University of Tulsa Dining's catering program is going big. This past August, TU brought in a new Sodexo catering team to take the school's event offerings to the next level. And the team has risen to the challenge, catering more than 450 events during the fall semester including sporting events, concerts, carnivals, and Greek life events.
"We're the smallest school in Division 1 with football. The university challenged us to provide the biggest experience. They asked, how can we compete with the biggest caterers in town?" says Executive Campus/Regional Director of Dining Ed Daugherty. To Daugherty, Catering Director Angelica Huff, and Executive Chef Tim Anderson, that meant providing premier catering that went above and beyond customer expectations with delicious food served quickly and efficiently, including at high-volume events like TU football games and tailgating parties.
Daugherty and Huff knew that most football fans are looking for traditional favorites like hamburgers and hot dogs at game time. But "we wanted to take the football experience to the next level and make it five-star," Daugherty says. So they elevated them by surrounding them with unexpected, high-end treats like lamb lollipops, braised short ribs on crostini, apple cider brined turkey breast, chili rubbed pork tenderloin, mashed sweet potatoes and parsnips, maple roasted Brussels sprouts, and creamy cavatappi. A salad station served individually packaged salads, while a dessert station offered signature candy bars, assorted cookies, and more. Inside the President's Suite, there was an imported cheese board, balsamic glazed duck, braised crusted rack of lamb, and pan-seared rosemary rib-eye steak.
The games featured passed foods, which sped up service and forged stronger connections with customers. "It adds so much to customer service. When we come to their seats, people are so impressed that we're so engaged. It makes people feel important," Daugherty says.
The campus was transformed into a lively Irish bar for the recent homecoming game. "We did 2,500 covers with shepherd's pie, cobblers, and Hurricane Mix, which is our snack mix," Daugherty says.
Not every catering event is sports-focused. Within the first two weeks of the semester alone, TU catering did over 15,000 covers, including at a President's Dinner for 1,300 people, a Motley Cru concert, a fireworks-and-s'mores event, and more. They even made baskets to welcome back the sororities.
To Daugherty, pulling off these kinds of high-volume events successfully means keeping hot food hot, and creating a setup that allows people to move through the serving line quickly. "We do a lot of shooter glasses and individual presentations. We've moved away from buffets and chafing dishes to be more grab and go. Instead of scooping and serving, it's about getting people where they want to go," says Daugherty.
Keeping serving lines simple, and focusing on quality over quantity, helps too. Rather than featuring multiple beverage choices, for instance, there'll be just bottled water "so people can get what they need and enjoy their experience," Daugherty says. Menu identifiers are placed in front of each offering, too, so people can quickly figure out what's available.
Maximizing efficiency at big events comes down to detailed planning. Huff and Anderson build timelines, pull sheets, meeting points, and checklists for each event and verify that they have the right equipment for what they're planning to serve. "How do we assemble the food in a safe location and get it to where we want it to go? We make sure our paper is right, plan to work, and work the plan," Daugherty says. Having extra help comes in handy too. To manage the 15 to 20 catering events that occur each day at TU, the catering team added around 15 additional staff members this summer, and they bring in extra labor from local staffing companies to man big events.
Next, the catering team will be gearing up for Lights On TU, a holiday extravaganza with an anticipated 4,500 covers featuring holiday food, spiked drinks, and a gingerbread house decorating competition. Which might sound like a major feat for most, but it's just par for the course for Daugherty, Huff, and Anderson. "We don't do anything normal," Daugherty says. "We believe in great food, great service."