Creative Catering

The recession is leaving caterers feeling sour, but some operators are finding ways to make it work.


October 2009, Catering, OperationsSome operators may be viewing this holiday season as the year the Grinch stole catering, as companies and institutions cut back on holiday functions as “unnecessary expenses.” But others are seizing the opportunity to find creative ways to give clients the holiday spirit at prices they can feel joyous about.

At New York University, Dining Services has created all-inclusive packages this year for holiday events featuring pasta, carving and stir-fry stations to create a “wow” effect.

“We’ll be focusing on Pacific Rim ethnic and vegetarian items,” says Dining Services Director Owen Moore. “We’re taking traditional American holiday foods like pumpkin and giving them a Pacific Rim twist to make it special. We’ll do things like a pumpkin ravioli but instead of serving it with a marinara sauce, we’ll do a Thai coconut basil sauce.”

Moore’s department has chefs from the Pacific Rim, Latin America and Europe who’ll be asked to create menus with holiday foods from their home countries.

Sustainability has become a big concern for customers, Moore adds, so NYU will offer a beverage station with New York-area brewed beers. “We’re asking the brewmeisters to help us promote them and we’ll do three tap selections– dark, lager and light. There won’t be any bottles,” he explains.

Let them eat pot roast: At SAS Institute, the Cary, N.C.-based manufacturer of business analytics software, Foodservice Director Julie Stewart finds that “we are celebrating less, and celebrations that may have been champagne and fancy appetizers might now be cake and ice cream.”

In response, SAS offers a “wide variety of catering menus with different pricing,” Stewart points out. “Our customers are requesting less expensive options and are looking for more comfort foods. Instead of beef tenderloin, we’re doing North Carolina barbecue or pot roast. We’re also doing ice cream socials instead of cocktail parties for some customers.”

On the sweet side, smaller desserts have grown in popularity, so Stewart offers red velvet cupcakes instead of red velvet cake, pecan tartlets instead of pecan pie, small triangle-shaped brownies and mini-cheesecakes. “It helps with costs and also with calories,” she says.

Paul Booras, director of culinary services at New England contractor Unidine, finds clients “opting to pick up or do buffet-style catering to eliminate the added expense of service and delivery.” He’s simplifying menus and staying focused on “quality comfort offerings. I think the cocktail party will be strong, with many clients opting to staff and manage service and bar operations themselves. This may be a big season for harvest, meze and tapas tables, multicultural menus based on grazing instead of the traditional full-scale meal.”

At Aramark’s corporate headquarters, which has 2,500 workers onsite, Director of Catering Marek Majed is seeing a slight downturn in catering events this year. “We have a selection of menus at different price points with hot and cold items,” he says, “and we added selections for our clientele with lower budgets this year.”

He’s reduced menu selections to more cost-effective items. For example, made-to-order salads now contain only two proteins instead of four. “We scaled down our snacks to lower-end ones that are less labor intensive and we do more petite sandwiches—wraps instead of big hoagies, for instance.”

To build revenue, Majed said he also plans to do “a lot of items for our clientele to take home. We get a lot of requests for the cafeteria’s chicken salad for at-home parties, and we offer meats, salads and desserts for takeout.”

More for less: Clients’ desire to save money doesn’t necessarily mean they want menus to be dumbed down. John Cummings, general manager for Parkhurst at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., says, “today’s customers have more sophisticated palates and worldly expectations,” and are seeking healthier options and more experimental cooking. “The way we display offerings continues to evolve,” he adds, “with shooter desserts and food in martini glasses. We do a lot of sushi and the rice has to be authentic and traditional.” Bucknell’s catering offerings this season will include tapas stations and Mediterranean foods, although he acknowledges that turkey, beef and ham remain “a big part of Thanksgiving to New Year’s catering.”

Little twists: Holidays bring a host of private parties to the Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth (Texas), where Bon Appétit Management Co. provides the foodservice. Giving food a special twist is a hallmark. “We might do a chocolate-covered strawberry with chipotle powder or roasted shrimp cocktail with spicy crab, hearts of palm, topped with Mojito dressing,” Director of Catering Jennifer Cano says. “Our chef likes to do tostadas with Texas goat cheese and peach salsa. We have local farms where we get the cheese and the peaches. People are really coming around to going green.

Mini foods are being requested more often, she notes. “We do mini brisket, mini fish tacos and sliders.”

Tiny dessert offerings are also in demand. “Mini tartlets and desserts in shot glasses are big,” Cano says. “We layer the dessert samples like blueberry pie and Black Forest cake with cherries and whipped cream. Bread puddings in various flavors like Rocky Road and banana cream with macadamia nuts and caramel marshmallows are served in demitasse ­cups.”

Re-engineering Catering

Operators have had to rethink catering—sometimes with surprising side benefits.

This year, many foodservice directors are going back to basics in terms of food preparation for catered events, says Ralph Coughenour, the University of New Hampshire’s director of culinary services.

“We just spent two days with management working to figure out what we can spend because everybody’s budget has been slashed. We’re squeezed,” he says.

This year, the school’s catering business is off around 30%, Coughenour estimates. “Customers can’t do as many events and they may only be willing to pay for six items instead of 10.”

To survive in this environment, UNH’s catering program is being re-engineered. “Most departments have been told not to have large functions and we’re in a Catch-22. We can’t cater events off campus because we’re not allowed. So we’ve just moved one of our catering chefs to a dining facility. We used to have three or four chefs just in catering.”

But catering’s downturn has provided some unexpected benefits for clients, Coughenour notes. “We used to use an upscale line of prepared hors d’oeuvres and now that we’re not as busy, we have the time to make them from scratch,” he says. The department still peels and deveins all the shrimp it serves for holiday catering events. “It’s a throwback in a way to when we were apprentices,” he says. “Then, there was no such thing as, say, a precooked turkey breast.”

Coughenour also is seeing a return to scratch cooking, noting that  “today, we probably make 75% to 80% of our food from scratch. We cut all our own beef. We buy our seafood from the same seafood supplier as Capital Grille.”

On the catered events side, “our customers are creatures of habit,” Coughenour says. “They like sandwiches on artisan breads with fresh-roasted meats. We offer 30 different hors d’oeuvres, which we make.

“A popular choice is our Medi­terranean display table, which is very colorful. We do homemade pizzas, three or four different kinds of hummus, marinated vegetables and crudités. We also do hors d’oeuvres like our wild mushroom and chèvre tarts with aged sherry, Maine crab with sherry and cream cheese dip on pita or rolled zucchini ribbons with herb goat cheese.

We have a big emphasis on local, sustainable food and buy cage-free eggs, Fair Trade-certified organic coffee, local apples and honey. We were the first land-grant university to have an organic dairy farm."

Making the Best of It

Whitson’s catering arm doesn’t fret about the economy, it goes with the flow.

When life gives you lemons, some foodservice directors choose to make lemonade, and that’s been the case for Bill Whitcomb, Jr., director of catering for Andrews Catering, the catering division of Whitsons Culinary Group, at the United Nations Federal Credit Union.

“Today, customers are less certain about what the future will bring. There’s a lot of uncertainty. That’s led to people wanting more comfort foods, so we’ve been doing just that. We’ve had a lot of success with s’mores. People just love them. Off premise, we do it as a do-it-yourself action station where they make their own. Sometimes we’ll do brownie s’mores with thick fudge brownies and melted marshmallows. We’ve also done make-your-own cookie stations. Mini beef Wellingtons are popular too, so we’re serving those for holiday events.

We saw a lot of businesses drastically reduce their catering last year, anywhere from 40% to 50%. Our business was booming for the off-premise catering division. Today, we’ve changed our approach and now stick to what we do well. We once would offer Caribbean or Indian food for events, but it’s expensive to get the ingredients and spices and takes a lot of time, energy and special chefs. We tell our clients our menu is based on what we can obtain easily to save money, and if they don’t make any changes, it’s more economical for them.

We’re seeing a lot of interest in local meats and produce and we’ve been focusing on providing them. Increasingly, we see customers ask if we have organic foods and we’re seeing a spike in requests for cruelty-free, free-range foods.

This year has been harder for us to forecast. People just haven’t been booking ahead. With bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs, people plan two or three years out. When the stock market showed a little improvement this summer, all of a sudden we got more bookings for 2011. Off-premise catering has been affected. On the B&I side of the business, there’s a shorter forecasting cycle of maybe six to 10 months for functions.

On the plus side, last winter for the holidays, we saw a lot of parties and sit-down dinners that normally would have gone to outside caterers move in-house. The customers saved 20% to 30% on the cost because we’re cheaper. We have different metrics and lower margins, but we can do the job just as well as outside caterers. Customers would come back to us after their events and say, ‘Wow, this came from the cafeteria?’

We work with our clients to figure out how to do the job best for their budgets. More customers are putting the choices in our hands. We tell them to pick cheaper dates, like mid-week, when they ask us how to save money. We try to steer them to ways to do that, like having a cash bar or pot luck suppers or office mixers from 4 to 6 p.m. There are a lot of ways, and when we do these events for them, it gives them a better perception of our value.

The economy offers a great opportunity for us to work with our customers. They come to us for recipes and for tips on how to do parties at home for 15 people, how to hold food in their refrigerators, etc. It has been a great opportunity for us to showcase our services. It’s definitely a silver lining. We’re preparing for this year’s holiday season, looking at various rental companies’ costs for furnishings and different avenues that can save our clients money.

For example, we’re suggesting that instead of renting small LED lighting centerpieces, customers buy them for $3 apiece and they can use them again and again in different ways. We try a lot of stuff.

Many off-premise clients who used to ask for an event proposal initially and say, ‘let’s talk about money later,’ now will come in stating up front that they have $2,000 to $3,000 for the function.

We’ve had to change how we do business the last two years. Now, it’s larger events but fewer of them. This is a very volatile and dynamic market, but we’ve found opportunities in it.”



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