Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Fun Playing With Food for over 1800 Hungry Mensans - That Was Easy!

Please forgive my lengthy absence from this blog. For the past 2 years, I worked on an event that began, in person, in Pittsburgh PA, on June 28, 2009 and which concluded last Tuesday, 7/08/09. It was an amazing learning and doing experience, which I will do my best to share with you, despite a dearth of photos. My camera didn't come out of the suitcase until our "victory dance" dinner Monday night in a hotel restaurant after the event was concluded.

Mirriam-Webster defines "chef" as follows:
Etymology:French, short for chef de cuisine head of the kitchen
1 : a skilled cook who manages the kitchen (as of a restaurant) 2 : cook — chef intransitive verb — chef·dom \-dəm\ noun.

Author Michael Ruhlman, at p. 86 of his book Elements, defines "chef" simply as: "leader. . . ."

Beginning on Tuesday June 30, I took on the role of chef supervising a crew that would comprise over 250 individuals by the end of the event. Our mission: to feed as many as 1900 people who were anticipated to be guests at the AM/FM American Mensa Annual Gathering 2009. As someone with no formal culinary education, who does not cook for a living, I do not use the term "chef" lightly, but I do believe I earned it this time. Our mantra, as demonstrated by the "Easy" buttons our AG Co-Chair Mary Lee Kemper handed out to her committee, was: "That Was Easy."

Prior to the event, there were seemingly millions of tiny (and not so tiny) details that I had to organize. I had to rescale the menu/shopping list numerous times, as we went from an initially anticipated crowd of 2000, to as low as 1400, then back to 1500 - then, as a last minute surge of late registrations came in, our actual (approximate) number of 1880. At times, budget constraints seemed dire, forcing more changes.

Then, there was sourcing all of the needed equipment and supplies, and negotiating with multiple vendors to make the budget work and to obtain the many things we needed, which no one vendor could supply. I would like to thank Kelly Easterling of Sysco and Andrew Smith of Gordon's Food Service (GFS), my primary food vendors, for all of their help - Kelly even made a personal delivery of nacho cheese to us on Friday that ensured we didn't run out. And Andy got us chili for our dispensing machine - a hard-to-source item in Pittsburgh - at the very last minute after we learned that when Sam's Club says an item is "delivery only" - they mean it! The local Coca-Cola distributor provided the vending machines that you'll see in some photos below, that enabled us to serve large quantities of cold pop (or soda) to our masses at all hours. We had to work closely with the hotel to ensure that our cadre of electrical equipment wouldn't pop any circuits. And we had to get all of this food to proper serving temperatures, and get it on the tables (with back stock ready to serve from either the kitchen or the hot or cold boxes). Also - thank you to Joann Garvin, CMP, of destination PITTSBURGH - though I was ultimately unable to afford her - she really knocked herself out to try and help us; I was thrilled to learn that she did organize the event's local tours.

I would like to give special thanks to local business Rosie's Pierogies, which delivered175 dozen Potato Pierogies swimming in butter and onions (yum!), hot and ready to serve for a terrific price. Also, a shout to Isaly's, which is still a Pittsburgh company, and which gave us an amazing deal on 400# of their famous Chipped Chopped Ham and BBQ Sauce. And thank you to Heinz, North America and Linda Goedert and Audra Flemming. Heinz gave us a generous donation from their Company Store that covered almost all of our condiments!

Also, thanks to Pat Rodenbaugh and the Robinson Township Sam's Club, Club # 6575, which accommodated our every request and took awesome care of us. I'm not normally a Sam's Club kinda girl - but these folks really impressed me, and they really do cater to businesses.

I cannot be as kind to Restaurant Depot. Though the folks in the Cleveland store were nothing but helpful, the Pittsburgh store had no use for us. Though I faxed our order almost 2 weeks in advance, they ordered nothing on it, and we had to make due with what they had on hand, supplemented by Sam's Club. But we made due, and all turned out well.

Three local Mensa groups agreed to lend equipment and supplies: Cincinnati, Cleveland and Dayton. And of course, the local group that owned the AG bid, Western Pennsylvania Mensa ("WPAM") lent its supplies, and an even greater bevy of supplies were obtained/lent by WPAM's RG Hospitality Chair Caren Bachman, as well as by Volunteer Coordinator Nita Jones and her husband Ernie, who used to have a catering business and has all of these wonderful toys!

Also, I must mention the team of volunteers who combined to produce over 400 dozen (that's over 4800) cookies - which were all consumed by sometime Saturday afternoon or evening: Virginia Plottel, Caren Bachman, Judy Gissy, Dave Plottel, Betsy Hetzler, Linda Kellner, and Dana (sorry - I don't have your last name). And the one and only Gerry Riley - who budgeted and sourced all of our beer (some of the most amazing microbrew I've ever tasted!), wine and root beer, and who took responsibility to serve it and to ensure that we complied with Pennsylvania's alcohol service laws.

And so, my "final" spreadsheets in my notebook, "final" orders placed, borrowed equipment and supplies lined up - my team began to converge on the Omni William Penn Hotel on Monday, June 28. Please note that I took very few of the photos below, and I am grateful to the various photographers for giving me permission to post their pictures.

The Entrance to the Omni William Penn Hotel
(c) 2009 Jamie Fritz, all rights reserved, used with permission.

Hospitality consisted of two adjacent ballrooms on the 17th Floor of the hotel - the majestic Grand Ballroom, and the Art Deco Urban Ballroom. The larger Grand Ballroom contained all of the seating (on 2 levels), as well as all of the beverages we served, craft brewed root beer and a freezer full of vanilla ice cream for Root Beer Floats (an innovation I started at Cleveland's bi-annual Regional Gathering, which I consider one of my Hospitality Signatures), and tables holding all of our "dry" snacks - various types of chips and salty snacks, candies, cookies, brownies, dried fruits, several varieties of nuts, and similar items.

A view of the Grand Ballroom, as we were getting things rolling!
(c) 2009 Jamie Fritz, all rights reserved, used with permission.

You can see the Coke machine, and the beverage/snack tables lines up on the wall to the left.

Grand Ballroom from the Balcony.
(c) 2009 Jamie Fritz, all rights reserved, used with permission.

Grand Ballroom from the Balcony.
(c) 2009 Jamie Fritz, all rights reserved, used with permission.

AG Attendees enjoy their Nosh in the Grand Ballroom.
"Used with permission Copyright 2009 by Freya Harris, All Rights Reserved"

A slightly better view of all the snackies!
"Used with permission Copyright 2009 by Freya Harris, All Rights Reserved"

A plaque explaining the Art Deco Urban Ballroom.
(c) 2009 Jamie Fritz, all rights reserved, used with permission.

The magnificent light fixture atop the Urban Ballroom.
(c) 2009 Jamie Fritz, all rights reserved, used with permission.

The initial set up for the "Specialty Nosh."
(c) 2009 Jamie Fritz, all rights reserved, used with permission.

The part of the Urban Ballroom that I don't yet have photos of was the part in front of those velvet ropes - which was open 24/7 throughout the event, and had a huge variety of cold nosh (kept at temperature with, respectively, a commercial salad bar and a home-made bain marie) and on one side of the room, a freezer with ice cream novelties, and on the other side, a refrigerator with milk, V-8 Juice, Hard Cooked Eggs, yogurt, and backstock for many of the snacks on the tables - hummus, cheese cubes, veggies, dips, fruit - we also had plain water packed light tuna, grape tomatoes, whole wheat pita bread, and pepperoni slices.

The empty serving lines await more Nosh.
"Used with permission Copyright 2009 by Freya Harris, All Rights Reserved"

We had 4 identical lines serving the "specialty" nosh, and 4 identical lines serving soups - my plan had been for the soup lines to be identical also, but because I ordered 3 identical deliveries of many different kinds of soup over the 5 days, that proved impractical. Virginia Plottel was in charge of soup service - and she did an amazing job, especially the first two days, when we suffered both a broken steam oven in the kitchen and a broken crock pot. Both problems were remedied by Friday, so we were more successful in serving more of the soup. I don't know how she managed to stay awake and working for so many hours.

Many attendees asked for recipes for the soups - as we revealed to them, NONE of the soup was home-made. ALL of the soups came from GFS. They are neither canned nor frozen; rather they are chilled and ready to use ("RTU") from plastic bags designed to be boiled. A terrific product, which people really enjoyed.

The "start" end of one of the serving lines.
"Used with permission Copyright 2009 by Freya Harris, All Rights Reserved"

Several people contributed to the design of the speciality service area. The goal was to prevent lines of people waiting for anything from minutes to hours to get the food, and to assure the attendees that we had enough of everything that we planned to serve.

AG Co-Chair Mary Lee Kemper did the original drawing for us. After we worked it a few times, our Concessionaire, Caren Bachman, took it over and helped it to come alive. AG Co-Chair Marc Lederman added some final suggestions as we got closer to the event.

The idea was to combine the best of two previous AG set-ups - 1998's Yvonne Porter's "inverted I" and 2007's Birmingham's multiple serving lines. Thus, we planned to keep a "margin" of several feet around the perimeter, to allow us to refill the tables without getting in the way of service, with each serving line its own "I", with one side being specialties, one side being soups, and the top of the "I" holding utensils and papergoods (other than plates/bowls, which were at the beginning of the lines) as well as condiments/salad dressings. We also used Visqueen under anything that might muss the hotel - and someone, I think it was Caren - suggested using it to line the table cloths on the serving tables - a brilliant idea that I intend to employ at gatherings going forward.

This set up worked so well, that even when we had our worst lines Saturday afternoon (and yes, Mensans being Mensans, some did insist on lining up when they saw activity buzz behind the lines, even after it was apparent that there was plenty of everything for everybody), the lines were gone within 10 minutes. I was very proud of that - I've been at AG's where people waited in line for an hour just to get a hotdog or a sandwich - the only waiting at our AG was for the lines to actually open - and there was no pre-posted time for that (though one thing I was not happy about was that we couldn't get the lines open earlier - guess I just needed more practice at this!).

This looks like the set up for the Isaly's Chip Chop Ham Sandwiches and Halusky (Noodles & Cottage Cheese) nosh.
"Used with permission Copyright 2009 by Freya Harris, All Rights Reserved"

Each day of the AG, we served a different variety of "specialty nosh". Wednesday, we featured the Pittsburgh Maurice Salad, an entree invented at the William Penn. As the website of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette explains it:

"Around 1934, orchestra leader Maurice Spitalny explained to his waiter at the William Penn Hotel how he wanted his salad prepared: julienned ham, turkey breast and Swiss cheese on a bed of greens, tomatoes and hard-cooked eggs, with a mayonnaise dressing." http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/06201/707009-106.stm#ixzz0LGeT8QPh&D. The dish remains on the menu of at least one restaurant at the William Penn to this day.


  1. The only word that comes to my mind is, "Wow!"

    I feel exhausted after just reading about it.

  2. We at Restaurant Depot appreciate your input, and assure you we will do better next time. I work at Restaurant Depot and have sent your comments to the person responsible for the Pittsburgh warehouse.

    If ever again, you are unhappy with the products you buy, or the service you receive, you can contact me at the Restaurant Depot office.

    Gene Casazza

  3. Thank you, Gene, for posting. We've now corresponded off-line.