One of the most popular cocktails in Canada is the Bloody Caesar. To the uninitiated, it’s the same as a Bloody Mary but with Clamato juice replacing tomato juice as the base.
Bloody Caesars are available nearly everywhere in Canada, but the Saskatoon Inn & Conference Centre is perhaps the only place groups can build their own “Meazars”—a combination of meal and a Caesar, highlighted by a skewer of small bites hovering over the actual Caesar in the glass.
The idea to top a Bloody Caesar (or Mary) with a leaning tower of treats is not new in the industry, but those at the Saskatoon Inn say the visual “wow” factor is timeless. They’ve combined that retro appeal with a hands-on action station to profitably migrate the Meazar from their Garden Café menu to receptions.
“We first featured our Meazar station at a Skål dinner here (Skål is a global tourism organization), and people were just blown away,” says Kelly McGinn, outlets manager at the Saskatoon Inn. While Meazars for groups launched this past spring, the idea to put Meazars on menus came from the hotel’s GM, Dan McHale, in late 2015.
“Dan comes from a strong food and beverage background, having owned his own upscale restaurant and lounge here in Saskatoon years ago,” explains McGinn. “He said back in the day he would serve a lobster tail on his Caesars, and it had a consistent “wow” effect on customers. We were revising our cocktail menu at the Garden Café; it included five different Caesars, and during a tasting Dan said, ‘Go big or go home! Where’s my lobster tail?’ Our Executive Chef Amedeo Vallati was there, and the next day he returned with three combinations of skewers that fit on top of the Caesar.”
Vallati went beyond just skewering a single lobster tail; he created three stackable sets of snacks called the Ranch Hand (beef slider, Italian sausage, hot wing), the Deck Hand (mahi-mahi slider, onion rings, Italian sausage, chicken finger), and the Commander (lobster tail, coconut shrimp, spring roll, dry rib), priced on the menu at $12, $14, and $15 respectively, as an add-on to a Caesar, which range in price from $6.50 to $8. They were actively promoted at the Garden Café, both in-house and on social media, and became a hit with guests. Using that momentum, Vallati “went big” and crafted a Meazars action station for groups, which debuted three months later.
“We wanted it to be interactive so our sales department had the option of selling it as a teambuilding activity and as a way to combine food and beverage in a corporate setting,” Vallati says.
Room with a Skew
The room setup for a Meazars reception consists of a bar and bartender to make the Caesars, which are available in regular, beet, garlic rosemary, beer, or habañero. The action station itself has a chef attendant, two sauté pans with tabletop burners, Sambuca or brandy for flambéing, butter, canola oil, and the ingredients for each skewer on sheet pans.
“It takes about five minutes per person to go through everything,” says Vallati. “They start at the bar and pick the Caesar they want, then come to the action station where we’ll have the ingredients for each of the three skewers. They can flambé the lobster tail if they choose the Commander, cook their sliders or shrimp, and warm other pre-cooked skewer items in the pan too. I’m there the whole time guiding them so it’s a one-on-one experience, and when they’re done they put the ingredients on their skewer, place it in their Caesar, and off they go—it’s a lot of fun.”
Because of the face-to-face attention given to each attendee, Sales & Catering Manager Ruth Klassen recommends that the group not exceed 50 people, with the ideal size being around 35 to 40, and approximately one hot station and chef for every ten attendees. “Everyone is usually through the stations within 45 minutes,” adds Vallati.
While brainstorming the Meazars toppings, Vallati focused on “appetizer size. I wanted them to be just enough to open your appetite before dinner. For example, the lobster tail is around four ounces, and the sliders are 1.5 ounces. Then I had to consider the weight, as the entire skewer needs to be small enough to balance in the glass and light enough to be portable,” he says.
While the final skewer combinations proved successful, there were some experiments that didn’t work. “We tried all kinds of weird stuff,” remembers Vallati. “We tried grilled cheese, which got too messy, and we tried steak bites, but the steak would either dry out or it would bleed down the skewer. Through a bit of trial and error, we discovered what worked.”
Client pricing for Meazars is in the mid-range compared to other group F&B options at the Saskatoon Inn, which “offers a lot of value for your dollar,” says Klassen. While they’re intended to be appetizers, Meazars are still substantial enough for groups to be charged one per person, compared to the more common 1.5 per person for smaller hors d’oeuvres. So far, about a half-dozen groups have opted for the Meazars reception since it launched, with more scheduled into 2017.
The Meazars program has seen success in both the Garden Café, where the Commander is the runaway top seller, and in B&C, where each Meazars reception yields a 60% profit for the property. Overall, the F&B program at the Saskatoon Inn generates approximately $5 million per year.
“We get more out of the Meazars reception than just a corporate booking,” Vallati says. “Because it’s an experience for attendees, they have a good time, and they remember it. We’ll pick up their anniversary or wedding or christening later, because we’ve shown them what we can do here, so they have confidence in us and want to come back.”Michael Costa is VP of industry relations for Hotel F&B.