tl;dr: Water and coffee are essential. Whether you provide lunch or send people out for lunch, keep food restrictions in mind. Plan to provide an afternoon snack; arrange to donate leftover food.
WordCamps vary in how they approach food and beverage for attendees. Your WordCamp’s menu plan should reflect your community. Here are some examples of how other WordCamps have done things, with some pros and cons.
Make sure you have water for speakers. Bottled, in a pitcher, out of a hose, whatever. Just make sure it’s available to them before they get started so they don’t have to stop mid-presentation to ask someone for a drink.
Make sure there is water for attendees, too. Water fountains can used to refill water bottles, but be sure they work. Otherwise, provide either bottled water or containers of water and cups. If you want to be really environmentally-friendly, remind attendees to bring water bottles from home so you don’t have to use disposable cups.
You don’t need breakfast. Many venues will try to sell you on a spread to accompany coffee in the morning, but most WordCamps wind up throwing most of it away. People who eat breakfast tend to do so before they arrive. Those who don’t probably don’t want to try to eat fruit or load up a bagel while operating an iPad, carrying a new t-shirt and exchanging business cards. Stick to coffee and tea, and forget about breakfast unless your community has specifically said they want it. If you decide to do some breakfast fruit/pastries anyway, don’t order enough to feed your whole crowd. Throwing away food (and breakfast stuff doesn’t really stay good long enough to donate) makes WordCamp Central sad.
If you can get a local coffee shop to donate coffee/tea (or spread out the donation among a few vendors), that’s ideal. Put a little “Coffee provided by MyAwesomeLocalCoffeeshop” sign or sticker at the coffee station in exchange for their generosity (and so people will know whose coffee they like). If you can’t get donations from locally-based shops, head to Starbucks. They generally will give you a discount when you buy boxes of coffee (that theoretically stay warm for up to 5 hours) and will provide you with cups and lids at the same time. Alternately, if you have access to coffee urns, you can save a little money by buying a few bags of ground beans and brewing it yourself in the morning. Assign a volunteer to be in charge of coffee.
The very first WordCamp in San Francisco in 2006 had a BBQ spread, as has every SF WordCamp since, along with a number of others (especially if Matt’s in attendance). BBQ almost always mean a buffet, with a serving station that people cycle through to fill their plates.
Pros: People love BBQ (don’t forget to have something for vegetarians). Buffets allow people to choose only the things they like.
Cons: Buffet lines mean, well, lines. People have to wait around, and if there are hungry people in front, you might run out of food and have to order pizza for whomever’s left starving (hat tip: WC Savannah). BBQ can also be messy. Also, vegetarian/vegan options for this type of spread can be challenging.
Verdict: If you want to do a big buffet, BBQ or otherwise, set up multiple food stations to try and reduce lines, and maybe stagger when the pre-lunch sessions end to help with movement in the lines. Order more food than your restaurant/caterer says you need in case some people take more than their share.
The Simple Grab
Some WordCamps, instead of having a buffet, just put out food around mid-day and let people take it as they come and go, to eat in a common area or take it back to sessions with them. Foods that work well for this do not involve serving utensils or adding condiments. Pizzas spread out around the room or up and down a counter, piles of deli sandwiches (deli counters at supermarkets often do platters inexpensively), 6-foot pre-cut subs, and boxed lunches grouped by type are all good choices for this kind of setup.
Pros: Easy. No volunteers or staff needed to man a buffet line, just someone to check on things and throw away the empty boxes/packaging as needed. (Note: Recycling is good.)
Cons: No real cons, unless you’re short on cash.
Verdict: You don’t need fancy food at your WordCamp. If your venue doesn’t have anywhere easy to walk to for food, you should provide it at the event, and this is an easy and relatively inexpensive method.
Go Out – Local Vendor Card
Some cities (especially college towns) have programs that allow local restaurants/businesses to accept a special purchase card in lieu of cash or regular credit card. If your venue is in walking distance of such vendors, then providing a pre-paid card to attendees and encouraging them to go to lunch with some people they’ve met that morning is a great way to get people moving and talking, since they won’t just go back to their seats and put their heads back in their laptops. (Hat tip: WC Boulder)
Pro: Greatest variety, gets attendees out of the venue and gets their blood moving, promotes socialization, supports mulitple local businesses, flexible (you can decide how much $ to put on the cards depending on what’s left in your budget), you don’t need to have one room big enough for everyone that allows food.
Con: Not available in many cities.
Verdict: Great idea if the participating restaurants are in walking distance.
Go Out – Coupon
If your city doesn’t have a local vendor card program but you like the idea, you could put together an approximation by choosing a couple of restaurants within walking distance and working out a coupon system with them. Depending on your budget, you could do an entire lunch coupon, or just something for a few dollars off, a free drink, etc.
Pro: Variety, gets attendees out of the venue and gets their blood moving, promotes socialization, supports multiple local businesses, flexible (you can decide how much $ to put on the coupons depending on what’s left in your budget), you don’t need to have one room big enough for everyone that allows food.
Con: Requires legwork on the part of organizers to make the deals.
Verdict: Great idea if the participating restaurants are in walking distance.
Go Out – On Your Own
Sometimes it makes sense to just let attendees take care of their own lunch so you can focus on planning the content. If there are places to go within walking distance, this is fine, and has the same benefits as the Go Out options listed above. The only thing you’ll want to make sure of in this case is that you lower your ticket price, since the average ticket price of $20/day is based on included some kind of lunch provision.
Pro: Variety, gets attendees out of the venue and gets their blood moving, promotes socialization, you don’t need to have one room big enough for everyone that allows food, you don’t need to spend any money.
Con: None, really, as long as you adjust your ticket price accordingly.
Verdict: Good idea if there are restaurants are in walking distance and you’re short on cash.
Some venues will only let you have food on-site if it comes from their catering service.
Pro: Easy, since they take care of everything and you don’t have to do any legwork.
Con: Usually way overpriced, as it’s how they make their profits.
Verdict: Not recommended unless you have no other choice. The time you save in not having to line up your own coffee will be spent begging people for money instead.
Around 3:30 or 4pm, people start getting tired. Information overload, sitting all day (if you send people out for lunch, this happens less), and the parasympathetic nervous system (which kicks into gear while you digest your lunch, and makes you sleepy at the same time) combine in a perfect storm leading to afternoon inattention. Try to have some afternoon snacks around for people who need a little blood sugar boost. A lot of WordCamps go for cookies, which are easy but can make the sugar crash worse instead of better. Something with a little protein, like energy bars or cheese and crackers might be a better choice. Many companies that make products like this are willing to donate a few cases to non-profit events. You could also have your local community bring snacks.
Before your event, contact homeless shelters in your area and see if any of them will accept donations of leftover food/beverage from events like yours. If so, assign a volunteer to pack up the leftover food at the end of the day and take it over.
Past WordCamp Organizers: What kind food did you have that worked well, or that was a total pain in the neck? Let us know in the comments.
Tip: Here is a quiz on this article. Read quizzes page if you have any questions about quizzes and how to navigate them.