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Catering Clout

Catering Clout

By Diane Ridge

What sets your catering department apart from the competition? Your presentation style both before and during an event!

From the initial sales call (or event consultation) to final bow of the kitchen and serving staff, presentation value is reflected in the customer's impression of your business acumen and culinary creativity.

Setting yourself apart is not hard to do. It just takes a little-extra effort. Whether you're a seasoned catering professional or have the goal to establish your foodservices as the newest—and best—source for catered events, an ongoing commitment to sales, service and culinary innovation will position your operation as the signature caterer of choice. Here are a few ideas and some great recipes to refresh your catering sesnsibilities.

Securing sales
The most opportune time to solicit new catering business— from faithful clients and new prospects alike—is now. Whether your operation is in a seasonal "slow down" or you're in the midst of hectic day-to-day operations, opportunities to secure new catering sales are around every corner and in every conversation you have.

In addition to employees hired specifically in a "sales" capacity, you have another highly effectives sales force, according to Christine Emerson, executive director of the International Caterers Association in Washington D.C. "Operators should look to the people they employ and the people who employ them for leads," she says.

Chefs, waiters and drivers, for example, may be one of your best tools in generating sales leads. They are in constant contact with potential customers during day-to-day operations and are in direct contact with potential new clients at catered events.

Help train chef and servers in the desired response when guests ask them who the caterer is. Instead of replying, "It's ABC Catering," have them say, "We are ABC Catering and we cater fabulous events!" Or "We're ABC Catering and we cater all types of corporate events." Or even, "We're ABC Catering, you may have seen our website at ABC" These simple, positive responses help with name recognition (and have the added benefit of implying proud ownership on the part of the employee).

Delivery teams on the front lines also interact with people they may happen to meet on the way to their destination. It's hard for people on an elevator to resist chatting up the delivery person who's cart is laden with enticing food, particularly if there are wonderful aromas wafting through the air. Wouldn't it be a good idea for them to pass out your business card?

Finally there are people who "sell" your company who don't even work for you— your business clients and suppliers through referrals to their friends and families.

Practical service, culinary excellence
Onsite operators have a distinct advantage over outside catering firms, in that they are already in-house and ready to service every need of their catering customer— including some they may not even realize!

"We do it all—from sales, to set-up, to clean up," says Franceso Esposito, executive chef at Aramark. "Frankly our client receives a more personal level of service from us than they can get from a sandwich shop that just drops off some trays."

To keep interest high, the company is always refreshing the catering menu. Sean Craig, concept development chef for Aramark, looks to field experience from other chefs, manufacturer research, competition, trend information from the media and others catering menus for inspiration. Of course, one menu does not fit all—as seasoned caterers can attest. Therefore unit managers and chefs offer menu's with tiered approaches. The first tier features simple, high quality ingredient dishes that do not require highly skilled chefs to execute; whereas the third tier features dishes with more complicated recipes and higher price points.

The hallmark of a great catering operation generally rests on the quality food and the style of the chef(s) who manage the event. To truly execute a great dish, chefs need to know their strengths and respect those boundaries. Promising too much— something you know you can't deliver with 110% personal satisfaction—will only lead to a disappointed customer and lost sales in the long run.

Presentation panache
Catering revenues for the Philip Stone Caters/Regal Caterers (Kosher catering) a division of CulinArt, is on an upward sales spiral and the most recent business acquisition, Robbins Wolf Eventeurs, a boutique caterer, steps up its committment to signature catering customized for each specific event. (For a company profile, see the September 2003 issue of FM). Is it a coincidence they're headquartered in Lake Success, NY?

The executive chefs here are at once practical and creative: those interviewed by FM all stress using only the highest quality ingredients: fresh picked, garden fersh fruits and vegetables, quality proteins, dairy, and starch components, all executed with culinary flair, whether served as a classic dish or a trendy, fusion-inspired appetizer.

"By default, caterers end up serving something everyone will eat, such as chicken and beef," says ICA's Emerson. "But the best caterers find innovative ways to serve these classics. Consider unique flavor rubs or serving a vinaigrette with your protein entree."

Newer presentation ideas to consider are the dual-, trio-and quad-entree plates. The protein, starch and vegetable components are presented on small individual plates resting on a large, charger-style main plate—similar to pieces of a puzzle.

Update traditional surf and turf by offering scallops, lobster, or stuffed shellfish (in lieu of plain shrimp) with beef. Or, offer the same type of protein prepared two ways: roasted beef tenderloin medallions plus braised beef ribs on one plate, for example.

These simple yet elegant concepts can be used with all parts of the menu—as long as quality ingredients are utilized, the flavor pairing makes sense, and service is fairly easy to execute.The key to great catering seems to be incorporating a unique style note, whether it be in flavor or presentation, in order to distinguish your menu from the others.

Menu Speak

When composing a menu there are words that add panache and paint a picture and other words that can make a menu sound dated, according to Christine Emerson, executive director of the International Caterer's Association ( Here's her list of the worst offenders.

Tasty. "This is what I like to call a redundant word. You're not actually using a descriptive word in a positive way. Instead it sounds as if you're trying to convince yourself and the reader that it is so. Some things go without saying, and the fact that your food is tasty should be one of them."

Veggies. "It's a slang word. Instead, use proper English and the word vegetables. Veggies should only be used for "creations" such as Veggie Burgers and Veggie Dogs."

Nippy, zippy or zesty. "All these words do is remind us of cold-pack cheddar cheese product. Use spicy, piquant, peppery and fiery, instead."

Scented or perfumed. "Consider using "fragrant" instead."

Cheezy. "Any word that is intentionally misspelled as part of its "charm" has no place on your menu. And cheesy, no matter how you spell it means "cheap". Use au gratin, instead."

Nuggets. "The only menu this should be on is McDonald's. It's their word and let them have it. Use real words such as bite-sized pieces of chicken breast." (Editor's note: this excludes children's menus, of course!)

Tender, grilled to perfection, combo, medley and morsels. "The first two are redundant. The last three are not—they're just left over from the 80's. Alternatives: for combo use duo or tasting plate. For medley, such as vegetable medley, use trio, jump-up or quick sautè."

Homemade. "Unless your chef is making the food at home and bringing it to work, you can't say homemade. Alternativesare from scratch, house-made, made inhouse,-made in our kitchen, made by our chefs."

Baby. "Perhaps the worst of all—the most misused, overused and abused word of all. Alternatives are miniature, young, new, tiny, petite. Shrimp has babies so you may say baby shrimp, but not anything else!"

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