Last night we attended our daughter’s school auction – raising $80,000 to compensate for ever shrinking public school budgets. Each year it’s traditionally a nice evening out with a great group of parents and friends. This year, though, under the guise of saving money, the auction committee moved the venue from the Tualatin Country Club to the Ambridge Event Center.  The former had a great atmosphere, good food and wine. This featured gymnasium-style lighting and what had to be the absolute worst food at a banquet-style event I’ve attended. Ever. They say they have award-winning menus – but don’t mention what those awards might be.

Before I continue my rant, let me say that we raised $5,000 more than last year so you can’t say the venue nor the food affected the outcome, fortunately. It’s a worthy cause and it comes down to the company you’re with – which was great.

We didn’t exactly have owl pellets, but imagine sitting down at a table with linens that weren’t the cleanest, starting with a salad of iceberg lettuce mounded on a plate with a side bowl of croutons and ranch dressing for the table. Okay, so not anticipating fresh organic garden greens, but still. Then comes via family style a bowl of steamed broccoli (or was it microwaved?) and the main course: burnt chicken sausage sliced into pellet-sized chunks. We even had to ask what these were. Neither had any seasoning, sauce as a veiled attempt to make them attractive let alone appetizing. Finish this off with a sort of mushroom tortellini.

After they cleared our plates, dessert shows up – brownies and lemon bars. When I asked if they were bringing plates, the server gruffly responded that’s what these are for dropping a stack of little white cocktail napkins on the table. Hmmm. Now mind you the lemon bars were not finger food, requiring a fork to eat with any grace. And having to pick them up off the plate left your fingers pretty sticky; you’d think there would be a basic serving utensil. Nope.

In short, dinner resembled something a college student would cook for their parents for the first time rather than a catered banquet affair. Before now, I generally attributed rubber chicken with rice pilaf to be low grade banquet food. But this moved the bar to a new low. How hard is it to make a huge vat of rice and fry-up some chicken for a crowd? Or how about good ‘old spaghetti and meatballs?

Seriously, almost anything would be a step up. And at $45 per plate compared with $50 per plate at the Tualatin Country Club, this was pretty sad. In fact, a few years ago in a leadership program we toured the local prison having lunch there – the same food the prisoners ate. THAT was infinitely better than what passed for a dinner last night. Let me also say that I don’t expect a gourmet 5-star meal either. That’s not the point. You can easily and economically do great, simple food for a crowd.

Perhaps you think I’m being overly harsh or dwelling on the trivial. But I believe if you’re in the service business you need to figure out how to deliver a great experience as the price point you offer. You need to pay attention to the details and this to me is a prime example of how a business failed at doing that.

If you’re a caterer, three things are required for success

  • good food
  • good service
  • clean linens and basic utensils.

None of the above needs to cost a lot of money. And as an event planner, if you’re going to charge $45 per plate, you need to ensure a basic level of quality and service. The experience depends on it.

And if you’re an event planner, you need to ensure the experience appropriately reflects the event and your company or company you’re representing. In this case, the organizers are all volunteers and planning a major auction is a huge undertaking. And that’s why as a caterer / venue, you should help your clients succeed. It’s key to winning repeat business.

I wonder how many others there put on events for their companies and look for area venues and caterers. What kind of missed opportunity do you think they had to gain other customers? Imagine how this venue/caterer could grow their business by delivering a great experience – and imagine how easily they can kill it by doing what we experienced!

Thankfully we still raised the much needed funds for keeping strong programs and smaller class sizes alive in our elementary school.

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