Facing off against fast-casual catering

Noncommercial is poised to deliver for customers who want laid-back options.

serving food

The opportunity to customize plates is important for diners seeking more casual catering options.

Noncommercial caterers say the mammoth growth of fast-casual chains like Chipotle and Shake Shack hasn’t cut into their profits. But the have-it-your-way menus and relaxed, help-yourself experience are changing customers’ expectations for catering in a big way.

“The whole concept is this idea of personalization,” says John Cummins, general manager of resident dining at Bucknell University. “Not just in terms of taste, but in terms of health and allergens.” 

At the Lewisburg, Pa., school that means action stations serving made-to-order sushi, pasta, sliders and grits are a catering mainstay. But action stations call for additional labor, which can drive up prices.

To offer more customization while keeping costs low, Dickinson College Catering Manager Kim Foltz deconstructs dishes to give guests the opportunity to build their own plates. Instead of serving a composed rosemary chicken salad, the Carlisle, Pa., operator sets up separate platters for each component—chicken, field greens, roasted potatoes and roasted vegetables—to provide flexibility for vegetarians or diners following a low-carb diet.

“The guests with special restrictions do appreciate being able to eat off the same buffet or having close to the same menu and not be singled out with a plate of food sitting there with their name on it,” Foltz says.

The lower price points in fast casual also have played a role in shaping customers’ expectations. “When people go to Panera or Chipotle and then come to us, they wonder why our pricing might be a little higher,” says Kristian Forrest, an Aramark executive chef with East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.

The answer is important for caterers to spell out: That means highlighting the delivery, setup and clean-up services noncommercial catering offers, says Bucknell Resident District Manager Ty Paup. “We’re doing all that for you. So you don’t just get the food, you get the full feel of service.”

Yet, these days many customers who are used to eating at fast-casual restaurants are less likely to want full service for catered events. For a more casual feel, Forrest offers disposable serviceware, for example. “To complement our disposable service, customers can elect to have the event drop-off style, where everything is delivered to them and the customer is in charge of setup, service and breakdown,” he says.

Panera and other fast casuals looking to boost their catering business are touting online ordering to make the process easier for customers. Though some noncommercial operators, like Forrest, handle all of their catering orders online, others prefer a more personalized approach.

“The challenge for online catering orders is the potential to miss customer expectations,” says Dickinson College Director of Dining Services Errol Huffman. “A brief conversation is almost always necessary to confirm the customer’s need and usually results in a tweak.”

Even so, operators can’t stop progress, and Huffman is open to increasing online ordering as long as it proves effective. “In the future, we may launch online ordering for straightforward product selections like pick-up requests,” he says. “Once that is proved to be valuable, we’ll look at how [it] might work for more complex events.” 

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