pieces that efficiently churn out your signature dishes and core menu items.

Get creative with equipment placement

Ghost kitchens are designed purely for function. Take advantage of this freedom by strategically placing equipment for maximum efficiency and accuracy. By reimagining conventional kitchen layouts, you can streamline workflows and cut down on unnecessary steps. Placing prep equipment within arm’s reach of workers reduces marathon dashes across the kitchen—efficiency with finesse.

Keep food & ingredients close

Accessibility is key in largescale catering operations. Make sure ingredients are within arm’s reach to minimize downtime and keep production flowing. Storage solutions such as undercounter carts or vertical racks make the most of every inch of space without sacrificing accessibility. With ingredients nearby, there’s no need for kitchen staff to go on a wild goose chase for a sprig of parsley.

By embracing these principles and choosing scalable infrastructure that can adapt to the size of the event (including transportation vehicles, kitchen equipment, and serving stations) and is tailored to their needs, caterers can take operations from ordinary to extraordinary, delighting customers and emerging victorious in the cutthroat world of large-scale catering projects.

Information above courtesy AyrKing

Consider putting together comprehensive planning booklets for each member of your team detailing setup, menus, preparation, and all other logistics.

Consider this tip: if you’re doing multiple events within a single major event, treat each individual event as a standalone event.

“I don’t want to compromise the quality or the presentation because we’re feeding 60,000 people,” says Lacz. “We break each event down and look at them individually; that way the staff working in one sponsor tent doesn’t have to worry about the other tents and that helps the clients feel like they are the only client on the golf course.”

Crisafulli agrees.

“While we have successfully produced large events all over the world for our clients, your reputation is only as good as your last event,” he says. “Our reputation depends on our current clientele and events, so with that there is always pressure to perform and to put our best foot forward for every event, both large and small. There are always curveballs thrown at us by clients and guests, but with experience you learn how to navigate these situations and make every guest feel special.”

Make a list

Remember to put together a detailed packing list including all the essentials (utensils, risers, buffets, food, serving vessels, stoves, ovens, refrigerators, etc.), but also include items that may not necessarily be top of mind, such as a printer/scanner (for reprinting menus, service plans, time sheets, etc.), and an emergency kit (featuring such essentials as a First Aid kit, cutting gloves, paper towels, napkins, extra silverware, pour spouts, and a wine opener).

“The devil is in the details,” says Campbell. “Knowing that you need 40 ovens for an event is no more important than making sure you have the spoons, forks, and people to serve food.”

CBK Catering & Events packed over 8,000 boxed meals for staff during Super Bowl LV in Tampa Bay. In addition to staff meals, the team also provided roughly 2,500 meals during a healthcare hero event. The boxed lunches included a variety of wraps and sandwiches made with Boar’s Head meats and cheeses. Photos courtesy Chase Meyer

Lastly, don’t be caught off guard by some requirements that you may not be thinking of, such as fire regulations and health department or liquor board approvals.

“It’s all these little details that you wouldn’t think twice about normally that can have a pretty big domino effect later in the week,” said Chase Mayer (CBK Catering & Events) in an article for Catersource.

Put together a timeline

A surefire way to help with executing large-scale catered events is to create a detailed timeline, covering everything from menu development to setup and breakdown, to ensure that every aspect of the catering process is well-coordinated.

Walmart and Chartwells at the University of Arkansas teamed up to feed 6,000 people a day during the Walmart Associates Week and Shareholders Celebration. Photos courtesy Walmart Inc.

“We definitely need to get started early,” said Jack Ervin (Chartwells) in an article for Special Events magazine. “We keep copious notes so that we can always stay way ahead of the game, but it really comes down to constantly sharing because there’s only so much we can plan ahead for—we do a lot of it on the fly.”

For example, Sodexo Live! typically adheres to the following timeline:

  • At six months out: Sodexo Live! has an initial consultation where they learn and understand the client’s vision, budget, and expectations.

  • At four months out: Menu design begins, working to create something that reflects the event’s theme, dietary needs, and budget. Sodexo Live! then finalizes logistics planning (supply ordering, organizing staff, and other setup requirements).

  • Execution: When it comes to execution, Sodexo Live! implements the plan while maintaining flexibility to adapt to unforeseen challenges.

“There has never been and there never will be a ‘perfect’ event,” says Peck. “You have to be ready for the curveballs. Being calm, prepared, and finding the ‘win/win’ for the operation and the guest makes for a perfect response.”

It takes a village

Ensure that you have enough staff members to handle the crowd efficiently. Divide responsibilities among your team, including cooking, serving, cashiering, and cleaning. You can even separate your team among the different menu components: have a team designated for hot foods, have one for cold, one team that strictly handles sauces, and yet another team that handles bakery.

Occasions Caterers catered the Children’s National Hospital Annual Children’s Ball, a 1,200 person fundraising gala that took place across two venues that featured a cocktail hour and dinner. Photos courtesy Children’s National Health System

A well-trained and well-coordinated team is crucial for the smooth execution of any event.

If you don’t have robust enough staff to handle events of this caliber, consider hiring temporary staff through recruitment/hiring fairs or by partnering with colleges and universities. You could even partner with other catering companies to utilize some of their skilled staff.

“Surround yourself with people who have the experience and necessary skills and knowledge to handle largescale catering effectively,” says Peck.

Good Gracious! Events (with the help of Footers Catering and Blue Ridge Catering) was tasked with handling orders for upwards of 5,000 people during several Super Bowl events in 2022. Photo courtesy Footers Catering

Remember, you’ll most likely have to not only secure uniforms for all your temporary staff, but also all housing depending on where the event is taking place. 

“We don’t get to choose our schedule; the schedule of events is set by the events themselves, so many on our team spend days or weeks traveling to sometimes far away locations to produce our events,” says Crisafulli. “So, work sometimes gets in the way of personal time and this can take a toll on those with young families.”

One of the most important things to keep in mind with any large event is that something is bound to go wrong.

“Plan for what can go wrong,” says Crisafulli, “and you will be ready for what will go wrong.”

Mastering the menu

Not only do large events require a bit of finesse with logistics and operations, but the menu itself must also be tailored to feed thousands of people in a consolidated timeframe.

“It’s important that your sales team and culinary and operations teams work hand-in-hand when preparing proposals for large event clients,” says Crisafulli. “Both clients and catering sales staff like to get creative in their menu offerings but forget that the culinary team needs to be able to produce these menu offerings, often onsite with limited space and equipment restraints, and operations needs to be able to execute the service. It is not just about writing an over-the-top menu; you also need to be able to execute the menu and wow the guests. That takes teamwork, starting with the initial planning.”

Raspado de Tamarindo. Tamarind shaved ice, lava salt, and Tequila 1800. Photo courtesy Footers Catering

First, start by understanding the event’s demographics, expected attendance, and any dietary preferences or restrictions.

A simple way to achieve balance within your menu (thus ensuring all guests have plenty of options to enjoy) is to use the rule of thirds: one-third of your menu should be vegetarian or vegan, one-third should be meat or poultry, and one-third should be seafood or fish.

When deciding on what types of dishes to include within your menu, consider a mix of both hot and cold options, while also considering the complexity of a dish. You do not want to be serving something that slows down service when thousands of guests are waiting for food. People attending events want to get back to the action quickly, so streamline your food production by offering a concise menu that caters to a variety of tastes but isn’t overwhelming.

“We know we’re not going to put Baked Alaska on the menu,” says Lacz.

Food preparation for the Super Bowl events in 2022 took place in the Good Gracious! Events kitchen. Photo courtesy Footers Catering

Focus on popular items that are easy to prepare and serve quickly. Also, ensure that your food items are easy to eat on the go. Portable options like sandwiches, wraps, or finger foods are usually preferred at events where people may be walking around.

Consider the location of the event, too, and bring a bit of local flare to your menu since guests at these large events come from all over.

“Whenever you can bring in the local brands or flair to the menus and offerings, it tends to be very well received and shows the local community that when a large event comes to town, they are committed to supporting the local community,” says Crisafulli.

Behind the scenes at the Good Gracious! Events kitchen. The culinary teams from both Footers Catering and Blue Ridge Catering traveled to Los Angeles in 2022 to assist Good Gracious! Events in executing a number of Super Bowl events. Photo courtesy Footers Catering

Don’t fall victim to preparing standard options, however. This is your chance to stand out.

“The standard of quality should not get lost in translation when moving between premium hospitality and concessions,” adds Campbell. “Great food is in our DNA [as caterers], so whether it’s a fresh lobster roll, 16-hour smoked brisket, or a cheeseburger, there is no drop off in quality of ingredients and presentation.”

A plated salad that was served during the Super Bowl in 2022. Photo courtesy Footers Catering

Bonus tip: consider items that utilize similar ingredients to cut down on inventory lists.

“Repetition is your friend,” says Campbell. “Although final items can have varied finishes, base proteins need to be as similar as possible to manage production and labor and to maintain consistency.”

Additionally, make sure to consider timing for all of your hot items as a way to ensure that you never run out of an item, while also keeping the quality high.

The Footers Catering team during the Super Bowl in 2022. Photo courtesy Footers Catering

Plan menus that allow for as much pre-cooking and food preparation as possible prior to the event. Cooking and preparing food in advance will save a great deal of time at a large event. Some dishes do not lend themselves well to this process, which is why it is so important to carefully plan your menu beforehand.

When considering service styles, most large-scale caterers advise against plated, and instead opt for buffets, grab-and-go, and stations. However, if you do choose plated service, focus on elegant presentation and efficient service to ensure timely delivery of meals to each guest. For buffets, the design of a well-organized buffet layout will facilitate smooth flow and minimize wait times. For retail concessions, emphasize convenience and portability while maintaining quality and freshness.

 Portable yogurt parfaits served during the Super Bowl in 2022. Photo courtesy Footers Catering

One service style that is growing in popularity during large-scale events are “food halls,” where several vendors (mainly concessions) will set up in a designated food tent with myriad options.

“This has been introduced as a follow up to the food truck movement that started several years back,” says Crisafulli. “Like the food trucks, it is one of those concepts that looks good on paper, but in practice it doesn’t work well with large crowds, especially when each booth is individually operated by independent vendors. The best way to manage this food hall concept is for one operator to produce all the menu offerings from a centralized BOH kitchen space and then the Front of House client facing sales can be divided up by product and brand ... so guests feel that it’s individual booths but in reality, it’s one operator producing different branded food or drinks.”

Some of the Good Gracious! Events catering team that helped out during the Super Bowl in 2022. Photo courtesy Footers Catering

Lastly, don’t neglect your presentation. Just because you’re feeding thousands of people doesn’t mean they can’t be elevated to the same level as a moderately-sized event.

“Consistency is key here,” says Peck. “Everything must be high quality and presented well, no matter how many guests.”

Zeroing in on waste

Major events pose more than a culinary challenge. They also require sophisticated sustainability programs and hiring techniques. In today’s world, clients appreciate and often demand environmentally conscious practices. Implement sustainable initiatives, such as using eco-friendly packaging, minimizing food waste, and sourcing locally whenever possible. Communicate these efforts to clients as part of your commitment to corporate social responsibility.

A large undertaking

With all of the extra planning and logistics that go into catering these large-scale events, what’s the incentive to take on such a massive undertaking?

“In our industry, our margins are getting thinner and thinner,” says Lacz, “so the larger the event, the bigger the margin.”

Meijer Gardens Culinary Arts & Events at the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park hosted the kick-off event for the LPGA Classic Tour, which was attended by nearly 1,000 guests. Shown: A ”station-in-the-round” setup served up small plates. Photo courtesy Emily DeKoster

Meijer Gardens Culinary Arts & Events at the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park hosted the kick-off event for the LPGA Classic Tour, which was attended by nearly 1,000 guests.. Shown: Signage for the Nitro Ice Cream station. Photo courtesy Emily DeKoster

These events also challenge caterers to get creative with logistics and operations, which can help them execute all their events (not just largescale) flawlessly.

When considering incorporating large-scale events into your repertoire, it’s essential to go in with your eyes open because there are a lot of added challenges to contest with.

During the LPGA Classic Tour event, Meijer Gardens Culinary Arts & Events served Campfire S’mores Sundaes with hickory-smoked vanilla ice cream, chocolate syrup, graham cracker, and toasted marshmallow. Photo courtesy Emily DeKoster

During the LPGA Classic Tour event, Meijer Gardens Culinary Arts & Events served Chicken & Waffle Cones with bourbon maple syrup and barrel-aged hot sauce. Photo courtesy Emily DeKoster

“Large scale events are not for everyone—they take a great deal of time and careful planning,” says Crisafulli. “If the only motivating factor in one’s interest in large-scale events is the potential money to be made, it’s likely not for you. If you are a creative person constantly looking to challenge yourself and your skillset, it may be the perfect playground for you. Just be ready to devote lots of time and effort if you want to be a success.

“Caterers need to be careful that they don’t bite off more than they can chew when it comes to large-scale events.” 


Lead photo: Occasions Caterers catered the Children’s National Hospital Annual Children’s Ball, a 1,200 person fundraising gala that took place across two venues that featured a cocktail hour and dinner. Photos courtesy Children’s National Health System

Amber Kispert

Senior Content Producer

Amber is the Senior Content Producer for Catersource. Amber previously worked as a Communications Specialist for LeClair Group and a reporter for the Woodbury Bulletin, both located in Woodbury, Minn.  As a self-described "foodie," Amber loves to experience the world of food and beverages, and is excited to help share the stories of Catersource and the world's caterers.