The Moveable Feast
How to cater to your masses
As every restaurant operator knows, timing is everything. Keeping fried foods crispy, hot foods steaming and ice cream at just the right frostiness takes skill in the traditional setting … but packing it up and taking it on the road requires a ramped-up attention to detail and a well-planned choice of offerings. We conferred with two award-winning catering companies who shared their secrets to delivering customer satisfaction and burnishing their brand, one sterno at a time. Their top tips include:
Fried is challenging but not impossible
“We flash fry about 30 minutes before we leave for delivery,” says Jennifer Cafferata-Scriven, Sales and Operations Manager at Blue Plate Catering, “and transport in hot caves that hold the heat but don't trap moisture.” Catering by Michaels Director of Operations Jeff Ware, a 16-year industry veteran, takes a different tack, delivering those items cold with instructions to reheat onsite and give the foods a chance to crisp up again.
Optimal for catering are dishes that are composed, says Cafferata-Scriven, such as lasagna, a champion at holding both heat and flavor and for arriving unruffled by its travels. Pack pans appealingly full, but not bursting at the sides.
Don’t side the sauces
At Blue Plate, thicker sauces are slathered atop their wide array of sandwiches. Cream cheese-based wraps, hummus, herbed goat cheese or pimento cheddar cheese spreads, dried cherry jams, or a super robust aioli are all used to keep the insides deliciously moist. The same tactic works to maintain beef’s juiciness, as it will continue to cook over a sterno … think sweet and sour sauce for cocktail meatballs.
Fish? Handle with care
Keep fish from drying out by covering with a starch like quinoa or farro, or a tomato-based sauce. Avoid thin fishes like tilapia in favor of heartier ones such as cod.
Build a separate, catering-specific menu
Just pulling bestsellers from the regular menu is not recommended. A really profitable catering program may consist of variations of in-house menu favorites but should primarily contain items specially chosen for their ability to present beautifully upon arrival and hold heat without drying out. So while mozzarella sticks fly off the menu daily at Michael’s restaurant, the catering menu has nary a mention of the savory snacks, because they don’t travel or reheat well. Instead, says Ware, they created items just for the catering menu, such as their now-famous chicken piccata with parsley garlic fettucine. “Consider that your competition includes chain restaurants with well-known catering divisions and or warehouse stores, and differentiate yourself with signature items,” he advises.
Temperature control is key
Best practices include using generous amounts of plastic wrap around the pans to hold in the heat, transporting hot items in metal caves, packing plenty of dry ice for frozen products, and investing in refrigerated trucks or vans. Keep your delivery window at the forefront throughout your entire prep, packing and transportation process.
Consider your delivery truck a traveling billboard for your brand
Your vans can deliver a strong brand message along with your noteworthy food. “A blank vehicle is a huge missed opportunity,” maintains Ware, “and every piece of packaging should likewise be branded.” Agrees Cafferata-Scriven: “Our vans provide so much extra exposure, they’re in and out of the city all day long.” In the same spirit, train your drivers to be brand ambassadors. Arm them with marketing collateral to accompany the meals, and ensure they’re extensively coached and fluent in menu knowledge, customer service and your brand values. Implement a shadowing program a la Blue Plate in which they ride along with other drivers, and then are supervised by a senior driver before a solo run.
The small bites trend is still trending strong in the catering world. Blue Plate’s best sellers encompass everything from mini waffle sandwiches to wrap pinwheels to sweet bites, and Michael’s sells hundreds of thousands of mini sandwiches every year.
If you’re primed and eager to start the catering arm of your operation, Ware recommends you ask: Do I have a thoughtful, well-designed mix of items? Is my staff trained specifically to understand catering needs and be able to comfortably handle issues on the fly? Do I have the right equipment to safely prepare and transport food? Do I have a complete marketing strategy in place, including photography, advertising, collateral and packaging materials? If you can answer all in the affirmative, you’re ready to take your show on the road!