“No one really had this in their playbook.” That’s what one conference planner said in a recent New York Times report about how the pandemic has forced changes to conferences and business meetings – and the hospitality surrounding them. Restaurant operators who hosted events before the pandemic have faced an equally steep learning curve. Now, as guests begin returning to dining rooms and we all look forward to being able to safely gather in larger groups for parties, weddings and less formal celebrations that have been put off in recent months, how can you plan accordingly? If you’re feeling ready to take bookings for events later this year and into 2021, your event management protocol will naturally need an update – and it’s something you can promote to your guests now to encourage their business and demonstrate your commitment to keeping them safe when they gather. As you think about replacing buffets and self-service stations, how can your menu, service model and staffing plan flex to accommodate it? Can you cover or wrap food items, plates and utensils to minimize cross-contamination? Serve individual plates to guests either at the table or in a buffet line? Transition to fixed menus that minimize waste and are easier to prepare and serve? Adapt your indoor and outdoor spaces to ease traffic flow and allow for better ventilation? Your service agreements – both with guests and any vendors you use – may need an update as well to help protect safety and ensure you are protected legally in case lockdown measures force cancellations down the line.
Last year, restaurant catering grew 50 percent faster than the industry as a whole, according to research from Technomic and ezCater. At a time when restaurants are scrambling to meet consumer demand for off-premise dining despite the challenge of making delivery profitable, focusing on catering can be a wise business move for foodservice operations. (If you need a rule of thumb for catering profitability, Sandy Korem of The Festive Kitchen in Dallas aims for 67 percent profit from catering and prices food at three times its cost and beverages for twice their cost.) As grocery stores and other businesses eat into the off-premise dining market for individual meals, catering can help you set your business apart. If you haven’t given significant thought or investment to your catering business, you’re not alone: The research cited above found that even though 90 percent of restaurant operators believe catering is somewhat or very important to business, only 28 percent have made a strategic investment in it. Restaurant Nuts offered some tips from operators who have made catering pay off. First, develop a catering-friendly menu that comprises your greatest hits (not new recipes) that travel well or can be started at the restaurant, then easily completed onsite. Make pricing easy for customers by creating sample menus of entrées and appetizers at different price points, and when discussing options with a customer, have an idea of what different prices per head will provide. Make sure you have temperature-stable containers, along with other equipment that holds your food at the proper temperature while in transit. Start with small, manageably spaced events and then expand from there so you can build a reputation for reliability and quality — low prices tend to be less of a priority for catering customers. Finally, make sure you offer a catering-specific loyalty program to entice people to invite you back.