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.” 

More From FoodService Director

Industry News & Opinion

Regional School Unit 17 in Belfast, Maine, is banning straws beginning on Monday, the Penbay Pilot reports.

The ban was put into action by a student group and the district’s foodservice director. Over the years, the district has also phased out plastic utensils and plans to completely eliminate foam food trays this upcoming school year.

Director of Food Services Perley Martin told the Penbay Pilot that the district’s foodservice budget has not increased as a result of the transition to more eco-friendly materials, due to the fact the change was made slowly.

The...

Industry News & Opinion

School districts in Jefferson, Oswego, and St. Lawrence counties in New York will be expanding their farm-to-school programs as the result of new funding, Watertown Daily Times reports.

The expansions will be made possible by the Seeds for Success program, which awarded grants to seven school districts last year to begin farm-to-school programs. This year, it will provide $5,000 grants to an additional 19 districts to either start or expand their local food efforts.

One of the grant recipients said it will use the funds to add additional gardens and expand its composting...

Industry News & Opinion

Aramark has begun using a new system to track, purchase and report on its sustainable practices.

The system, named Open Fields, allows foodservice vendors to create and monitor their own sustainability programs. Users can run their own metrics on various sustainability initiatives based on factors such as location, product, spend, attribute, farm/vendor, miles to location and distributor. Managers can also generate reports on their organization’s sustainable purchases.

Aramark says it’s using the software to track its sustainable purchases of products that are Fair Trade...

Industry News & Opinion

Columbia Public Schools in Columbia, Mo., has introduced a farm-to-school coordinator position for its new farm-to-school program , the Missourian reports .

The district partnered with the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture to create the role, which is intended to help about 1,000 third- through fifth-graders eat more fruits and vegetables. The coordinator will be in charge of arranging student field trips to the Center’s farm as well as writing and planning a curriculum and activities for students.

The Center will provide around $42,000 for the position, and the...

FSD Resources

Code for Asynchronous jQuery Munchkin Tracking Code