Insights, solutions and menu hits are second nature for the talented caterers we surveyed. They make special events happen for happy clients and willingly shared the latest menus, marketing techniques and tips on how to please guests. Caterers continually update menus and services to meet guest requests and expectations. Menus that range from box lunches to seven course dinners are customized to fit the client’s budget and desires.
“We love that food trends are ever-changing and enjoy embracing new ideas,” says Lauren Kenson of Waters Fine Catering in San Diego. “The most frequent requests have been for the multiple course family style tasting menus we offer. We also receive requests for health conscious, locally sourced, and seasonally available ingredients.” All caterers prefer to use local, organic/sustainable, and seasonal ingredients when possible. Organic comes with a heftier price tag but some clients insist that it is well worth the financial expenditure.
“Our clients are more food savvy than ever and often ask where the item is grown or produced,” Jan DeMarzo, Vice President of Off-Premise Catering in Philadelphia, noted. “A salad’ is no longer a salad’ but a work of art that includes organic greens from certified farms, local cheeses that are produced from grass fed animals, and fruits and vegetables that have not been exposed to chemicals.”
She also mentioned the move to action stations and passed small plate menus rather than formal sit downs. “In prior years we found traditional carving, pasta, and salad stations were on every menu. Those have been replaced with Brazilian Churrascaria stations, tapas – Spanish small plates or appetizers, vegan stations or Korean barbeque stations.”
Chef Gregory Kalatsky of Chef Gregory’s Gourmet Catering in Dana Point is seeing a growth in healthy organic cuisine requests for people with bigger budgets. Also, “My clients know that I am a fabulous pit master for bbq pork products and a great sauce creator too.”
Paul Buchanan of Primal Alchemy in Long Beach, in business 22 years, regularly gets request for healthy and organic menus. In addition, he notes the growth of box lunch orders for casual events, and demand for “Unique, individual rolls of cake in different flavors that are assembled into a stacked wedding, birthday, or anniversary cake.”
Mini foods, mini dessert bars, and also three course meals are popular at Bayside Restaurant Catering in Newport Beach according to Catering Director Cameron Mealey. Director of Sales & Marketing for 24 Carrots – Catering & Events in Irvine Laura Fabian also sees a continued demand for mini foods.
“We are consistently creating new mini’ versions of classic comfort foods with a twist,” she said. A crowd treat atevents here is liquid nitrogen. “We did an event where we dropped kettle corn into liquid nitrogen. When guests pop it in their mouth, they breathe out cold steam. It is always fun and HUGE hit at Bar or Bat Mitzvah’s.”
Erika Reardon echoed the trend to petite, “So far it seems like a repeat mini everything, cocktail style meals and small plates, especially mini desserts. We all overindulge over the holiday eating season, so minis make sense.” She observed, “It’s still all about budgets and not looking over the top, so one wow item and the rest a bit more filler. For example beef Wellington bites with a bruschetta bar.” Reardon, based in Huntington Beach, recently closed her catering service and now only offers “What’s for Dinner?” home meal replacement service.
“Theme parties are very popular, even holiday themes within the theme,” said Susan Irby the Bikini Chef. “Because I am the Bikini Chef, most of my clients look for a balance of traditional favorites that are not always light fare but with a bikini’ twist. One signature cocktail as opposed to having a full bar, and the signature cocktails themselves are becoming a meal with the use of large slices (of fruit) or red bell pepper or beef jerky being served in the cocktail as a garnish,” said the Bikini Chef.
Irby’s moniker “Bikini” markets directly to the ongoing movement to healthy menus. Her quinoa pilaf is popular (see image).
Still in demand are crab cakes, minisliders, and pureed soups in shot glasses. What’s new and different? “Bison and buffalo instead of beef are in sliders, and sweet potato fries with added spice.”
“Our culture has changed over the years and healthy is in. If our clients splurge on a rich dessert they look for a lighter first course and entree. We see a lot of bargaining’ going on internally with our clients who may love butter and cream but recognize that their guests may have more heart healthy diets,” says DeMarzo. In contrast, Reardon quips, “It’s the holidays, calories don’t
Presentation is as important as the actual food for many caterers and clients. The decoration may depend on the menu theme, items selected, or event. Self serve, action, and fully staffed stations should be planned to facilitate flow as well as add energy.
“There are so many types of creative designs for plates, bowls, glasses all shapes, sizes, and colors. These make presentation easy. With the right tools, the simplest of dishes look beautiful and exciting to eat,” Irby points out.
DeMarzo prefers, “Clean, simple lines that enhance, rather than overshadow the food. We work with decorators that understand our
priorities. For us it is about the food.”
As in any business, caterers reach out to past clients and try to build new ones in continuing marketing efforts. All have websites with menus, photos, venue possibilities, services offered, and other information. Emails, Facebook, newsletters, and phone calls are also employed, often months ahead, as reminders for clients to begin holiday plans. As Reardon reminds, “There are only so many Saturdays in the month!”
Fabian offers specials for early bookings in June through her website, print ads and Facebook. “Around September we start switching out our ads to a “holiday” theme to spark interest. This acts as a reminder to start thinking about their upcoming event,” she said. “I call regulars and send out holiday ideas in a newsletter months ahead,” said Buchanan.
DeMarzo also offers incentives for clients who book early starting in summer. “Often our exclusive venues extend a facility rental discount and we enhance the deal with a complimentary dessert station or specialty cocktail bar upgrade. For big spending clients and spotlight events, we have even provided gift cards to our affiliate restaurants as a gift for each guest who attends.” In addition to most of the above, Reardon gives discounts to repeat customers. Irby also reaches out to past clients but in addition, “I contact businesses that I work with on a regular basis to discuss their holiday needs which usually extends to both personal and business events.”
ORGANIZATION, COST, AND CHALLENGES
Caterers have to be expertly organized; they shared some of the things to consider when planning an event.
“The guest list is an important consideration. Action stations require guests to go to the station rather than be served tableside, and if the group is elderly this may be problematic,” DeMarzo said.
“The number of stations and the menu selections will be influenced by the budget and client’s expectation. There is often an assumption that buffets or “stations” are less expensive. Based on menu selections, the price of stations/buffets is often higher than sit down dinners.”
The arrangement of stations, etc. is equally important. “Stage your stations to maximize the flow of traffic and avoid a large
gathering, at the bar for example. You want to provide ease of access.There’s nothing worse than serving food only to be mobbed by the guests before you can get it to the table,” advised Irby. She also cautions against too strong aromas and messy preparations.
Buchanan mentions another dilemma, “Getting them to sit down at the time they say they want the food. I have no problem serving hot food, but I really like to serve it when it’s perfect, not after three speeches!”
“I find meeting guest’s expectations for caviar dreams on their hot dog budgets to be the biggest challenge,” declared Reardon.
The price of a menu ranges widely and allows almost anyone to cater a special occasion with a personalized menu rather than fast food or grocery store tray; anywhere from $15 per person to $300. Location, menu, style of service, and size are all ingredients that influence price. So many, in fact, that many caterers don’t list prices on their websites instead asking potential customer to either call or send an email. Many have online forms to facilitate the ordering process and help clients consider everything they will need for their event. These caterers clearly have the passion for food, great hospitality and the creativity necessary to thrive in a challenging industry. “The sky is the limit!” concluded Fabian.