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Catered Affairs to Remember

Catered Affairs to Remember

CAUSING QUITE A STEER. The Cowboy Ball at the University of Montana is a rodeo team fundraiser that draws more than 700 guests to the team's off-the-beaten-path training barn.
NYU Medical Center caters a wide range of events that can range from beer and pizza parties to high-end dinners like the one shown here.
Victor Naves oversees a USC program that provides cost-effective catering for smaller student and faculty events on the USC campus.

Even in today's uneven economic climate, onsite operators continue to provide from-scratch and often labor-intensive, quality catering programs, integrating them efficiently into everday meal production.

Typically, FSDs are proud of their catering work, and rightfully so, considering it an opportunity to break “out of the box” of day-to-day meal service. Catered events let them challenge their chefs, show off their food presentation and organizational skills to the administration and set the standard for a higher level of service than is normally called for in daily operations.

That's certainly the case for GM Juan Cantellops and his staff at Mary Kay, Inc. in Addison, TX, which regularly hosts a wide spectrum of catered events.

“Our catering menu is pretty much unlimited. It's dictated by the customer's palate, and dishes can be simple or elaborate. Typical catering selections can range from a down-home fried-chicken plate with starch and vegetable sides, to petite beef filet, salmon and sea bass.”

Mary Kay has the luxury of a private dining room, overlooking a 13-story atrium. “We can seat 50 people in there for lunch, Cantellops says. “In addition, our Mary Kay Cafè has three wings, each seating about 100. We have the staff to service as required.” Catering encompasses approximately one third of overall foodservice revenues, he adds.

Most items on the Mary Kay menu are cooked from scratch and are freshly-prepared. “Tonight we're serving a sit down dinner for 32 people,” Cantellops says. “The menu includes Basil Pesto Chicken and Broiled Peppercorn Crusted Salmon.”

Budgets matter at Mary Kay, just as they do elsewhere, and Cantellops tries to manage catering labor costs on evening events by doing most of the required prep work during the day. When it's time for the evening shift, “we usually will have two people stay to finish preparingthe meal, just before the event. We want to give our clients and their guests the best we can offer,” he says. “We have visitors from all over the world; when they arrive, they expect the best and they get it.”

It's a team effort
Carol Sherman, R.D., senior director, food and nutrition services at New York University Medical Center, has developed a reputation for top-drawer catering services during the 14 years she's been at the campus and has grown her catering volume substantially over that period.

“We do approximately 7,500 catering functions annually,” she says. “They range from seated dinners for 700 to buffets for 3,000.”

“Today, people are watching both calories and budgets,” Sherman notes. “Also, we serve every ethnic background imaginable on this campus. Even with a sandwich buffet, we have to remember to have lettuce wraps for people watching carbs; to be aware of holidays like Passover and Easter. There has to be a variety of food choices that will appeal to a wide spectrum of ethnic tastes and cultural expectations.”

To maintain costs, Sherman has developed flexible menus and systems so she is able to match decor, service and food requirements to the budgets of internal customers. For an annual brunch held recently, where cost containment was a priority for planners, Sherman modified the menu to eliminate some of the traditional high-end items. “Instead of 80 sides of smoked salmon, we did a white fish salad. Instead of filet mignon, we sliced freshly made corned beef and turkey. We offered fresh breads and pastries. It was still a beautiful affair.

“You may have a department that just wants a simple buffet, or beer and pizza on a Friday night,” she continues. “To reduce costs we may suggest that the customer have its own people do set-up or clean-up, with everything served on disposables. In contrast, another function may require linen, china and rentals.”

“We have some wonderful chefs on our catering team and this gives us the ability to be very creative,” says Sherman. “But everyone in foodservice gets together to deliver the larger affairs—it's truly a team effort.”

Making Drop-Offs a Specialty
Finding ways to economically cater smaller events can present a challenge. The team at the University of Southern California's Hospitality Services department addressed that issue by creating a separate Room Service group, which manages smaller, no frills events through a unique delivery system.

Although USC's Hospitality Services department manages a full-blown conference center and caters elaborate events for both the university and the public, the separate entity offers a centralized program to handle catering for staff, faculty and students.

“Room Service is for those who are looking for a no frills event and offers a simple-drop-off delivery system,” says Victor Naves, Room Service Manager.

Customers go to the web to place online orders 24 to 48-hours in advance. Naves and his staff view the incoming computer orders and start filling them.

“We have a dedicated pantry person who oversees the Room Service food prep,” Naves says. “We don't use tables, chafing dishes; or anything that a full-service catering department would bring in. Everything is disposable, and we typically spend only about five minutes for a set up. But even though it's a drop-off system, we want the events to have an upscale feel, and use only top-of-the-line disposable items.”

The most successful items, according to Naves, are vegetable platters, lunch boxes and sandwich platters. “The lunch box comes with a Panini baguette, fruit, cookie and beverage and costs $8.50. Sushi platters, offering California spicy rainbow tuna and nigiri roll combinations are also favorites.

Notably, after 4 p.m. Room Service is open only to students who, as a courtesy, are permitted to order pizza and beverages with no minimum required.

The program has a minimum charge of $50 for staff and has provided services for as many as 800 people. “My food cost is approximately 30 percent,” Naves adds. “Prices are competitive and not even close to what the catering department would charge.”

Contrasting the two types of service, Naves notes that USC's catering department might charge $30 to $35 for a gallon of coffee, provided with china and servers. Room Service charges only $12 for a disposable, boxed coffee container and may do approximately 175 to 200 deliveries a week.

Coffeehouse Convenience
Operators looking for some extra help with events can turn to the convenience of outside planners without breaking their catering budgets. Todd Reddeman, owner and operator of Mocha My Day Mobile Espresso, headquartered in Atlanta, GA, provides a unique beverage catering service. A sampling of his client roster includes Abbot Labs, Lion's Share Financial and IBM.

“Our focus is to bring the coffeehouse onsite—that's what drives the whole business,” he says. “Food is secondary to what we do. People can choose from well over 25 different drinks: chocolate combos, mocha lattes, cappuccinos, hot chocolates and other drinkable desserts. The package is very simple: We provide a complete set-up, including espresso machines, blenders and a server. We literally can set up in a break room the size of a closet.”

Reasonable cost, presentation and catchy beverage names play key roles in the success of the whole event. Cost for the allinclusive service increases proportionately in increments of 10 people. Guests are provided with a menu of drink selections, which are all hand-prepared. The mocha/smoothie combo is the most popular package, according to Reddeman, satisfying the tastes of both fruit smoothie and coffee lovers. Most items are available in sugar free or lowfat versions and coffee drinks can be decaf.

“It's an open bar concept so guests can have as many drinks as they want, with each drink averaging approximately eight ounces,” he adds.

Steamed milk and espresso infused with different flavorings combine to make a selection of mochas that include Almond Roca, Caramel Mocha, Cafe Milano, Hazelnut Supreme, Irish Mint Mocha and Mocha My Day.

The chocolate mochas are topped with real whipped cream, fresh chocolate shavings and garnished with cookie straws. Smoothies are made with real fruit, ice and enhanced with Siberian ginseng and gingko bilboba. Smoothie choices include Tropical Rage and Exotic Blast, made with a combination of banana, mango, peaches and oranges.

“We use upscale products like Palm Bay for the fruit smoothies, Torani syrups and Ghiradelli chocolates for the flavored lattes,” says Reddeman. “We appeal to most companies because we are affordable. Plus, the presentation makes a big impact because it's so different.”

Goodwill Catering
Sometimes the publicity and goodwill generated by catering events outweigh the desire for profits. Mary Kate Harrison, R.D., and general manager for student nutrition at the Hillsborough County School District in Tampa, Fla., reports that, “Campus catering is a great opportunity to showcase the talent of our employees and at the same time promote what our program can do.”

Catering at Hillsborough has evolved over the years. “In 1999 we retooled the whole program and came up with a new promotional tool called Campus Celebrations,” Harrison says. “It's grown from a hit or miss operation into a fine-tuned one, and we now have a catering manager who oversees some fairly large events.”

Hillsborough has 225 sites in its district, with an enrollment of 182,000 students and a 1,900-member foodservice staff.

“It's hard to teach 1,900 people the finer points of catering, so we leave it to our catering manager,” says Harrison. Printed Campus-Celebrations guidelines are available for use by individual managers for smaller events.

“Most of the big events are held in the district's administrative building, which has an atrium that accommodates events nicely,” she says. “We try to hit our food costs at around 33%.” Most events are buffet style, “but occasionally we need extra help for a carving or punch station,” adds Harrison.

Favorite recipes include cold broccoli salad, bread pudding, sandwich trays and homemade-cookies. The most popular item is a regional favorite, the Cuban sandwich, made with fresh shaved pork, ham, salami and pickles on Cuban bread.

Catering serves primarily as a good public-relations vehicle for the district, and is not meant as a major revenue generator, Harrison says. “It cements our relationship with the schools and outside communities and adds another dimension to student nutrition.”

Catering to Students' Nutritional Needs

At the Algonac School District, catering revenue helps underwrite the cost of fresh food bars for students.

Executive Chef Paul Luberto wears other hats besides the chef's toque at Algonac (MI) Community Schools District. He's also the director of dining services for the seven-school, 3,000 student district, which is managed by Chartwells, a division of Compass Group North America. In addition, Luberto coordinates nutrition education classes with funds generated solely from a catering business called In Any Event Catering, which he directs.

“First and foremost we are involved with the feeding of children,” he says. “But four years ago we were looking for ways to offer a variety of fresh foods on the school lunch menu without raising costs. We wanted to be able to generate revenue for the school lunch program and support the community at the same time. We started In Any Event Catering to do both.”

According to Luberto, the program started out with a meager $3,500 in sales, but has grown to more than $150,000 today.“We are at the point where we may have to open another kitchen,” he adds.

The extra revenue the catering program generates helps Luberto to bring in a large variety of fresh items for school meals while keeping a $1.25 lunch cost to students.

“There are food bars in every one of our school cafès with a selection of fresh fruit salads, fresh fruits, pasta, tossed salads and homemade goods,” he says. They are available at all grade levels, free-of-charge in unlimited quantities.” Another benefit of the catering venture is nutrition education, which is available in all classrooms, from Pre-K to 12, according to Luberto.“I actually go into the classroom to teach the students about good nutrition. That is also funded by our catering program.”

Staff is made up of foodservice personnel, high school co-op students and special needs students. About 90 percent of food is manufactured onsite and the other 10 percent at satellite kitchens not affiliated with the schools. The team uses dedicated catering vehicles with rethermalization and warming units to ship food to offsite events.

The events catered by Luberto and staff run the gamut from sit-down dinners for 3,000 to backyard-style barbecues. “We also do a lot of state-level functions. People want to use our services because they know the revenue is helping the children,” he says.

Entrèe stations, where people graze from site to site, are popular right now, according to Luberto. Popular station items include bamboo Asian steamer baskets, sautèed tenderloin tips with wild mushrooms and pasta with assorted sauces. The Mexican influence is also strong, he says. To maintain profitability, every event menu is costed out in advance.“We have production records to ensure that cost is met and that waste is kept to a minimum.

“Catering not only helps us support our schools but also lets us reach out to the community,” says Luberto.“ We support some of the civic-minded organizations and charities. We also volunteer our services during disasters and other times of community need. It's a well-rounded program.”

Cowboy Ball No Bum Steer for U-MT Catering Dept.

It is the biggest fundraiser of the year for the University of Montana's Grizzly Rodeo Team (and in Montana, a rodeo team's success is a very important matter indeed). Called the Cowboy Ball, the annual fall event had evolved from what was a small barbecue and auction first held a dozen years ago into a gala event for some 750 people that now nets over $100,000 annually.

Held in the Mytty Ranch Riding Arena, where the rodeo team practices, the event combines sagebrush chic with sophisticated elegance. Guests often arrive wearing tuxedos accessorized with cowboy hats, big buckles, boots and even jeans.The “ballroom” is the sandy, dusty roping arena set up with tables and chairs.

For the University of Montana Catering Department, however, it is one of the year's more intense functions, not least because Mytty Ranch is more than 20 miles from campus and has little in the way of amenities.

“Not only do we have to truck everything—and I mean everything, including water, tables and serving equipment—more than 20 miles, but the Ball takes place on a football Saturday,” says Catering Manager Jennifer Pinto.“That means we are doing this while also dealng with all the events that surround a home football game.”

(The intersection with football is not a scheduling accident; the rodeo team has discovered that they get better attendance for their evening event when all the school boosters are already on campus for the afternoon game.)

The catering team copes by completing as much of the prep work and setup as possible at least a day in advance. Most of the food is precooked in the campus catering kitchen before transport to the site. Service is buffet style.

Last year's menu included the usual signature prime rib, carved to order, along with sides like Montana Wheatberry Salad, a traditional Italian Mozzarella/Basil/Tomato Salad,American Heartland (i.e., traditional iceberg lettuce) Salad, Hassleback Potato and Rosemary-Skewered Roasted Vegetables.There was also a bread display with three varieties and a fruit tray.

In addition, each table had an shrimp appetizer flavored with a Tequila Lime Sauce and each place setting featured a Chocolate Cylinder dessert filled with chocolate cake and custard filling.

Everything was transported from the campus catering kitchen in two ton-and-a-half trucks. A dozen employees, including managers, worked the evening.

—Michael Buzalka


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