Kyle McElroy, foodservice director of Baylor’s Penland Crossroads, served as the catering director for 10 years, and now he’s helping the new catering director transition into the role by sharing his expertise. We got him to share some of his knowledge here.
Over the past decade, McElroy has noticed changes in how his customers perceive catering.
“I think the social awareness around catering has changed immensely, with the amount of exposure food is getting now, from food on TV to food on social media,” McElroy says. In addition to that new awareness, Waco, Texas, is the epicenter of HGTV stars Chip and Joanna Gaines’ lifestyle brand, which introduced America to beautifully renovated spaces with soft colors and shiplap, a material that people are requesting for catering décor now more than ever.
“People’s expectations are just a lot higher. When we meet to plan an event, people will pull out their phone or iPad and say, ‘Can you recreate this look?’ It used to be just recipes, but now it’s a whole look and feel, so each event can feel as special as a celebrity event. And [as a caterer] you’re tasked with bringing that dream to life.”
Building a curated atmosphere
To create this “curated atmosphere,” as McElroy calls it, “you’re also encouraging them to be original, and then you have an executive chef who wants to make sure that their vision also takes shape.”
“And the back-of-the-house staff has a vision, too, so you’re making sure that you can balance that vision,” he says.
Asked to recount times of especially high pressure, McElroy quips: “Every day.” With about 4,500 events each year, from eight-person lunch meetings to a prospective student event for 3,000, it’s pretty much always go time for Baylor’s catering arm, which represents a sizable part of business for dining.
McElroy does remember one particular challenge from last year, in which the college president’s annual Christmas party was to be a potluck-style event featuring recipes from faculty. These recipes were old-school, McElroy says, and not all were easy to convert to modern times or to a catered event.
“It was about 15 recipes, and these were down-home,” McElroy says. “It’s Aunt Mae’s jambalaya and grandma’s green bean casserole. So I had to manage the expectation: We’ll make it our best, but it may not be exactly how Grandma made it. I had a world-class chef trying to make saltine candy and it was a culinary abomination! But it’s what the client wants, and it turned out to be a fantastic event and the recipes turned out great.”
That balance of “the customer is always right” and well, sometimes not, is something a caterer juggles quite often “to still spellbind people and be true to what they’re asking for at the same time.”
The never-fail catering items
While getting catering customers to try new foods is an important part of holding onto the reputation as the hottest caterer in town, it’s the old favorites that truly have a place in the heart of the Baylor community.
The “world famous” Baylor white wing is a little piece of chicken breast wrapped in jalapeno and bacon, and “one of our most popular appetizers,” McElroy says. Another reliable crowd pleaser is the mac ‘n cheese bar, which was recently featured at Invitation to Excellence, an event for 3,500 people to invite prospective students and their parents to get a taste of Baylor.
“The mac ‘n cheese bar features smoked Gouda mac ‘n cheese scooped out by a culinary attendant, and then people have a choice of about eight condiments to top it with,” McElroy says.
Another catering item has such a following that Baylor alums who get married on campus request it for their receptions all the time: The Dr Pepper float, which is similar to a Wendy’s Frosty, but with Dr Pepper and vanilla ice cream all blended together.
Repurposing for sustainable catering
Along with all the aesthetic and flavor expectations in the catering world, there’s also an expectation for being green. The Baylor catering team is big into repurposing materials in creative ways.
For example, glass sneeze guards got a second, more glamourous life as display shelves.
“We repurposed the sneeze guards into a tiered display that stands alone; we call it the metro display,” McElroy says. “It’s just one example of repurposing materials rather than going out and buying new stuff. Plus, everyone is more environmentally conscious now. No one wants to be a waster. This way, we give our clients something else to brag about.”