Making Catering Memorable

Catering directors and chefs offer five tips for ensuring that customers will talk about your catered events—in a good way.

By Paul King, Editorial Director

Running a successful catering program isn’t about creating a memorable event. It’s about making memorable events the standard for the catering program. FoodService Director talked with several experts about their approach to catering and came away with five tips every program should follow to be successful.

A bar and barbecue at a zoo. Hot dogs at a wedding. A Southern-themed holiday dinner, complete with burlap tablecloths and a country cabin ice carving. These are the kinds of things that are sure to guarantee guests will remember a catered event long after the night ends.

But running a successful catering program isn’t about creating a memorable event. It’s  about making memorable events the standard for the catering program. FoodService Director talked with several experts about their approach to catering and came away with five tips every program should follow to be successful.

TIP NO. 1: Communication is key.

Memorable catering begins with the first meeting, according to Bill Whitcomb, catering director for Whitsons Culinary Group, Islandia, N.Y.

“Listen to your client,” says Whitcomb, whose division does more than 40 events per year, everything from 12-person breakfast meetings to 400-guest weddings. “And by that I mean, not just to what you want to hear, but to everything, to make that connection with your client on a level that you can understand and appreciate.”

Even after the client has signed up, the communication must continue, adds Craig Whitcomb, general manager for Whitsons.

“You have to stay on your path,” says Craig Whitcomb. “If you know something won’t work right, communicate that as quickly as possible. There is nothing worse than not meeting a client’s expectations because you didn’t properly outline the limitations of what they wanted to do. For example, if the event is in the middle of a field and they want to serve fried chicken, you need to let them know that might not be the best place to do that off a buffet line.”

Larry Bates, foodservice director for Riddle Village, a retirement community in eastern Pennsylvania, says that the three most important words in his vocabulary are “write it down.”

“Make sure you really sit down and talk with the [customer],” Bates explains. “Find out exactly what they want and write it down. Review it with them and keep those lines of communication open so that they know and understand exactly what they’re getting.”

For Bates, this has become increasingly important as more of the 450 residents at Riddle Village choose to host catered functions in their apartments or in the village’s common spaces—there are three sit-down areas and one space in which cocktail-type events can be staged. Bates says his department does no advertising because word of mouth is so strong.

“We have some residents who have booked the same room and date for the past eight years,” he says. “They will actually book the room for the next year the day after their holiday party for that year.”

Like many catering programs, Riddle Village has a standard menu of services, but that often gets set aside as customers begin to create their events.

“If you want to get some return business and you want to create an event that is really good, you need to give it that personal touch. These people are having a party in their home and so they want to put their personal stamp on it. They may see something on the menu they like, but they may have something completely different in mind.”

Michael Atanasio, manager of food and nutrition for Overlook Medical Center, Summit, N.J., is another operator for whom catering menus are only a starting point.

“I communicate that the menu is a guide,” Atanasio says. “The conversation is always focused on what the client is looking for. They give us parameters and their budget and ask what we suggest.”

Lisa Poggas, nutrition and environmental services director for Parker (Colo.) Adventist Hospital, has one cardinal rule around which catered events must revolve.

“Get all the details squared away before you even begin to organize the event,” Poggas notes. “Don’t leave anything to chance and work with the client every step of the way because if they are not happy the day of the event, you’ve lost a customer.”

Effective communication isn’t merely between client and staff while pursuing or planning an event. Michaelle Busky, special events coordinator for Parkhurst Dining Services, in Pittsburgh, says communication also comes down to how you advertise your services to the community. Busky was brought on board about 18 months ago to grow Parkhurst’s 15-year-old catering program, and one of the first steps she took was to create a new website for her division.

“We created a website dedicated solely to special events,” she explained. “We wanted to capitalize on the fact that we have been doing catering for the past 15 years. But if you go on the Parkhurst website you wouldn’t know that we do special events.”

In addition to a new site, Busky created a new logo, which uses the stylized P and printed “Parkhurst,”  with “Event Catering” in script below the Parkhurst name. “It is separate from the Parkhurst logo, but it is similar,” she says. 

TIP NO. 2: Never forget that the customer is king.

The adage, “The customer is always right,” is seldom truer than when it comes to catered events. After all, say caterers, the client is the host; catering is merely the vehicle through which the client’s message or vision is conveyed.

“Basically, your job is to give the customers what they want,” says Bates. “It’s your food you’re selling, and you want to make them happy. So if a client says, ‘I want this particular appetizer as an hors d’oeuvre,’ even though I have an hors d’oeuvre menu I’m going to work to make that happen.”

Often, satisfying the customer can put a strain on the catering department, notes Parkhurst’s Busky. That is when, she says, you take one for the team.

“One of our corporate clients was planning their big event, and they requested to taste more than 45 items,” Busky recalled. “I don’t know too many caterers willing to do that. But we’re all about loyalty, and we have been doing this event for them for several years. I always tell my staff that it is easier to resell happy existing customers than it is to find new ones.”

However, she adds that satisfying the customer comes with a caveat: “You cannot be all things to all people,” she explains. “There is this tendency for caterers to want to become chameleons, and you really are doing the clients a disservice. There are times when you just have to walk away [from potential business], when they are not what you do or not within the realm of your capability or they are just not part of your image.”

Busky’s approach is working; this past summer Parkhurst Event Catering was named Best Caterer in a reader poll conducted by Pittsburgh Magazine.

Embracing the fact that the customer is king can lead to some interesting events, say Bill and Craig Whitcomb.

“I had a client who wanted to serve watermelons spiked with vodka because he had never experienced them,” says Bill Whitcomb. “He wanted to do six of them, each one a different flavor. So we had to decide on six different vodkas, and it took two days to soak the vodka into the watermelons. But he had decided that if he was going to do this once he was going to do it in a really big way.”

Craig Whitcomb recalls one event where the client wanted “Chippendale-style servers.” Whitsons honored the request, although he notes that many of the servers “were not our regular on-call staff.”

TIP NO. 3: Put your personal stamp on each event.

The fact that you are out to please a customer doesn’t mean that you can’t inject yourself into the mix. There are several ways that you can stay true to what the client wants while still making a name for your department.

Sarah Finlayson, senior marketing specialist for the special events division of Sodexo Leisure Services, recalls an event where one of the choices was meatloaf. The catering team presented mini meatloaves on little skillets, garnished with microgreens.

“That was something that allowed us to put our stamp on the event,” Finlayson says. “It was unexpected.” However, she adds a note of caution: “Understand your audience. Don’t make the food so trendy that it becomes unrecognizable.”

When an event is controlled by the catering department, such as a holiday or employee recognition event at a hospital or college campus, the catering department gets to demonstrate all of its creativity. That certainly was the case at Parker Adventist Hospital when Chef Daniel Skay planned “The Whoville Holiday Who Do: A Dr. Seuss Christmas Menu.”

The menu was filled with items dressed up in unorthodox titles, such as Bartholomew Cubbins’ Holiday Dawf (maple-glazed chicken roulade with sun-dried cranberry compote), Poodles with Noodles (fresh garden vegetable pasta salad) and The Grinch’s Famous Roast Beast (herb-crusted New York rib roast with sweet onion molasses steak sauce).

Despite the exotic-sounding items, Chef Skay explains that his holiday catering shopping list is quite down-to-earth.

“We like to use seasonal ingredients when developing menus,” Skay says. “Around the holidays we use ingredients like pomegranate, satsuma oranges, kumquats, quince and kabocha squash. We make rustic risottos, roasted root vegetables and ragoûts, including fresh wild mushrooms, all to reflect the cooler seasons.”

Skay’s personal stamp on holiday events is represented in such items as Wild Mushroom Risotto on the Forest Floor (served on a hot rock with moss, flora and rocks that provide the aroma of being in the forest) and Marbled Avocado with Smoked Salmon Tartare with Corn Shoots. “Having fun with all our catered events and making it fresh and exciting is what keeps my staff engaged and happy,” he notes.

TIP NO. 4: Make sure your staff is equipped for the challenge.

The bottom line of a catered event’s success is always staff, caterers admit. The better prepared staff are, the stronger and more positively memorable your catered events will be.

“It all comes down to training,” says Sodexo’s Finlayson. “Also, you should empower employees. You want them to feel like they are a big part of the whole process, which leads them to begin to anticipate the needs of guests.”

Miquel Palacios, a chef for Aramark who manages foodservice at the Griffis Faculty Club at Cornell-Weill Medical Center in New York, says he learned the value of staff on his first catering job.

“I come from a restaurant background,” says Palacios, who came to Griffis last September. “When I came into catering, working for [off-premise caterer] Great Performances, I saw that catering chefs can cook under any environment and put out great food. Chefs have talent, but chefs that know how to do catering have a whole different skill level.”

Craig Whitcomb says that getting on-site staff to understand the goal of a catered event is key.

“I break things down to a level they can relate to,” Whitcomb explains. “I say, ‘If this were your wedding what kind of service would you expect?’

“Working with chefs is an ongoing process to develop recipes and station concepts, really trying to push the boundaries of service and presentation,” he adds. “We love to bring our chefs in on final meetings to help devise a culinary path. They are the ones who are going to execute the event, so it’s important to have their buy-in so their personality comes through.”

Overlook’s Atanasio suggests that staff need to understand the value of precision and detail.

“I tell my staff, when planning an event, to start at the end and work back,” he explains. “And all through the process, be detail oriented.” He also believes in empowering staff, which can lead to amazing results.

“Last year for our holiday party we did a Southern theme, and I allowed my assistant director to surprise me with the décor—and she did. She chose burlap for the runners and table coverings. It looked amazing and everyone complimented us on it.”

The event also featured two ice carvings, one a fireplace complete with stockings on the mantel and the other a cottage with working window lights.

TIP NO. 5: Think outside the box.

When Zoo Atlanta hosted the National Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ annual conference last year, Sodexo’s Finlayson was tasked with coming up with a closing event that would entice attendees to stay to the end.

“It was on a Saturday, and the association was afraid that people might leave the convention early,” she recalls. “So we turned the zoo into one of Atlanta’s hottest bars. It was completely out of the realm of what the client expected. We wrote a menu of Southern-inspired bar food, very upscale. There was no buffet; waitstaff brought food out on serving trays to the tables. We built a barbecue shack at one end, where chefs pickled their own vegetables. We created a farmers’ market for dessert, with fresh fruit, around a vintage pickup truck.”

But Sodexo wasn’t through wowing the guests. As attendees left the event, they were handed a bag with breakfast breads to eat the next morning, along with a note thanking them for attending.

“There is often an opportunity to extend the experience, to create more happy memories for guests,” Finlayson points out. “And it is something you might not even charge the client for.”

Whitsons also had a chance to get creative with a wedding it catered earlier this year.

“This wedding was out on Long Island, at a mansion, a tented outside affair,” explains Bill Whitcomb. “The bride and groom were really relaxed, casual people, and they wanted to have hot dogs at their wedding. The groom told us, ‘When I go to baseball games or hang out with my family, I love to have hot dogs. How can we have them on the menu?’”

The problem, as Bill Whitcomb saw it, was that hot dogs went against the flavor of the menu the company had designed for the event.

“We went back and forth, but we really couldn’t incorporate them into the menu,” Bill Whitcomb says. “The groom was disappointed.”

However, the Whitcombs knew that this was an important event, so they went back to the drawing board and, unbeknownst to the newlyweds, figured out a way to honor the groom’s request.

“We set up a hot dog stand outside of the tent as the guests were leaving,” Bill Whitcomb says. “We wrapped them up really pretty and guests were able to take them as a to-go package. The groom got to have his hot dog and say goodbye to everyone. He was really happy and wrote us a wonderful letter afterward.”