Amid COVID, catering takes a holiday

The profit center that many foodservice operators count on cratered throughout 2020. When will it bounce back in earnest?
Photograph: Shutterstock

Noncommercial operators are thinking outside the box to restore catering to the revenue generator it typically represents year-round, particularly during the holiday season.

Since March, mass cancellations of events have led catering budgets to be severely slashed, and universities and other noncommercial channels have worked to stop the bleeding. In many cases, this meant pivoting to safe, contactless meal service with assurances of safety, as well as shrinking menus to feature a smaller spate of items that carry well and hold in tamper-resistant packages.

“Our usual catering business of events, meetings and receptions dropped off to just about nil in mid-March and has remained that way,” says Dustin Cutler, executive director of the dining program at Cornell University. “We did have a good business up to that point, though, with the usual mix of department meetings, Ph.D. candidate receptions, private events.”

When COVID-19 struck, Cornell’s catering staff launched a satellite meal pickup operation on the Ithaca, N.Y., campus, with freshly prepared meals ready to reheat or eat as-is, Cutler says. “That supplemented our residential dining rooms and gave students another way to dine with us this fall, while helping to de-densify our dine-in seating and the takeout options at the dining rooms.”

Cornell Dining also set up window-service operation at its Robert Trent Jones Golf Course pub, where it provides carry-out burgers, salads, snacks and drinks for golf club members and golf league players through the season.

Changing game plans

For the University of Michigan dining team in Ann Arbor, picnic-style boxed meals for on- and off-premise consumption have been part of the strategy to stay afloat.

Autumn Battin-Flores, senior associate director of retail and catering at U of M, where 95 percent of university staff are working from home, calls this period “the dark days for catering at Michigan,” noting that “we’re seeking to always find creative ways around it.” The team had established a cafe-to-go service prior to COVID-19, she says, that “we flipped to a full delivery program that included catering delivery orders.”

In the spirit of contactless catering, Michigan Dining established “express outposts” across campus to dispatch pre-made boxed meals and also established “isolation” meal delivery for quarantined students.

catering boxes
Thirty-three percent of noncommercial operators surveyed in June were still offering catering, an amount that rose to 39% by August, according to Technomic. Photograph: Shutterstock

“We’re placing an emphasis on simple grab-and-go foods of 10- to 14-ounces per serving rather than banquet-style presentation,” says Steve Mangan, senior director of Michigan Dining, which encompasses 30 facilities serving 24,000 meals a day during normal times. “With appetizers, it’s anything cold that travels well. Right now, the days of filet mignon and catering carving stations have become a thing of the past.”

Michigan Dining typically provides food for 100 weddings per year, but by the end of this October, had only catered two—both off site. For one, food was sent to a local backyard, with the party opting for simple sandwich fare rather than more profit-enhancing hot items, Battin-Flores says.

At Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, catering business has been “completely flat and linear since April,” says Zia Ahmed, senior director for dining services. Catering at OSU represents a $5 million business annually, totaling 7 percent of the dining program’s aggregate revenue.

In addition to contracting with a local Marriott hotel to set up isolation housing and meal service for quarantining students, OSU Dining created gameday meals for Saturday football games. These meals, which focus on items such as chips and guacamole, wings, sauces and pretzel bites, are delivered to dorm rooms as well as other spots on campus.

Far-reaching impacts  

The loss of catering business has been felt across all noncommercial channels, with nuanced differences between them.

According to a recent study by foodservice researcher and FSD sister company Technomic, 33% of noncommercial operators surveyed in June were still offering catering, which rose to 39% by August. With fall and winter arriving, those numbers could see a downturn.

Of the noncommercial segments, business and industry has been the most negatively impacted by COVID-19, with 2020 revenues so far down by 50 percent from a year earlier, says Kathryn Fenner, principal with Technomic, though this is not solely the result of lost catering dollars. Certain areas of B&I, such as manufacturing, have fared better, as employees aren’t able to work remotely.

Fenner says noncommercial operations should think about new ways to operate catering, all while placing an accent on health, safety, convenience and the customer experience.

football fare
Ohio State University has created gameday meals for students, featuring items such as chips and guacamole, wings, sauces and pretzel bites. Photograph: Shutterstock

“Instead of preparing an entire turnkey meal, operators should think about fulfillment of smaller, select items, such as just desserts for a function or just side dishes,” she says, adding that this enables catering departments to serve in a limited yet impactful way while reducing overhead.

With the labor shortage becoming more acute, noncommercial programs should also cross-train staff to perform multiple functions within and outside of catering, essentially doing “more with less,” Fenner says, noting that technology such as mobile ordering and robot delivery can also help support operational goals in these times.

“At a bare minimum, masks, gloves, maintaining safe distance, ensuring ultra-clean surfaces are all givens,” she says. “Anything noncommercial operators can do above and beyond these essentials to telegraph safety for staff and consumers will continue to be really important.”

What the future holds

The hope is that by spring of 2021, catering programs will start to return to a semblance of normalcy, perhaps with the advent of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Michigan Dining is crossing its fingers that catering— which typically contributes about 25% of the program’s revenue—will see a boost by April or May. And in the meantime, the team is “pushing platters to go for holidays and serving different types of appetizers that carry well,” Battin-Flores says.

"Right now, the days of filet mignon and catering carving stations have become a thing of the past."  -Steve Mangan

At Cornell, “wedon’t anticipate having any of the traditional holiday events over the next several weeks, which is a real shame,” Cutler says. One holiday-season exception was a series of Indian-inspired meals to celebrate Diwali, planned in conjunction with the Cornell Asian Alumni Association.

Looking ahead to spring semester, Michigan Dining is “brainstorming with our sales team on creative catering solutions, making sure we’re not missing opportunities,” Battin-Flores says. “We continue to ask, ‘How we can capture more business—what will it look like?’ We are talking to our catering managers to go through exercises and gather additional information on trends.”

Cutler and his team are likewise addressing the unknowns. “We don't know yet what 2021 is going to look like, though we hope we'll be able to start having great events on and around campus again soon,” he says. “Until that time, we'll keep our staff busy in other ways helping with our mission to nourish the future.”



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