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Best Practices for Catering Outdoor Summer Events

Yes, it’s only May but the heat of summer is just around the corner. Outdoor events: weddings, graduation parties, and corporate BBQs to name a few, are popular with hosts who wish to take advantage of the most free-spirited time of year.

Photo courtesy Mazzone Hospitality

Fun-filled, active, and often expansive, these events use various unique spaces that come with equally unique challenges for a caterer tasked with ensuring food quality and safety in high-temperature conditions. And while (of course), we should all employ best practices throughout the year, outdoor events in the summer months create, shall we say, “special challenges” that require their own subset of best practices. Here are a few thoughts to keep in the forefront.

Engineer a summer-friendly menu

Choose menu items that will not only stay safe in summer conditions, but that will still serve well and reflect positively on your catering business. Avoid those dishes that are most sensitive to temperature and that pose the highest risk for foodborne illness when heat is a factor. Encourage your clients to choose the hardiest items and reassure them that they would much rather have a unique summer spin on their menu than even one guest experiencing (worst) avoidable illness but (best?) a breakdown of the texture and/or flavor of the food.

“Catering professionals know better than anyone that nothing goes as planned—we are equipped to handle the curve balls and still deliver the best possible experience to guests. Exude confidence!”

Manage client expectations

Don’t overcomplicate things for your clients. Keep things simple and assure them that you have heat-related issues under control. If you roll with the little unforeseen issues, and demonstrate your expertise and calmness under pressure, it will rub off on your clients and ensure their enjoyment of their day. Catering professionals know better than anyone that nothing goes as planned—we are equipped to handle the curve balls and still deliver the best possible experience to guests. Exude confidence!

At this mid-June outdoor wedding at Wente Vineyards in California, only condiments, bread and water were preset. Photo: Marielle Hayes

Create safe hot weather catering conditions

Take extra care to create the best possible conditions for food display and service. Food area covering is critical to keep direct sunlight off and prevent dangerous spoilage, for example. Think creatively and prepare your clients for weather-necessitated adjustments. “Although most would like to display a wedding cake throughout their event, for example, the integrity of the cake and food safety is at risk,” shares Jeff Farlow, executive chef of Wente Vineyards. “Plan to put the cake out as late as possible—no more than 30 minutes in advance if it is super hot.”

Tray passing heat-sensitive items such as lettuce cups gets food more quickly to guests with less opportunity for spoilage. Photo courtesy Mazzone Hospitality

Additionally, butler or tray passing delicate items allows for server eyes on temperature control. The moment food looked heat-affected, it is already in the hands of the person who needs to strike it.

Prevent problems by enforcing good practices

As service-oriented culinary professionals, we tend to forget to take care of ourselves and underestimate the potential for our own dehydration. “Your staff must stay hydrated to avoid heat exhaustion,” urges Farlow. “Once you start feeling the effects, it is too late and you could be out of commission for a couple of hours (and much longer if you’re very unlucky). If even one of your team members drops from heat exhaustion, not only is there an emotional toll on your team; but practically speaking, the precision execution you planned can be impacted dramatically.

The best time to address dehydration and other personal issues while working in the heat is at the pre-event staff meeting. Here, staff at Mazzone Hospitality, Clifton Park, NY, go over event logistics.

“It is so easy to prevent heat exhaustion by demanding that your crew keep up on their water intake and ensuring that they understand their personal limitations.”

At a Dubai-inspired outdoor wedding in Palm Springs, there was no power at the reception site, so Nahid’s Global Events (San Diego, CA) brought in noiseless generators.

Be technologically-savvy

There are tricks of the trade that every caterer should follow to ensure successful summer events. For example, “have twice the [amount of] ice you think you will need,” encourages Farlow. Also, employ technology! “Use small chilled platforms that can be placed on buffets, stations, and behind the scenes to keep food cold and ensure food safety and quality.”

To that end, a variety of companies have exceptional products to keep food hot or cold, without the use of ice, electricity, or open flame. Additionally, for on-the-spot cooking, portable butane stoves in a variety of BTUs are also readily available.

High winds at a 2016 Commencement Weekend Platform Party executed by Catering on the Charles, Boston, MA, placed serving staff into a tent.

Encourage your outdoor venue to follow suit, or come prepared to fill in any existing gaps. A pergola or other cover is a huge safeguard to the integrity of the food, no matter how well the menu is engineered. Additionally, (especially after dark) lighting over the food is essential so guests not only appreciate your work, but can read signage as well.


Heather Jones is the Catering Sales Director for Wente Vineyards, a family-owned property that is home to a winery and vineyards, a golf course, restaurant, and a handful of unique facilities for hosting weddings and special events.


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