Ethnic menus: Hotels loosen rules on outside food

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(AP) - Mariam Hashimi and her husband, Munis Alkouz, chose the hotel for their November wedding reception mainly for one reason: It allowed them to use a local caterer to bring in the traditional Afghan rice and meat dishes that hotel chefs often aren't trained to prepare.

"For our weddings, food is really important," said Hashimi, who grew up in an Afghan immigrant family and lives in Albuquerque, N.M. She had her reception at the Sheraton Uptown Hotel there.

Many hotels and banquet halls have begun permitting brides and grooms to hire outside caterers and work with local restaurants to serve menus reflecting a wider range of cultures and cuisines. It's a change from the long-held practice of insisting that customers use only in-house food choices, said Sharon Ringier, president of the Chicago chapter of the Event Planners Association.

"They don't want to miss out on the revenue," Ringier said. "It's better to accommodate (customers)."

That's good news for couples wishing to serve ethnic foods at wedding receptions.

Venues typically charge customers an outside catering fee that covers use of the venue's equipment and staff, who still have to set up the room and clean up after the party.

The Sheraton Uptown in Albuquerque started allowing guests to contract with outside caterers for weddings, bar mitzvahs and other special events about two years ago, said catering sales manager Cindy Martinez.

Specifically, it was the demand for traditional Indian food that prompted the change, she said.

"Indian weddings tend to be very large. They're nice events," Martinez said. "They generate good revenue."

The hotel worked with a local restaurant to develop an Indian menu. "Instead of the client going to them, it's all done in one stop," Martinez said. Clients can choose from other approved caterers, too.

Likewise, the Hilton Columbus/Polaris hotel in Ohio began working with outside caterers about three years to accommodate an Indian wedding, said senior catering manager Jacob Kristensen.

"We wanted to be able to offer them something authentic. They had many guests coming from India," he said. "We didn't feel like we could do it" without help from a restaurant.

Since then, the hotel has hosted a number of Indian events.

"The word spread very fast," said Kristensen, adding that the policy also extends to kosher food since the hotel does not have a kosher kitchen.

In the past, families that wanted to cap a celebration with a traditional meal may have had to go to a restaurant, said Marie Reeder, catering director at the Anaheim Hills Golf Clubhouse in California, which works with a variety of specialty caterers, including South Asian, Persian and Chinese.

"The younger generation can have their event at a country club and still serve traditional foods," she said.

Finding a venue that allowed outside catering was a must for Nadiaa Ansari when she was planning her brother's July wedding. The Muslim family needed to serve halal meat for religious reasons. She chose the Owego Treadway Inn & Suites in Owego, N.Y., because of its willingness to accommodate them.

"It's hard to find venues in smaller towns that are aware of those things and are willing to work with you," said Ansari, who handled the wedding planning because tradition dictates that the groom's family host the celebration.

Families will recommend a venue or come back again if they feel their needs and traditions have been understood, said Jim Carmody, general manager of the Seaport Hotel and World Trade Center in Boston, which has permitted outside catering for more than a decade. Kids who had their bar or bat mitzvah there have come back for their weddings, he said.

"It's a whole family celebration. It's got to be right. It's got to be memorable," he said.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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