Budget-Friendly Catering Moving into the Mainstream

Budget-Friendly Catering Moving into the Mainstream

Food & Drink

Budget-Friendly Catering Moving into the Mainstream


‘It’s a catered affair.’ Does that phrase conjure up images of an elegant, formal event? Guests are on their best behavior and white-jacketed staff move silently through a country club ballroom with trays of canapés and champagne, all to the sounds of a string quartet. If it does, think again. As an old Gershwin tune suggests, ‘It ain’t necessarily so.’

Catering has gone mainstream as a foodservice option for both businesses and consumers. Whether its lifestyle or economy driven, people are comfortable with the casual, medium range delivery style and price point. Everyone relies on the caterer for all aspects of an event, or supplementing their own at-home efforts with add-ons from an outside source. Catering in 2010 is about providing inspired events for the person who may not have the time, interest or courage to manage it all themselves. The best caterers realize this and gain a competitive edge by focusing on these key areas:

  • Delivering convenient and affordable events or food
  • Reducing a host’s anxiety level by handling the menu, presentation and service details
  • Working with customers to create events that reflect their personalities and tastes

According to a research study by Technomic, Inc., catering for at-home social occasions is a $33.3 billion market opportunity, nearly double the size of business-to-business and off-premise catering – what we all think of when we think of ‘catering’. Foodservice operators have an opportunity to become a go-to resource for their restaurant patrons’ at-home or for business events, and to create a whole new revenue stream for themselves in the process.

Catering. It’s not just for weddings.

Catering is a great option for any occasion. The ‘Big Three’ events for at-home catering? Fifty-three percent of consumers report buying platters and other prepared foods for their Fourth of July celebrations, followed by Thanksgiving (61%) and Christmas (66%), according to the same Technomic study. And parties don’t have to be scheduled just during the holidays. Look to the holiday and January bowl games, October baseball playoffs, or the Hollywood awards show season for at-home catering opportunities just waiting to happen. Weekday nights and weekend brunches are not off-limits for catering either. Whatever consumers need is the new mantra, any time of the year.

Value is in the eye of the beholder

Customers want value—and value could mean many things to different consumers. It could be the ego-boost of having a one-of-a-kind event themed to reflect the host’s favorite foods, travel destinations or accomplishments. It could be the appeal of pampering; of having someone else do all the work to pull off a great party while the host has fun and gets all the applause.

Whether for at-home or at-work events, many customers seek a combination of value and convenience. Noodles & Company, a 225-unit chain headquartered in Broomfield, Colorado, recently introduced ‘Square Bowls,’ a catering program that makes ordering food for a crowd affordable and convenient. Customers simply complete an order form, choosing from a list of the Noodles entrees. They tally the total number of Square Bowls needed to feed their group, each serving four people, and place their orders. All Square Bowl varieties are priced at one of two levels: either ‘with protein’ or ‘without protein,’ which speeds up both decision-making and order calculation.

Value may also mean intrinsic value, like the benefits of using environmentally friendly packaging. This is a game-changer, especially if one of the host’s concerns about catering is the amount of trash generated. Smart operators leverage their ‘green’ catering practices and promote them as a point-of-difference by using sustainable products in some of these creative ways:

  • Choosing recyclable, post-consumer packaging or compostable and biodegradable serving pieces

  • Recycling and reusing everything possible
  • Using food-safe cleaning products
  • Buying recycled products
  • Promoting ‘green’ efforts on websites, email, Facebook and Twitter – not just to get the word out – but to save on postage and printing costs – another eco-friendly move that earns catering kudos!

Catering to Business

Plaza Market Bistro is a downtown retail café run by ARAMARK Corporation, which serves the entire Chicago Loop. Its catering team puts on anywhere from 10-25 events a day, according to Liz Frerichs, Director of Catering. Events range from:

  • Coffee or Continental breakfast service for groups as small as six
  • Casual sandwich buffets or box lunches for business meetings
  • Formal plated dinners or receptions serving up to 500 guests

Clients choose food items from standard menus for day-to-day events, while working with the catering team to develop customized seasonal menus, décor and florals for larger parties. She and her team work with specialty vendors to supply linens, staging and props as needed, based on event themes.

One such event is the Culinary Excellence competition, a ‘cook-off’ showcasing winning regional chefs from ARAMARK locations nationwide. The café is converted into spaces for a gala reception: a lounge, tasting stations and a food presentation area in which the chefs demonstrate their winning creations. Previous events were styled as a Roaring Twenties speakeasy, a Paris bistro and a ‘Food as Art’ gallery.

With such a hectic events calendar, sometimes problems do arise, Frerichs admits. ‘Every day there’s something.’ Frerichs cites an off-site event in Chicago’s Grant Park during a 5K race. ‘Our truck broke down and the streets around the park were closed for the race. One of our vendors had a truck in the area and came over. They unloaded their delivery for another customer, put ours on their truck and got our supplies over to the hospitality tent in time. With lots of partnerships and teamwork, we can get through any huge situation.’

CATERSOURCE 2010 – From Planning to Presentation

According to Mike Roman, Founder and President of Catersource, a Minneapolis based catering magazine, conference and tradeshow, ‘The hottest trend in catering has nothing to do with food. Whether social or corporate, all clients are looking for better value, and that absolutely has to be driving your catering business model.’

One timely opportunity would be to attend Catersource 2010, a catering conference and tradeshow which will be held March 7-11, 2010 at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas. The show will feature exhibits from hundreds of suppliers, from food to equipment, and have the opportunity to participate in workshops and presentations each day of the conference. Roman will present a report on the evolving state of the industry and explain eight actions caterers must take to succeed in 2010. For conference schedule and registration information, go to www.catersource.com.

This is part of our Beyond the Plate series sponsored by U.S. Foodservice. View the complete series at: www.beyondtheplate.com.


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