As impacts of COVID-19 continue, catering does a 180

With events of all types coming to a halt, catering departments are getting creative to recoup lost revenue and keep customers safe.
Photograph courtesy of Centerplate

At the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., Moirasheen Benz, senior director of catering with Morrison Healthcare, realized she had to pivot quickly once the COVID-19 pandemic picked up in March and catered events across the country were canceled in droves. As a result, she came up with two initiatives that have since been serving the medical community and helping to offset lost catering income.

First, using an existing ordering platform, Benz enabled individual orders of sandwiches and salads. Hospital employees can order and pay online, then pick up their food from a collection point, eliminating “the need to walk to the cafe and have more exposure to the virus,” she says.

Interest in these lunches remains strong, so Morrison is partnering with an external app so customers can order as they would from a restaurant, with expanded offerings and greater ability for customization.

Her second initiative was providing take-home dinners for staff, a strategy healthcare operations across the country have leaned on to boost sales and provide a service for time-strapped medical workers. “One of the things people were searching for was the ability to feed their families,” Benz says. “So, as restaurants closed down, we were able to create hot meals, which employees could order and pay for on one of our portals.”

These meals are available to pick up hot or cold, and customers can tweak their portion size and tailor them for any allergies. Some grocery essentials are also available.

Contractors change focus

Like all large contractors, revenues for Sodexo’s catering division have taken a huge hit since March, dropping by around 80% in the short term, says Area President Joe Ganci. Yet he remains optimistic: “[Catering] will come back, but it will come back in a different way,” he says.

The catering Sodexo is currently doing—and what Ganci sees continuing in the near future—is providing prepackaged food under the company’s Simply To Go brand. With this, he says, customers “don’t have to worry about cross-contamination or other people coming into contact with what they’re eating.”


Photograph courtesy of Sodexo

Sodexo also communicates with clients to coordinate meal times and to stagger arrivals for lunch. “There’s a tremendous amount of collaboration,” Ganci says. “The best partnerships really shine through this experience.”

Venue caterer Centerplate, a division of Sodexo, has turned the coronavirus pandemic into an opportunity to do good deeds: By July, Miami Beach Convention Center had prepared and distributed more than 500,000 meals to senior citizens. And the San Diego Convention Center has served more than 275,000 boxed meals, or around 3,500 per day, to individuals who are homeless.

Segment comebacks

While every industry segment has seen setbacks, Sodexo’s most affected area has been sports and leisure, “because everything they do is large gatherings,” Ganci says, noting manufacturing facilities have seen the least impact. He expects it to take “12 to 18 months to see anything that resembles anything pre-COVID-19” in catering.

Melissa Wilson, a principal at foodservice researcher and FSD sister company Technomic, is hopeful that business and industry locations will see catering return when employees come back, albeit in a different form than before the pandemic.


Photograph courtesy of Sodexo

She points out that catering departments could prepare lunches for workers and deliver them to a location in the building at set times: 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., for example. There will be a need for this, she says. “It’s likely to be a big hassle for employees to go out for lunch and come back and deal with things like temperature checks, so that opens up some opportunities for creativity.”

The beauty of this is that it employs the unused catering staff, who can deliver all orders together, making it safer for everyone. Catering departments could also deliver meal kits for employees to take home for dinner in the same way, she says.

New methods of service

While catering business slowed at the Mayo Clinic, it didn’t stop completely, so Benz has put new protocols in place for current and future events, both to minimize transmission of the coronavirus and to show customers that her department is doing everything it can to ensure safety.

Hand washing is being emphasized, and all carts carry hand sanitizer and are fully sanitized between each delivery, she says. Employees wear gloves whenever they touch something someone else will touch, like cups or water bottles, and their temperature is also taken twice a day. The service style has also changed, Benz says. Self-serve buffets are out, and if clients insist on a buffet, it comes with a catering employee who serves the food while wearing a mask and gloves.

Sodexo’s Ganci believes self-serve options and food sitting out at stations will take long time to return, but made-to-order dishes could come back much sooner. However, meals may need to be prepared in smaller batches to keep customers moving through lines faster, he says.

He also sees a bright future for bento box-style meals—"something cool and different so you can have a good experience but not feel you’re dealing with a COVID event.”


Photograph courtesy of Centerplate

Centerplate’s corporate executive chef, Carmen Callo, believes action stations will need to be reworked “to move the ‘action’ to a back table, and we will serve a portion from behind a sneeze guard with our employees in PPE.” Family-style service will likely not be allowed anytime soon, he points out, and there will be more individually packaged items like creamers, butter and rolls to avoid potential contamination.

When it comes to buffets, a number of safety measures will be put into place: Social distancing for guests moving through the lines, sneeze guards and the availability of hand sanitizer and gloves.

At George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., where foodservice is managed by Sodexo, the catering menu will be limited to boxed items and bottled beverages to get things off the ground, says District Manager Jeffery McKinley. In addition, cash transactions at the bar will be eliminated at full catering events, shifting to credit cards only. We’re keeping an eye on what’s out there that can facilitate reduced guest contact in the future,” McKinley says.

He plans to also boost communications efforts to remind the university community that catering is up and running. “We’ll also push some marketing to clients who normally don’t use us,” he says. “We’re lucky to have close relationships with our clients, and we can walk them through what their future events will look like.”

Getting creative

Yale University in New Haven, Conn., closed down its $6 million catering department this spring, but retained all employees.

While the department has taken a huge hit, some positives have come out of the stalled business, Senior Director Robert Sullivan says. For perhaps the first time ever, the busy people running the division have actually had time on their hands. “We always have projects we want to get done that could be transformational for the department, and we never have time to do them,” he says.


Photograph courtesy of Yale University

As a result, culinary staff and chefs have been working on research and development to create new menu items and unleash their imaginations. Among the projects Yale’s catering managers have worked on since March are:

A rental program
For years, the catering department has rented equipment such as chairs, linens and ice cream carts, which it both has to pay for and doesn’t make money on. Danielle Shapiro, managing director for catering, has put together a program that allows the department to buy its own equipment, which it will be able to rent out to university departments.

A culinary collaboration
The team has been looking for ways to integrate catering, the Culinary Support Center (a commissary) and the retail and residential dining departments so they can all share resources, stimulate creativity and reduce redundancies. Projects include the development of a management synergies training program, customer service trainings and a new uniform program. “There wasn’t a lot of synergy happening there before,” Sullivan says. 


Photograph courtesy of Yale University

Increased menu innovations
Shapiro also participated in a culinary innovation team with the commissary and other foodservice departments to share menu innovation. “This was where we were able to really get creative and reduce redundancies across multiple departments. Without that group I could not have mirrored my offerings, allowing me to be more flexible with catering timelines,” she says.



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