It’s all happening at the zoo
The biggest change in the last two years has been the construction of the Bicentennial Pavilion, a 40,000 square-foot structure, completed in 2017, designed to take advantage of “shoulder seasons” with indoor-outdoor features. When it rains, a special funnel system irrigates all the plants, just one element of the pavilion’s green design.
The Pavilion at night
“Everything comes out of the main kitchen in the café and the team brings everything to the pavilion,” says Pat Cummings, Centerplate GM at the zoo, who oversees about 250 catered events each year.
Macaw shows on the hour
This space, which can hold picnics and buffets for thousands, has a macaw show multiple times a day, in which the colorful birds fly from one perch to another (they’ve been trained by zoo personnel to do so).
Getting stations right
The zoo’s catering team always takes into consideration how buffet tables vs. stations will play out. In short, it depends on the space. Long lines at a buffet table are a turnoff, and one lone buffet table can look bare, but on the other hand, lots of stations in a small room can be confusing.
Bright salads to interact with
A big platter of artfully arranged salad is just one way to serve it. For some events, staffers will place salad ingredients in martini shakers, shake it up and hand it to a guest.
Zoo (and Pretzel) Day
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At the annual conference of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) in 2017, the Indianapolis Zoo played host, and put on a great food spread, including a happy hour that featured Pretzels Galore, a station with housemade pretzels and toppings to choose from. Local beers in a beer garden station accompanied the pretzels.
These halloumi skewers showcase unique ingredients used by the catering team. Another example is a molecular gastronomy-style dessert of liquid nitrogen popcorn with cornbread and blueberry chutney, which becomes smoke once it hits your mouth.
‘Pushing local stuff’
Since Indiana is in the Midwest—squarely in corn country—elote (Mexican street corn) salad is a great way to show off local produce and support Indiana farmers. “We have signature items that we push,” Cummings says. Other regional favorites include local, humanely sourced pork tenderloin, beef and duck.
Fruit carving hidden talent of staffer
If you’re lucky enough to have a fruit carver on your staff, it’s a way to serve something “simple with a twist, maybe it takes more time, but it shows people you care,” Cummings says. “One of the ladies who works with us in the kitchen, her uncle is an ice sculptor, so she’s learned a ton of stuff from him. She’s just amazing.” Another recent cool touch was little mechanical butterflies placed on centerpieces, a fun surprise for guests who wondered if they were real.
Different events, different items
From elegant affairs to the busy upcoming “field trip season,” offerings might be artfully displayed crudité or a kid-friendly buffet with chicken tenders and mini corn dog bites.
Working with nature’s majestic animals
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Cummings says working for the zoo has some unusual perks. In the middle of a rough day, he can go for a walk to clear his head and hang out with the orangutans, his favorite residents of the zoo.