We’ve got some major questions about catering. How can you plan events when the pandemic has introduced a ridiculous amount of uncertainty? How do you keep catered events safe? Which menu items are MVPs? And more than anything, what does catering look like right now?
We asked foodservice pros with expertise in catering—and experience with catering in the here and now, for better or worse. Their answers had a common thread: The resilience of hospitality itself. We found more common threads, too, such as individual, cleverly done pre-packaged snacks and meals.
“Catering is a little unsettled as of right now,” says Eurest regional chef David Peterson, who specializes in barbecue for B&I accounts and more. “We have some guests that feel comfortable doing catered events and some that do not. However, I feel that it is starting to come back and will continue to rise and get stronger, especially when we get into 2022.”
What does catering look like right now?
Photo: Tulane’s Sodexo catering team goes for the individual trend with personal crudite shots. So cute!
When the whirlwind of the food industry gets combined with an actual hurricane…well, that’s what Tulane Dining has been dealing with. Catering Manager Stephanie Bachemin and Catering Executive Chef James Jones are dealing with post-hurricane challenges, as is much of New Orleans. It’s “an additional hurdle” added to catering’s already unpredictable nature, they say.
“As always, catering changes at a moment’s notice and you need to be able to pivot and reallocate your resources where needed,” Bachemin says. “With Covid, we saw a shift to many individually packaged products like boxed breakfast and lunch. This enabled us to present a meal, inclusive of beverage, per person. We also switched all buffets to fully served.”
Peterson and his Eurest teams have also seen individual pre-packaged items on the rise. “I’m seeing everything from passed apps in individual closed containers to individually boxed meals, and in some cases, passed apps the way we used to serve them to carving stations and 4-6 course plated meals for boards of directors,” he says.
A recent catering win for Peterson came in the form of dining location that wasn’t (yet) a client in Houmas, La., where “we were asked to clean the kitchen from the previous incumbent and cook in a kitchen where we had to bring food into from Baton Rouge (roughly 1.5 hours away) and food for three days, breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
The whole process went off without a hitch, with the team creating classic dishes and even a mocktail happy hour and plated dinner service. “We were awarded the contract,” Peterson says. “The only way we were able to pull this off was through our amazing team. We came in on a Friday and prepped through the weekend and dug in our heels for long working days. All of us had the same goal in mind: Give our guests an unforgettable moment in their lives and cook as if it was our last meal to serve.”
Photo: Charcuterie boxes are hotter than ever, and guests feel confident to see the seals, as shown here in a box at Arkansas Children’s Hospital Northwest.
Safety at the forefront
Sodexo/Centerplate recently worked with a research firm and conducted a survey of event planners’ perceptions and views of catering since the pandemic. The online survey asked a diverse group of event planners from convention and conference centers across the country what would be key for success and survival and found 90% of respondents said safety procedures are critically important for the future of their programs.
“Whether we’re in San Diego, Dallas, New Orleans, Miami Beach or anywhere in between, we’ve certainly learned to adapt our operations to comply with CDC, local and state health and safety guidelines, allowing our clients, guests and team members a safe environment to host trade shows while building confidence around the path forward,” says Sodexo/Centerplate Corporate Executive Chef Carmen Callo.
The survey also found that event planners were focused on touchless surfaces, more pre-made food options, boxed meals, grab and go, reduced buffets, plus innovative packaging and service. Post-Covid catering for the event planners surveyed means contactless services, effective communications and signage, visible cleaning and most of all, innovation in serving large groups.
Callo and Centerplate catering teams across the country have seen an increase in pre-packaged meals and snacks, including upscale boxed lunches and dinners with an element of something special. Disposable service ware has made a kind of peace with sustainability through bamboo and other innovative options.
Coffee breaks have adapted too, with pre-packaged pastries, plexiglass barriers and touchless coffee stations “to provide an extra jolt of energy before our guests head back to the show floor,” Callo says. At least coffee’s power over us has remained the same!
Overall, safety must be the beginning of all catering endeavors, Callo emphasizes. “Health and safety are always of paramount importance to us and will continue to be.”
Photo: Aramark Executive Chef Brittani Ratcliff’s Nashville hot chicken waffle in a globe is a catering appetizer that makes an impression at Morehead State University in Kentucky. It includes Ratcliff’s signature watermelon-Nashville hot sauce, a little biscuit waffle and beautiful pickled watermelon rind.
What about buffets?
“Buffets have always been a popular style of service and we are making every effort to enhance them with additional health and safety precautions,” Callo says. These have included plexiglass barriers, more service staff on hand and more hand-sanitizer stations. “These new precautions will be tweaked and adapted as we seek to create a future-facing buffet experience for everyone.”
How to plan when uncertainty looms?
This question dovetails with the safety-first mindset.
“This is a great question,” Peterson says. “What we’ve been doing with our guests is taking it slow, making sure we consider safety first and foremost, then giving them peace of mind that not only will we have proper safety measures in place to the highest standards, but we will also make sure that safety doesn’t hinder the food and the experience.”
A lot of it comes down to peace of mind, the real value catering clients seek. “Peace of mind for our guests and clients, especially in these times we are in, is extremely valuable,” Peterson says.
At Tulane, working closely with each client to set up their event with “a level of comfort and safety with how the food and beverages is being presented and served,” says Jones, who presented some new menu items—mostly passed—to an event for high-level football donors and administrative staff.
Some items were a re-interpretation or elevation of a classic item, and “we were able to secure adequate staffing to continuously pass the items,” Bachemin adds. “We received rave reviews.”