Catering offers a way for operators to reach new customers and add cushion to their bottom line. Here are 21 ideas to help improve your catering operation.
1. Encourage feedback
After an event, the catering team run by Sodexo at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Conn., garners feedback by emailing a customer survey. The surveys are tracked to provide feedback on a day-to-day basis. Each month, a survey respondent’s name is randomly drawn to win a “refreshment break,” giving them a free menu item that is typically from the catering team’s LTO menu, such as a coffee bar with churros.
2. Keep a file
The catering branch at the University of Washington in Seattle keeps information from past clients in order to better serve them at future events. “Mastering the art of anticipation has been a tremendous assistance to us,” says Catering Manager Dan Faires. “We keep large files on our guests with all of their notes, changes, feedback and other pertinent information on their events.”
The team also divides its markets into segments, allowing clients to work with the same sales associate each time they have an event. That way, associates are able to form strong relationships with customers, Faires says.
4. Preset plates
The team at Villanova University in Villanova, Pa., caters a lot of speaking engagements with a meal. To help minimize the time needed to serve tables, staff preset desserts and salads. Presetting also reduces the amount of distractions for guests, the team says, because they aren’t interrupted by staff bringing a new item to the table.
5. Start from the top
To reduce waste during catered events, Mark Miller, director of dining services at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., says it’s best to discuss the menu with clients right from the start. “Although the customer may want everything they've requested, they typically aren't sure about quantities and eating habits,” he says. “Discussing timing, group dynamics, programming, and other details at the beginning of an event allows us to gently guide them [to] the amount actually needed.”
The team tries to keep food waste to a minimum during events as well. “We tend to let platters run very low before replacing, and allowing a gap in service of some items while maintaining others gives the appearance of always having food available without overloading every item,” Miller says.
6. Create a formula
At Hopkins Public Schools in Hopkins, Minn., the catering team has created its own system to figure out how much food to make for each event. “We calculate for the number of guests that are planned and then add on 10%. We do this for each item that is ordered,” says Tonya Christianson, special events and customer care coordinator for Hopkins. “It is not an exact science. After each event we talk with our catering lead to find out what we had left. With that information, we make tweaks where we feel we need to.”
7. Implement tech with packing sheet
To help keep packing sheets in order, Cornell University’s team incorporated them into its events software. “The events team lives and dies by the packing, so implementing packing sheets into our event software was a game-changer for us,” says Catering Director Brandon Fortenberry. Next up, he says the team is trying to have the packing sheets scale automatically to cut back on the time needed to update them if guest counts change.
8. Grab inspiration from students
Student employees, resident assistants and student clubs can all provide ideas for popular menu items, says Jennifer Cameron, catering manager for Central Connecticut State. After talking with students, the team has come up with popular catering items such as mocktails and a churro bar.
9. Cater to different diets
Catering teams should make sure they are serving options that suit a variety of different dietary needs. One of the most popular items at Personal Touch Catering at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Va., is a hibiscus mousse made with blueberries, lemon, pomegranate and coconut milk, which is vegan and gluten-free.
10. Introduce specialty dessert stations
Operators looking for well-performing items to add to their menus may want to try a specialty dessert station. At the University of Washington, two of the most popular are its Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream Station and a Kakigori Shaved Ice station, says Faires.
11. Look for local
The catering team at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, says that its clients generally love anything that was sourced locally. “Seafood is the most popular item, especially if it comes from the Gulf of Maine. Lobster, scallops, haddock, crab, halibut, mussels and clams are all popular items,” says Ken Cardone, associate director and executive chef of Bowdoin College Dining.
12. Try a tasting room
When renovating its new facility, the catering team at the University of Washington added a tasting room to give clients a preview of items they could have served at their event. “I wanted to create a space to further elevate the experience of our guests prior to the event,” says Faires. “This is an inviting space where our sales team can meet directly with our clients and allow them an opportunity to taste our food and experience our service.”
13. Introduce a per diem menu
Virginia Tech has introduced a per diem menu to attract additional clients. “As a public university, we often work with state and campus organizations with per diem rates for guests at their events,” says Whitney Engstrom, assistant director of Personal Touch Catering at Virginia Tech. “After we received feedback that our rates didn’t always meet their budgets, we created a per diem menu in our ordering system, and we’ve been able to book more events that otherwise would have used off-campus vendors.”
15. Offer themed treats for the holidays
The catering team at Waukee Community School District in Waukee, Iowa, provides special treats for classroom holiday parties, such as Valentine's Day. A themed treat is advertised on the school’s social media channels and is also communicated to households prior to the events.
"It's a win-win for our parents and our department,” says Director of Nutrition Services Jeannie Allgood. “We keep the pricing competitive so our parents have the convenience of having us take care of their classroom treats. Our school nurses are pleased because they don't have to check our items for allergens, and we reap the benefit of a little revenue."
17. Creatively use leftovers
Food waste from each event served by the University of Washington’s catering team is brought back and assessed, which helps the team plan better for the next event. Catering chefs also look for ways to repurpose leftover ingredients. For example, the team created a soup that uses leftover chopped meats and bread ends, as well as diced vegetables from crudite.
18. Know your competition
Maria Hall, director of school nutrition for Walpole Public Schools in Walpole, Mass., recommends that operators spend some time online looking at the local competition to get a feel for how much they’re charging and see if they can do it for less.
“Usually [school nutrition catering teams] can do it for less than the outside, so it makes it more appealing for, say, teachers or other administrators to use you,” she says. “You also have that extra touch, because typically [we] can cover a last-minute event better than an outside caterer.”
19. Use a mix of tech and old-school
The team at Katy Independent School District uses both new tech and traditional methods to stay organized. “Catering staff stay up to date on added events and changes through the use of a Google Docs spreadsheet,” says Donna Pittenger, executive director of food and nutrition services for Katy ISD. “Daily schedules for events and van deliveries are mapped out on a giant whiteboard in the kitchen area.”
21. Stay two steps ahead
According to Sunil Yaradi, director of catering at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., there are three behind-the-scenes elements that can make or break an event: weather; venue access and logistics; and back-of-house structure and organization (the latter is the most important, he says). Yaradi recommends that operators take the time to make sure their back of house is running smoothly, which includes paying attention to utilities such as water, power and waste disposal.
“All three elements work hand in hand to support the front-of-the-house operation to be successful,” he says. “From an overall organization standpoint, the most important trick to keep a large event organized is to have back of the house two steps ahead of front of the house.”