Organizing the food court at our conferences: challenges and opportunities

They say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach which just goes to show they’re as confused about anatomy as they gen’rally are about everything else, unless they’re talking about instructions on how to stab him, in which case a better way is up and under the ribcage.
— Terry Pratchett, Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook (Discworld)
A scene from the food court at JSFoo 2016

There are lots of problems to solve in hosting conferences. When we started, we picked the most pressing challenges and spent a few years on them. We focussed on getting stable WiFi at HasGeek conferences, facilitating voluntary exchange of contact information between participants and sponsors, and live streaming talks.

In the last couple of years, we have started paying attention to food and the choices we can offer to participants. 
Food at conferences, especially at hotels where the venue is charged on the basis of food plates, tends to be loaded with carbohydrates. As the number of events in Bangalore has grown, we’ve been eating more and more of this unhealthy high carb event food, and it’s showing on our waistlines. 
Another creeping problem is that a caterer has assured business with us. They don’t have a competitor, so there’s no quality control on the food.
We finally decided we had enough. We can’t force healthy food on people. But anyone who wants to eat healthy should have the option to eat healthy. Besides, having competing food vendors at the venue will force them to improve food quality.

This post talks about our experience with setting up food courts at HasGeek conferences — learnings, improvisations, concerns with certain aspects of the food court, and things we’d like to share transparently with participants. Read on, if you’d like to get into the underbelly …

Challenges with the food court setup:

Rise in the number of food startups in 2015-16 made it easier for us to put together food courts — where participants have choice of three and more vendors (and menus) at every conference. 
Organizing a food court involves coordination on various fronts – with food vendors, the venue’s house-keeping staff, food court vendor staff, and at the same time dealing with irate participants if things are unclear or anyone is unhappy. 
Here are some of the challenges we face when running food courts. We are continuously making efforts at overcoming these challenges. Happy to receive your suggestions on how to deal with some of the others.

  1. The challenge of choosing between multiple food options during the limited time span of the lunch break: One of the issues participants continue to bring up is that it is tough to choose between so many options when deciding on which meal to take. A good number prefer the catered food system where there is no need to make a choice — serve yourself what you want, to any number of helpings. Why give choice, many ask. An equal number share enthusiasm about HasGeek providing exposure to food startups at the events. 
    The other challenge here is that most of our conferences are single track. This means everyone gets out to eat lunch at the same time. This format makes it difficult to navigate between counters to choose, and then join the queue after having made the decision. Staggered lunch is not yet an option at our events.
  2. Logistics have become more complex: The above problem leads to the issue of how to display each vendor’s menu to make it easier for participants to view and navigate the food court? We have tried a few options so far. One of them has been to provide white boards placed on stands to all the vendors to write their menus. We bought and stored several white boards and stands only to discover later that this option is messy: it adds to the space at every counter. Moreover, people prefer to see the food before they choose what to buy. White boards also fall over during the rush. Or, when the wind is strong, it topples them over. We are now working towards a system of displaying the menu on the conference schedule, ahead of time, so that participants can also choose their food when they navigate the conference schedule.
We displayed the breakfast and lunch menu on the conference schedule for Meta Refresh 2012

Secondly, many of the food startups at the food court serve food in packed boxes. Sometimes, the box contains a starter, a drink and the meal. This means you need a surface to put the box on and open the contents. Even when the food is served in a compartmentalized plate, you need a stable surface to place the meal since the plastic plates tend to tilt once the contents empty out unevenly at the sides. All this means we have to provide seating space and standing tables for participants to eat their meals comfortably. Whereas, earlier, people could stand and eat with plates in their hands. The food court is no longer just a space for providing diverse food options; it also needs to address the requirements of consuming packed meals. This gets complex when there isn’t much space in the conference venue’s dining area, and participants have to navigate to a separate area to eat. 
We are now working on a system of providing plates to the food court vendors where they can serve items such as bagels, sandwiches, panini and other ready-to-eat foods on the plate (along with the dressing and sauces). This will reduce some effort in consuming the food. It will also mean plates can be washed and reused after the food is consumed. 
Thirdly, conference venues don’t provide garbage collection facilities for food courts. When we served catered food, the caterer brought bins to collect used plates and trash. Her staff collected and disposed the trash. Now, for our food courts, we have bought and stocked more than three dozen bins. We buy and replace the garbage bags in these bins. Our food court coordinator works with the venue’s housekeeping staff to ensure that the bins are cleared out periodically since the volume of garbage generated is very high and fast.

3. Communicating the system of food tokens: When we started the full fledged food court, the first challenge was how to design food tokens. In the first conference (with this experiment) in May 2016, the printed paper tokens looked beautiful but did not communicate the price of the token visibly. This added to delays and confusions between participants and vendors when buying food. 
By the next conference, we decided to go for simplicity. We made die-cut plastic tokens displaying three different denominations: INR 100, INR 50 and INR 25. We produced a total of 15,000 such tokens, accounting for reuse and loss at every conference.

Food tokens of three denominations: INR 100, INR 50 and INR 25
We produced 15,000 tokens of three different denominations to make it easy for participants to exchange at the court.

We pack these tokens in ziplock bags and hand them out to participants on each day of the conference. 
Most conferences are of two days duration. Participants get tokens for each day separately. However, communicating this with participants has been tough because the common assumption is that we provide tokens for both days on the first day — how can you give us so less for the price we pay? is the common charge against the staff at the check-in counter. 
We distribute tokens for day 2 on the second day to incentivise participants to check-in and help us maintain count on the number of people who show up on each day. We also debated that if tokens for both days are given to participants on the first day itself, they may use up most of the tokens on day 1 and be left with few on day 2. Moreover, why burden participants with carrying food tokens back with them on the second day, or risk forgetting these at home and then land up in an awkward situation of explaining forgetfulness and negotiating for coupons. This will result in more overheads for our staff at the registration desk and for the participants themselves. 
We have started making periodic announcements between talks to participants about the token system, and that they can buy tokens of any denomination and value if they run out. We now have a separate desk for buying food tokens. We are also working towards explaining the token system visually, on a standee, near the check-in counter.
We have also introduced a no-frills ticket since JSFoo and Meta Refresh. The no-frills ticket includes access to the conference and facilities minus food; the participant can buy tokens for food separately on each day or choose to eat outside.

4. Prices of food items: In the feedback forms we receive, participants often complain about the cost of meals and food items. Some of the participants have also asked us what is the percentage HasGeek takes from every meal and item sold at the food court. To answer this question, we don’t keep any margins on the items sold in the food court. Vendors decide on prices independently. 
Two days ago, my colleague Jyothsna Vinod (who is the chief coordinator of the food courts) and I held a meeting with our vendors and explained this concern to them. Vendors pointed out that the meals sold at the courts arein fact cheaper than their regular prices (by anywhere between INR20 and INR50). They maintain parity between online and offline prices for deserts and some gourmet items. We have asked vendors to explain their pricing strategies, if possible, so as to state facts and perspectives transparently.

5. The problem of waste and lack of segregation: As I explained earlier, boxed food generates a great deal of paper and plastic waste. One of our vendors serves juices in glass bottles which hardly make it back to their counter after the juice has been consumed. One of our vendors, Bhukkad, has made efforts to pack food in eco-friendly plates. This may work out to be an expensive or a non-feasible option for some of the other vendors. 
Again, in the meeting held with food vendors, we expressed the problem of garbage generation. We have agreed to reduce packaging where possible — use plates to serve sandwiches and similar foods. We are also working towards segregating garbage and explaining to attendees to do the same. We have asked vendors to communicate their garbage recycling policies so that attendees are encouraged to return recyclable items such as glass bottles back to the vendor. 
We have also started checking with sponsors — potential and those on-boarded — if they can sponsor reusable water bottles which attendees can use on the conference days to refill water.

6. Problem of on-boarding new vendors: We have managed to work with nearly seven vendors so far. Some of the startups we worked with have shut down or merged with larger chains. We have trouble on-boarding new vendors. Perhaps our events aren’t a big enough avenue for them? Or their sales staff on the ground don’t take us seriously at all. 
Contacts with right persons in popular and emerging chains and brands are hard to get. When we make connections, we often don’t get a response, forget a no. 
We are still finding it difficult to get other vendors for tea, coffee and hot beverages, and also vendors who recognize the importance of providing the choice of sugarless beverages to participants. Any help from attendees and readers on this front will be helpful.

The journey so far:

Despite all these challenges, it has been a tremendous learning journey in putting together the experience and diversity of food at HasGeek conferences. The caterer who served food earlier has now come back as vendor in the food court, having now adjusted to this new paradigm. She introduced a live counter at the last conference which was a hit. Some of the other vendors have offered to do the same to provide the option of hot food to participants.

Live omelette and dosa counter at JSFoo and Meta Refresh

In our last conference, we also provided food options for those following vegan and keto diets. This will be a regular feature at our food courts now onwards.

We introduced the concept of a live salad counter in 2015 where participants can choose veggies and dressings and make their own salad. Live salad counter will be back at droidconIN and 50p Conf.
And we convinced our current tea-coffee vendor to provide the option of sugarless coffee.

Here’s hoping to challenge our taste buds and eating habits at HasGeek conferences as we journey the worlds of technology and hacking.