Feeding the Masses: How to Barbecue for 35,000 People

By Kelsey Ogletree, April 9, 2015

Handling convention catering for a few thousand people is a piece of cake for Megan Wallstrom, who once planned a barbecue for 35,000 guests. Connect Faith’s Kelsey Ogletree spoke with the catering and convention services at Semiahmoo Resort, Golf, and Spa in Blaine, Washington, about feeding extra-large groups, problem-solving on the fly and playing with fire.

Let’s talk about that barbecue. What was the event?
I was working as catering manager for Boeing in Everett, Washington, and, at the time, the company did a barbecue for its entire staff—35,000 people.

Where did you even begin?
The big thing when you’re planning an event that big is not to let the number intimidate you. As my mentors have always said, it’s the same process, whether it’s 35 people or 35,000—it’s just more zeros. With something this big, it really is all about the planning. You’re thinking: How many chicken pieces fit on a sheet pan, and how many pans fit in an oven, and how long do they take to cook, and how many ovens do you need. We had drivers at six different stations set up around the facilities. They would go to the kitchen, pick up food and drop it off at each station to be served.

What was the biggest challenge for a group that size?
You have to be able to control the portions. It’s not like a normal buffet where you can just let everybody go through and fill up their plates. We had Boeing managers stand at the stations and serve people, and then once everyone was through they could come back for seconds. But you have to make sure you don’t run out of food. Also, you have to understand you can’t be everywhere, and trust your team to make it happen. I tend to ask myself: What is the worst thing that could happen? And if it does happen, what am I going to do? You have to be prepared for that scenario.

On that note, what’s the worst thing that’s happened to you on the job?
My van caught on fire, and we lost everything. I was working at the University of Idaho for Sodexo and we were doing a presidential event. One of my team members thought it would be a good idea to light the Sterno under the chafing dish inside the van. We went around the corner too fast, and it caught fire. It was a huge disaster.

How did you remedy the situation?
The president of the university was a really easy guy to work with, so we told him we were going to be delayed. We set up the bar as quickly as we could and threw together some fruit skewers to pass. Then we went back to the kitchen, got new linens and other items and pulled food off the line in the dining hall. The guests never knew.

Photo credit: Leslie Kelly/Zagat Seattle

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