Catering on a Budget

The economy may be slow to recover, but caterers have menu strategies to help them remain successful. The impact of a recessionary economy is leading catering programs in non-commercial foodservice in new directions, with many operators going back to the drawing board to meet their clients’ demands for a wider variety of less expensive catering choices.

Today’s strategies range from making the ordering process more user-friendly to coming up with new recipes for dishes that use less costly ingredients yet deliver a flavor profile that’s rich and vibrant. Another tactic is presenting items on the plate with a stylish flair that gives them the prestige of pricier dishes.

Helen Wechsler, director of dining at Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Mass., says she has seen a decline this year in catered breakfast and lunch office meetings. “Those meetings went away, cut from the budget, and that business has been down,” she notes.

But catering continues to hold its own, she adds, with “tried and true events like awards dinners.” Birthdays and other celebrations are becoming less frequent and more austere. In response, BC Dining is offering alternatives to traditional items. “We do a lot of Euro­pean cheese plates,” she explains. “For customers with restricted budgets, we might do Vermont cheddar with local apples. It’s not so grim and it’s local foods. It’s about being more creative. You’ll see less handiwork, for example, in passed hors d’oeuvres, or wine and beer instead of the full bar.”

BC is focusing on sustainability, particularly in paper products, she adds. “We do local foods whenever possible. We’re also seeing a lot of interest in healthier choices—Greek yogurt, granola, toasted nuts, for example, instead of piles of pastry for breakfasts. We are also getting requests for more dropped lunches to cut the waitstaff charges.”

In terms of entrées, Wechsler sees 2010 as “the year of the chicken. We’re doing chicken every possible way, getting very creative. People are reticent to put filet on the plate right now.” On the plus side, however, Wechsler finds that “super fancy events are now staying on campus instead of going downtown to a hotel.”

From butler to buffet: This year, says Ryan McNulty, director of culinary development for Metz & Associates, Dallas, Pa., the company is seeing butler service being replaced with cocktail parties served buffet style. “We’re offering high-priced luxury items in small quantities. The guests often think they’re getting endless amounts of high-priced foods, but we don’t need to purchase such a large quantity, which keeps costs down.”

FoodService Director - Menu Strategies - Catering on a budget - Overlook HospitalRegional and sustainable menu options trim costs and keep things local, he adds. “Chefs need to focus on seasonality and inspire menus from what’s available and at its peak,” McNulty notes. “The demand for traditional favorites with a twist evokes comfort at a reasonable price and gives the chef an expression of his creativity. We do casual sandwich buffets or box lunches for business meetings that offer artisan breads and specialty cheeses and spreads. And tapas, meze, canapés and antipasti are all buzzwords that evoke creative fun from fusion and world cuisine and, again, are high-priced items served in small quantities.”

Customers who still want to stage events are looking for more creative ways to do so, says Tony Bethards, catering manager at 1,600-student Central College in Pella, Iowa. “We can trim our fixed menus and work with the customer,” Bethards explains. “We have structured buffet menus with, say, two entrées, a starch and salads. We can do five buffet salads or they can trim those back to two or three or only order one vegetable.”

Central College offers a range of entrées from simple roast beef, turkey breast or glazed ham to pricier items such as prime rib.

“It’s the same with pork. We can always go up to a better cut that’s priced higher,” he says. “With chicken, we can do a stuffed breast with a sauce or a basic grilled chicken. We do a lot of wedding receptions for anywhere from 200 to 400 people. A lot of our customers are meat and potato types, anyway. This is a small town and there aren’t so many who are interested in frills, although there are some business executives here with the income to afford them. For the down-in-the-trenches ones, though, we certainly try to help.”

Restrained budgets:” Many colleges and universities with campus catering programs are working at being more cost conscious this year in building menus for customers with “restrained budgets,” says Scott Myers, director of catering for Bon Appétit Management Co. at the University of Pennsylvania.

“We continue to use local, sustainable foods because that’s what Bon Appétit is all about, but it definitely can be a challenge,” Myers says. “We’ve been here more than six months now. We see ourselves as a steward of food. But there can also be advantages in buying raw foods and cooking them from scratch. It’s cheaper for us, and now we have more skilled cooks on the front line that can cook that way. Since we came in last fall, we’ve done a lot of training. Our menus change quite often. We’re never forced into using fresh pineapple in January.”

There are still requests for the classic high-end dinners, but also dinners where Myers says he can serve braised short ribs, oxtail or other lower-priced cuts of meat. “With slow braising you get great flavor profiles. The entrée can be even better than a filet mignon. Our clients are always looking for that ‘wow’ factor but can’t afford the premium products this year, so it’s up to our chefs to create a dish from, say, a bottom round that their guests will love.”

One entrée made with a lower-priced cut—veal cheeks—fits the bill with “awesome flavor,” Myers observes. Seared and sautéed, the meat is cooked with vegetables, then braised in the oven with wine and stock until tender. Myers serves it with polenta or mashed potatoes and a sauce made from the braising liquid.

In addition, he notes, chefs can also create value with smaller portions. “We did an event with a duck breast by doing 5-ounce portions. We used apple cider brine with fresh herbs and the flavors were awesome. It reflects a lot of what we do. Here in the Northeast, fresh can be a challenge. With the duck breast we served local fingerling potatoes and greens, and the apple cider in the brine was local so it was a winning story for that farm.” Presentation of the dishes can give them the same perception of elegance as more expensive items, he points out.

The university’s catering business, Myers adds, is actually on the increase. “Sales are up from last year, and our business is actually growing. There’s a huge market and it’s very competitive. We probably are a little bit cheaper than some of the full-line private caterers.”

Department and office meeting catering is seeing some declines, with many departments unwilling to spend $300 on a buffet lunch for a meeting this year, says Myers. “A few things we’ve done with some of our more frequent clients is offer perks to get them to book, such as a free afternoon fondue bar set up in their office or lower pricing on that meeting buffet. All in all, our individual events are way up over last year, but we’ve had to go find new events and have seen far less repeat business than in previous years.”


Cost of Doing Business

At Overlook Hospital, a new administrative policy has actually helped catering become more profitable.

FoodService Director - Menu Strategies - Catering on a budget - Overlook HospitalMichael Atanasio, manager of food and nutrition services for Atlantic Health’s Overlook Hospital in Summit, N.J., is a trained and award-winning chef. At Overlook, a century-old hospital that during the years has grown to become a regional hospital system, Atanasio’s department puts out 1.1 million meals annually and generates $2 million in retail revenue and $550,000 a year from catering.

“Within the hospital we set up a three-tiered system. This allows us to stop doing ‘frivolous’ catered events such as a nurses’ get-together/meeting, birthday or Christmas parties or employee recognition events for a single department. It means that nursing, which used to serve hot meals for a meeting, now is ordering sandwiches or appetizers. We have three distinct menus (appetizers, larger spreads and hot meals) and rules as to who can order from them. When someone orders from a higher tier, they need administrative approval for the expenditure. It’s been effective. If there’s going to be a function, it must be a big hospital-wide one and have X amount of physicians present.

I like to do seasonal presentations and we can do something that looks amazing but has a lower food cost, like sushi.

We’ll also do a chocolate fondue with fruits and pound cake. It’s an item with a low food cost. We temper the chocolate and it looks beautiful. We keep it in a double boiler over the chafer. I put out platters of dried fruit, strawberries, chunks of pound cake and pretzel rods—anything that can be dipped.

We’ll do a sabayon sauce in an exhibition station and we take premade fillo or waffle cups, a scoop of vanilla ice cream, some fresh strawberries sliced and put it in the cup. I make the sabayon to order and ladle it on top with a sprig of fresh mint for an inexpensive, impressive dish.

Another way we’ve cut catering department costs has been to propose to the administration that we purchase some of the equipment that we used to rent, and we’ve done that. I also brought in a dry-cleaning service. Instead of renting linens, we buy them and clean them. We also bought our own tables.

The number of catered events has actually increased in some ways. Our hospital has seen incredible growth. We have the Atlantic Neuroscience Institute here and it was the first comprehensive stroke center in New Jersey. They do symposiums that people come to from all over the country and also do functions to draw in the community. It has brought in and increased catering revenues.

It’s all about using creativity and thinking outside the box. We’ll seek out vendor support. We’ve borrowed ficus trees and bonsai trees or rented them inexpensively from the florist in the gift shop.

We will make rose- or lily-shaped napkins to enhance the table settings. We use the resources we have and will do things like taking pallets, nailing them together to create certain shapes of tables.

Also, when we stopped doing unit-specific parties—birthdays, Christmas, etc.—that represented significant savings and now our catering cost is a true cost of doing business.

Now, the policy is the final word. I’m not the ‘gatekeeper.’ Nursing can no longer spend $600 for a catered staff meeting. The request (for events) system is now geared to essential types of catering, and catering is becoming more a cost of doing business than an employee benefit or accoutrement, where it’s an expense to the hospital.”

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