What Catering Means to a Caterer
Friday, May 31, 2013
Sometimes its hard for me to come up with good things to talk about on this blog. I know for sure that I don't want to waste your time with something inane, dry and pointless. I want to tell you about interesting things that cross my mind, and as much as my friends and family might disagree, I don't always like to talk just to hear myself make noise. I like to make a point... sometimes, many points... and in no particular order.
It took me a while to come up with a topic that you'd be interested in, but I think I have one. And it's so obvious it's scary.
I want to talk about catering.
I know you all just blinked and said "Duh, ya think?!?" but I'm serious. I think a lot of people have a misconception these days about what catering actually is and I probably should have started with this in the beginning!
When the recession hit, a lot of places, especially restaurants, saw their profits crushed. From huge corporate franchises to small mom and pop cafes, people were scrambling to find a way to regain their footing and recapture their space in the market. Why? Because a lot of people just stopped eating at restaurants.
The restaurant's solution? If people won't eat here because of the time and cost, maybe they'll still buy our food and take it with them. And so, the surge of curb-side pick up and restaurant "catering" took off. Now, whenever you go to a nicer sit-down restaurant, the back of the menu, the table-tent or some poster on the wall talks all about their "new catering options!" You can get sandwich trays and soups and "all your favorites" wherever and whenever you want! Most people think, "Well hey, there's an idea! I love their food in the restaurant so it must be good if I take it home or to work." What they don't think of is that restaurants aren't set up for catering. They are not designed for the quantity food production setting that catering companies are built around.
Think about the last time you went to a restaurant. How long did it take to be seated? How fast was the service? How hot was the food? How prepared was the kitchen when that 30-top birthday party walked in? How well would they have done if another 30-top came in? How about another one? And another one? Think back to Prom weekend when every restaurant in the city was packed with high school kids. Now ask yourself those questions again. Take your server, in that situation, and ask them to leave the restaurant and bring your meal to your office. How confident are you in their service now?
Don't get me wrong, I'm not bashing restaurants. I go to them (probably more than I should!) and I very much enjoy going to them. I think they serve an excellent purpose in our society and are a shining symbol of the absolute success of the American way of life. I think its an amazing industry full of excitement, challenges and a huge diversity of people, tastes and ideas. I don't however, think its the same as the catering industry.
I've worked in both industries and can tell you from first hand experience, restaurants are what they are and they are good at doing what they do. Catering however, is a totally different ballgame.
Catering is not just bringing people food. Catering is bringing people service. Anyone can go to Costco or Sam's Club or whatever grocery store they want and get food to take to an event. What a caterer does is bring the service of food preparation and experience to you.
Would you call the pizza delivery guy a caterer? Why not? They brought you food didn't they? The same thing applies to restaurants, delis and cafes. Their staff shows up, they grab your order, run it out to wherever you want, toss it on the table or just hand it to you and take off. There's no care or concern about the display, there's no interest in even checking if you got everything you wanted. They want in, they want out and they want paid. That's not catering, that's food delivery. When a caterer brings you your meal, they don't just plop it haphazardly wherever there's a spot. They move things around and arrange the table so that the food flows in a logical pattern. They aren't going to put the condiments first and then place the sandwiches all the way at the other end of the table. There is a flow to each event and that needs to be maintained properly. That's how a successful event is created and finished.
When you order from a caterer, they should ask what kind of event it is. If they're a knowledgeable company, they'll have good suggestions and offerings for almost every kind of event. They should know that a secretaries brunch is a far cry from an afternoon construction worker safety meeting. A wedding will have special needs but different ones than a surprise party. Everything is individual and all the details matter to a caterer.
Caterers should follow your schedule, not theirs. They arrive when you ask them to and they make sure you're serving your guests at the time you requested. Restaurants don't do that. Your order gets finished when they get to it and the food is delivered when they have someone to get it to you. That's not catering. That's bringing you food. We don't "bring people food". We cater events and meetings and parties and generally help out wherever we're needed. We take care of the people who order from us and make sure there is nothing else they need before we leave. Why? Because we're caterers and that's how we roll.
I hope I've explained well enough so far, what catering is. I don't want to be too long winded and I'm sure I'll be back on this subject again to continue the explanation in another blog. I guess basically, I'm just trying to explain that just because a place says they "cater", doesn't mean they really do. Most places are just food delivery places.
I guess I just got to thinking that a lot of people are really shocked by the depth of service we provide and that surprises me. It scares me when something which I consider to be common sense in this industry, other people call going above and beyond. If someone is going to order 75 dinners from me, in my mind, of course I'm going to bring them a plate to eat it on and a fork & knife to eat it with. That just makes sense. Some places up-charge for that and others (mostly restaurants) don't even think to add it in! You ordered food not plastic-ware after all.
It just surprises me the silly stuff that's out there and the people who get absolutely hoodwinked by it. They see a new "catering" menu all in HG TV-style with items written in French and suddenly its a high-end thing. "Its gotta be classy, they have Pasta au Gratin with Panko Crumbs." No, it's still just box mac & cheese and it started as a powdery orange mess. They just put bread crumbs on top and burnt them a little. That's not catering. Those things don't last and usually aren't worth the phone call. They're all flash, no flavor.
My thought is to do what you're good at and only take on new things if you're willing to do them right. I'm sure there are places that have branched out and have been very successful. If you go into it thinking "this is what I'm focusing on", chances are, you'll be successful. If you go into it thinking "I'm going to make tons of money on this stuff!" then you're not focusing on the right things and will inevitably fail... probably making a lot of other companies look bad in the process.
So for now, I'm going to leave it at that, but hopefully you've found this a little bit interesting and just a little bit informative. Let me know what you think and we can keep the discussion going!
- Maggie Raffel
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