What do the industry’s top chefs do to boost revenue while engaging and refueling guests into the wee hours of the night? In step with the hottest event trends, they create unique culinary experiences served long after dinner has ended: after party snacks and sips.
Grown up PB&J: House smoked peanut butter with Wente Vineyards cabernet jam, sprinkled with powdered sugar, from Wente Vineyards; photo: Eli Photographer
Increasing profitability late into the night
Late night snacks and beverages can be extremely lucrative when sold correctly. As upgrades to standard dinner options, they are a hit with hosts who want to wow their guests and keep the celebration going. “Offering a variety or even customizing a late night snack can increase a wedding GCA 3% to 5%,” says Heather Jones, Catering Sales Director of Wente Vineyards, Livermore, CA. She adds the practical suggestion that, “late night snacks should be simple to set up and execute. You can provide guests with fun, tasty food that is low in labor and food cost, and highly profitable.”
Every Day Gourmet’s Chef Ellie Basch of Richmond, VA agrees that a late night menu has great potential to boost revenue. “A [late night] menu can easily add $5 to $10 per person, and usually just one cook and a couple of wait staff can put them out for the guests, not requiring all of the other catering staff to remain on site just for the last item.”
When an In-N-Out Burger food truck pulls up to a SoCal wedding, the dance floor empties. photo: Kaysha Weiner Photographer
What’s hot in the wee hours?
Comfort foods, haute cuisine, and make-and-takes are all fair game as late night fare. For years, though, sliders were the staple food of partiers needing an extra endurance boost to get those last few bunny hops in.
“The late night is back,” says Miami, FL’s LeBasque Catering President, Alejandro Muguerza, though, “For over the past five years, trends have not varied much between sliders, hot dogs, flavored gourmet French fries, food trucks, and the introduction of ethnic fast food like sushi, Chinese fried rice or noodles, empanadas, churros, and beignets.” Today he says the selection is far more diverse, including ethnic cuisine and gourmet-inspired treats.
A crispy pan fried potato pancake topped with thinly sliced smoked duck magret garnished with smoked and caramelized white pearl onions, and finished with a micro chive and micro amaranth, from La Basque Catering. photo: courtesy of LaBasque Catering
The favorites of the past are now being joined by exciting new options. Wente’s Jones notes that, “We are seeing guests looking for childhood favorites with a grownup twist for their late night snacks. One of our most popular is the House Smoked Peanut Butter and Wente Vineyards Zinfandel Jam Panini.”
For Stephen Coffelt of Richmond, VA-based A Sharper Palate, late night menus have focused on the region itself. He notes that the couples of 2016 are asking for bite sized fried chicken and waffles with maple cayenne butter, with miniature pork or chicken barbeque sandwiches and fried macaroni and cheese following close behind. “Cheeseburgers and French fries are still quite popular,” shares Coffelt, "but many of our clients are looking to have a 'southern' take on their menu."
Another of Jones’ successes involved a special kind of late night station. “One of our wedding couples chose as their late night snack the popcorn station with bittersweet chocolate, spice seasoning, cinnamon sugar, and brown butter, in which we use a replica of an old popcorn machine to pop the popcorn. As the chef was popping the popcorn and setting out all the goodies, the guests started making a line. We couldn’t believe how excited a group of adults were to have freshly popped popcorn and all of the different accompaniments. It was amazing to see something so simple become such a big hit.”
Chef Basch executed a donut hole bar for a high-school themed party that was also a success. “Guests had so much fun concocting their own flavor combo. The kahlua spiked coffee helped, too.” Basch has even attended a wedding where the guests received a full breakfast after midnight.
Emily Sullivan of Get Polished Events, New Orleans, LA finds that late night snacks tend to be a reflection of the couple. “I’ve done everything from bowls of [the groom’s favorite] cereal, to New York style hotdogs and deep dish pizza,” says Sullivan. In her experience, she has found that while thought of as a snack, a late night menu “does need to be somewhat substantial because people are ready for that after drinking and partying.”
Alex Chalk of Taylor’d Events, Woodinville, WA has special ordered 200 burgers and fries for her clients, and even convinced a hotel to allow her to serve Chicken McNuggets in honor of one of her grooms. She suggests varying the presentation: “Have a mixture of ‘grab and go’ and interactive snacks. Late night food doesn’t need to be served during the dancing alone. What about ‘to-go’ bags or boxes of goodies when they walk out door?”
Late night doughnuts? Yes, please. This doughnut station from JPC Event Group was a hit with wedding guests. photo: Veronica Varos Photography
Chalk also suggests hosting an energizing late-night coffee or hot cocoa bar. “Beverages can be iced or hot, depending on the season, with a variety of syrups and toppings.”
Muguerza likes the opportunity to present gourmet foods, yet he still attends carefully to profitability and efficiency. He suggests that catering professionals “serve dishes that maintain heat easily in hot boxes or warmers, and are easy to plate and garnish in order to avoid cooking a full dish last minute.” He loves “serving a petit beef bourguignon over truffle potato parmentier or mash, Jambalaya, shrimp and grits, shepherds pie…and luscious profiteroles and hot fudge brownies.” He cautions that selections should be “cost effective and should require little manpower or labor at that late hour when most of your kitchen staff is already finished and gone.”
Late-night bites are also becoming a fast favorite at destination weddings. As Destination Weddings Travel Group Vice President of Marketing & Customer Engagement Rebecca Hochreiter shares, “In an effort to embrace the regional flavor until the very end of the night, couples are opting for savory snacks, such as bites of ceviche in the Caribbean or pulled Kahlua pork sliders in Maui, as well as sweet treats, like freshly made cannoli in Tuscany.”
After hour snacks are also being incorporated into the “sweet send off,” with couples distributing thank you bags at the end of the wedding night.
“As a twist to the typical destination survival kit,” adds Hochreither, “couples can include thank you notes along with sweet treats from the local area. Whether it's Mexican wedding cookies or alfajores in Barcelona, guests will appreciate a sweet end to the evening."
There are other considerations to take seriously when planning an event with a surprise late-night menu.
Nothing is more frustrating than investing the time to plan an exciting touch, only to discover that it was overlooked by your guests. This can happen if snacks are set out in the wrong place. Jennifer Taylor of Taylor’d Events suggests, “make sure that the snacks are in the same room where people are dancing and have an emcee announce when they are available. I had a client attend a wedding, [and] then [later] mention to me that they never knew that the caterer had put out oysters.”
Safety and quality of product are also key issues. According to Chef Basch, “the holding time is the big consideration for late night menus. If the venue has a kitchen we can use to refresh the food, or if it’s not far and we can deliver the late night menu an hour before it is served, we can offer the items, like fries, which need a few minutes in the oven to crisp up.”
Late night is back on the scene
Comfort foods, energy bursts during dancing, and unique details—the demand for customization and the “wow” factor in events is real. Play with ways your own business can profit from extending services through the end of the party and until the morning hours. You’ll win over your potential clients and leave guests with incredible memories of great service and innovation.
Meghan Ely is president, OFD Consulting, Richmond, VA.
After party menu planning
Need some ideas for your own after party bid? We looked at the menu submissions for 2016 ACE finalists and found some across-the country-favorites:
Macaroni and cheese – Triple cheese served in bowls; deep fried and served on skewers; with smoked gouda, served in cups with a bread crumb topping; mac and cheese bar
Sliders – Classic with ground beef and cheddar cheese; The “Ultimate” with ground beef, sausage, and cheddar cheese; Angus beef sliders
Potatoes – Truffle fries; shoestring French fries; mashed potato bar
Hot dogs – Half-sized all-beef Coney dogs; Hot Diggity Dogz premium all beef with accouterments such as chili, chimi truck sauce, cheese, bacon, and more;
Pretzel stations – Soft pretzel bites with melted cheeses, diced green onions, jalapenos, bacon for guests to individualize;
Mini sandwiches – Grilled cheese in a variety of styles with bacon or short ribs or eggplant; mini meatloaf;
Late night breakfast – Manchego & Italian sausage sandwich; hash brown scallion & cheddar casserole; breakfast burrito; French toast sticks with warm maple and vanilla syrup or chocolate syrups; Cinnamon sugar doughnuts; hot beignets;
Simple desserts – Cookies; woodfire dessert pizzas with various toppings;
Fresh taco bars – with grilled Baja shrimp or slow roasted pork, guacamole, pico de gallo and corn relish; mini street tacos with ahi tuna; breakfast tacos
Fried, truffled mac and cheese bites are a popular carb for the late night hours, from J P C Event Group. photo: Kelsey Kradel Photography
Yellow tomato and basil skewers are preassembled and kept chilled until late night serve time. An easy serve for remaining staff, a delicious and bright pop of flavor for guests, from Eatertainment Events & Catering, Toronto, CA. photo: courtesy of Eatertainment