Event Name: 13th Annual Empty Bowls Fundraising Event
Purpose: Raise awareness and funds to address local homelessness and hunger
Hosts: Catholic Family Center of Rochester, NY
Location: Eastman Kodak Theater on the Ridge, Rochester, NY
When: Thursday, October 20, 2016, 5:00 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Cost: $30 in advance, $40 at the door
I attended this event as a volunteer, to meet a requirement for my Event Planning class. The assignment required that I spend a minimum of two hours volunteering for a special event, and then submit a report detailing my observations, including a review of the menu, location, staffing, preparation/planning and overall experience. In addition I was tasked with discussing suggestions for improving the event, what was done especially well and what I gained from the experience. Shown below are the highlights of my report.
Empty Bowls is a fundraising event aimed at raising awareness and funds to fight homelessness and hunger in towns and cities across the nation. In its 13th year, the Rochester event is going strong. Guests purchase a ticket to enjoy a simple but delicious supper of bread and soup, as well as desserts, live music and a silent auction. Area artists donate small bowls and original works of art to the cause. During the event, each guest picks a bowl to keep and can bid on the art work, if desired. This year’s event boasted close to 600 guests.
The venue for this event was the Eastman Kodak Theatre on the Ridge, in the upstairs cafeteria. This was a new location for the event, as they had outgrown the capacity of previous locations.
Parking was free and plentiful in a well-lit, adjacent lot. I was pleased that two off-duty police officers were hired to aid guests with crossing the busy road on the dark and rainy night of the event.
The registration table was placed in the first floor lobby, directly across from the main entrance. This provided a convenient welcome area for guests to pick up or purchase tickets before being directed to the upstairs cafeteria, which was accessible by both an elevator and an escalator.
The 1100-seat cafeteria was spacious – cavernous actually. It was a good fit for the event, however, because of the available kitchen and cafeteria style service set-up. Upon arriving two hours before the event start, I noticed that the space was truly a blank canvass, with bare white walls, high ceilings and lots of stainless steel and glass fixtures. However, by the time the event started, staff and volunteers had miraculously transformed the space into a warm and casual, yet welcoming venue.
Food and Beverages
The menu was simple, but delicious and appropriate for the event. The menu featured 15 hot soups from area restaurants and caterers, including.
- Black Bean Pumpkin Bisque
- Cream of Mushroom
- Buffalo Chicken
- Meatball Minestrone
- Butternut Squash
- Rajun Cajun
- Pasta Faggioli
- Creamy Tomato
- Basil Bisque with Smoked Gouda
- Italian Wedding
- Autumn Harvest
- French Onion
- Cream of Chicken with Wild Rice
- Autumn Bisque
- Highland Cheddar Ale
Other items on the menu included fresh sliced baguette bread, packaged butter pats, and trays of assorted cold vegetables with dip. The brochure also mentioned tossed green salad, although I didn’t see that available to guests.
Volunteers were encouraged to partake of the menu items after completing our assignments; I though that was a gracious offer. I tried three of the soups: Autumn Bisque, Black Bean Pumpkin Bisque, and Cream of Chicken with Wild Rice. I expected simple broths, yet these soups were much more than that. My favorite was the Autumn Bisque – it was creamy, hearty and satisfying. Filled with tastes of fall, this bisque had a unique squash taste that brought back memories of Thanksgivings past. The Cream of Chicken soup was rich and tasty as well. The Black Bean Pumpkin Bisque was not what I expected, but still a nice treat. It was thicker than most bisques though, bordering on a stew. I especially liked that many of the soups featured a fall theme, which fit perfectly with the time of year and the décor. The bread was fresh and soft; a great accompaniment to hot soup and perfect for dipping into the thicker soups and bisques, or topping with butter.
Let’s talk about the luscious desserts. The event coordinator explained to the volunteers that the desserts were to be served to each table this year, to avoid last year’s dessert table stampede. That piqued my interest – what was so great about the desserts that they had to be cautiously served?
First, the variety of desserts was impressive. They ranged from custard with cookie cigars, and pudding, to brownies, and a myriad of cookie options.
Second, the desserts were phenomenal – admittedly, I tried most of them and can attest that none disappointed! Before the servers could even walk a few steps, they were stopped by guests who wanted two or three of each one.
In addition, guests were treated to self-serve coffee, tea and water via a quaint, free-standing beverage cart.
A fall theme dominated the décor for this event. For the first few hours of my volunteer experience, I was tasked with creating 40+ fall-themed table centerpieces, using a variety of real and manufactured décor items. As resources were scarce, I was instructed to make the centerpieces simple, yet attractive. Shown below are a sampling of my centerpiece creations.
In addition, the “Empty Bowls” theme carried through the event via logo tablecloths and logo aprons worn by the staff and volunteers.
A four-person band entertained guests throughout the evening, with live music and song. Unfortunately, the band was not identified in the event marketing materials or within the event. I enjoyed their sets of music and think that they provided nice background music within the rather noisy space.
The Silent Auction was the breakout star of this event. Area artists donated small bowls, original works of art, retail items and a few antiques, making this auction one of the most diverse I have ever seen. Several dozen items were available for bidding via bid sheets placed next to each item. Bidders wrote in their bids and then waited to see if anyone wrote in another bid – this led to some obvious malingering (stalking?) as several persistent bidders offered a series of increasingly higher bids, in hopes of winning their favorite item. Staggered bid closing times among the tables helped keep the auction moving along.
Another part of my volunteer experience was to assist with the silent auction by ensuring that guests did not pick up or handle the action items. This was a very difficult job because most bidders wanted to touch the items. However, I did enjoy watching bidders try to outbid each other with written bids – a little bidding competition certainly makes for great fundraising.
I really enjoyed this experience, both as a volunteer and as a guest.
Part of my Event Planning class paper included an analysis of what was done especially well, suggestions for improving the event and what I gained from the experience.
The CFC team did a great job with this event, doing many things quite well, such as:
- Offering hundreds of ceramic bowls – as I helped unpack the donated bowls, I was surprised by the sheer number of them. In addition to choosing a bowl to take home as part of the admission price, guests could also purchase additional bowls for a $20 donation. Guests certainly had a staggering variety of bowls from which to choose; a friend chose a dog bowl, for example.
- Tasty soup – the soup was tasty, hot and plentiful (in amount and number of choices).
- Excellent service – all of the volunteers were kind, courteous, helpful and efficient. A spirit of helpfulness and generosity pervaded the event.
Although the event was a huge success, I have the following suggestions for making it even better next year:
- Identify the band – they were integral to setting the tone of the event, yet I did not see them listed in the brochure and there was no signage to identify them.
- Promotional videos – place small screens throughout the venue, showing a video about CFC and what they do. With this, CFC can inform guests about their services.
- Recipe book – compile the soup recipes into a simple recipe book and offer it for sale at the event. A friend who attended the event suggested this idea to one of the organizers and it was well received. The only catch, she was told, is that some of the restaurants/caterers may not want to divulge their secret recipes.
- Amp up the event description – the event was advertised as simple supper, yet the meal really was quite hearty. I suggest repositioning the advertising to show the event as simple, but the supper as hearty and satisfying.
In addition to the warm feeling of being helpful to others, I also learned the following about the job of an event planner:
- Be ready to do whatever is needed.
- Start earlier than planned because most tasks will take longer than you think.
- Make do with what you have because there seldom are funds to acquire more resources – reuse and recycle.
- Please and thank you (and a sincere attitude) go a long way
I am already looking forward to attending next year’s event!