2009 Catering Survey: Catering's new reality

The economic picture may be bleak, but creative on-site catering teams are finding a silver lining amid the gloom using new marketing plans and refurbished menus.

Dining services at the 11,700-student University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., has had two major issues to deal with in recent months: a failing economy and a struggling football team. Unfortunately, both events have hit catering sales equally hard.

Notre Dame’s dual catering issues are not unique: Across the country, on-site catering concerns are being adversely affected by the depressed economy. However, at the home of the famous Fighting Irish, dining services is taking a harder look at its resources and battling back with a revised outlook and a new game plan—and they are not alone.

Confronting the economy plus a loss of interest in the university’s once great football team have been part of the “extra challenge” Notre Dame Food Services has been facing during the past two years, says Lisa Wenzel, assistant director, NDFS. Both events have had a negative impact on overall foodservice, Wenzel says. “Our sports programs are not as strong as before, so that has an effect. It’s been the perfect storm.”

To fight back, NDFS’s catering arm, “Catering…by Design,” has created a new menu offering aptly titled Affordable Entertainment, plus an aggressive one-on-one marketing blitz targeting the Notre Dame community through cold calling, networking and trade shows.

Launched in April 2009, the new menu provides lower-cost items paired with a simpler service, effectively cutting regular menu offerings by 20%, Wenzel says. The change was due to the economy and customer feedback. “Their perception was that we were a little too highly priced,” she says.

Part of that stemmed from university-wide budget cuts, which prompted campus departments to look for creative ways to cut costs without losing personnel. Like many institutions and corporations nationwide, they’ve accomplished that by slashing entertainment.

“That really cuts into catering,” Wenzel says.  “We’re trying to balance that by doing things differently. People are doing less expensive events. Instead of served meals they may be doing something in their office; we’re setting up and cleaning up after them.”

In the Affordable Entertainment package, the Budget-Friendly Hors D’oeuvre menu is priced at $6 per dozen pieces and may include polenta triangles with pancetta and brie; chili and corn fritters; spicy chicken and cilantro wontons; and brown sugar smokies. The Budget-Friendly Drinks menu is priced at $7.50 per gallon and serves approximately 20 guests.

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