On-premise catering programs continue to evolve through partnerships with nontraditional venues, incorporating local and seasonal ingredients and utilizing more versatile equipment.
On-premise catering can take on many forms, from corporate events at commercial banquet halls to celebrations at private facilities. Yet, the majority of revenue for this foodservice segment comes from weddings.
"There are more weddings than any other events that bring in the most revenue, and most facilities are built to accommodate these celebrations," says Carl Sacks, senior consultant at Certified Catering Consultants, headquartered in Woodland Park, N.J. "There also are lofts in cities or vanilla box facilities that are blank slates for affairs."
Catering is a $12 billion industry, according to Los Angeles-based market research firm IBISWorld, with the catering industry expected to reach all-time highs [in revenue] over the next five years.
Regional Sites and Themes Popular
Most banquet facilities have an in-house foodservice program, although some event centers do not. "In some cases, like in historic homes or museums, the catering may be contracted out by a third party," says Sacks.
Looking at the trends in on-premise catering, regional sites and themes are both popular. In the Northeast, barns are in vogue and easily tie into farm-to-table menus with local fare, according to Sacks.
Themes tend to be popular for corporate events. "We were part of an industry event in Portland, Ore., where the host caterer did a Portlandia Party after the popular television show," says Sacks.
Standard on-site equipment in this segment includes at least two six-burner ranges, two convection ovens, deep fryers, tilting skillets and steam kettles. "More advanced technology, like combi ovens, are great for plated meals," says Sacks. "Something I've seen fairly recently in a Northeast on-premise facility is a conveyor belt installed by a chef for plating. This is a setup that's typically more popular at large casino hotels that have high volume." The conveyor enables the chef to get a consistent product out on a timely basis, roughly 12 minutes.
Disney Goes Above and Beyond
One would expect over-the-top on-premise catering events at Walt Disney World's Resorts, but one annual event takes even Disney to a whole new level. Every October, Disney's Swan, Dolphin, Yacht Club, Beach Club, Boardwalk and Contemporary resorts join forces to entertain a software company's conference for 10,000 people. The event evokes a campus ambiance as people walk from building to building, eating at different locations.
"We create a 60,000-square-foot tented pavilion that includes glass walls, central air, carpeting, etcetera, for attendees, and they also can eat at any of the other tents throughout our properties," says Ed DiAntonio, complex director of catering and event management at Lake Buena Vista, Fla.-based Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort. "We're feeding upward of 7,000 people during the week at each meal, so we set up break stations throughout the property as well as our food trucks, which offer ice cream, donuts, pastries or coffee. Pedi cabs take people where they want to go, and we have a DJ set up outside Festival Hall; it's a very festive atmosphere."
The Dolphin and Swan properties are both currently under renovation. The work includes an overhaul for lobbies, a new bar area and the creation of grab-and-go areas. "We've also redone some function space for catering," says DiAntonio.
Combined, the Swan and Dolphin properties can offer 330,000 square feet of meeting space, the largest being 110,000 square feet in the Pacific and Atlantic halls. An additional 55,000-square-foot area exists, plus 84 meeting rooms. Banquet kitchens at both hotels provide service; each include a garde manger and a pastry shop, with a commissary at the Dolphin.
"Our on-premise catering operation includes more than 200 culinarians who work at 17 restaurant outlets, and we can put up tents all over the property, as well," says DiAntonio.
The resort has four food trucks that it often uses for receptions and other events. Clients can choose from eight themes, such as Mexican, Maine Lobster, Asian and Burgers/Hot Dogs. The resort employees can decorate the trucks' exteriors with magnetic paint or clings with other themes for almost any food offering.
It's almost an overwhelming offering of options; Disney's on-premise catering program has 80 pages of customizable menu items.
One of its bars, called The Locals, uses gin from a St. Augustine distillery, and many of its cocktails incorporate local citrus. Mojito bars have become more popular, and the resort went as far as to incorporate a sugar cane machine for syrup. Cold-pressed, nitrogen and drip coffees also are top requests.
When it comes to sourcing, much of the catering programs' produce comes from an Ocala, Fla., farmer during the state's prime growing season. "Chefs will call farmers directly to see what's good each week," says DiAntonio. "Many of the vegetables we use are the heirloom varieties or unique items, like purple carrots, to 'wow' our guests. It used to be [that] we were restricted to two vegetables from a food purveyor, but today we can incorporate whatever shows up on our dock."
The catering program utilizes a couple of big smokers for homemade barbecue and will finish off items with grills, which are integral to most menu items. Chefs also make use of liquid nitrogen at times to make ice cream and will sous vide items in the banquet kitchens. Water circulators help the culinary team make the perfect soft boiled eggs.
Disney often hosts catered events in its kitchens, bringing in large groups and making the back of the house into a lounge. "We can only get a few hundred people in there, so we hand out a limited amount of tokens for admission," says DiAntonio. "We use the walk-ins to serve cold seafood, like crab legs and oysters, then turn the garde manger into a sushi bar with sea bass and tenderloin. Our ovens' rotating shelves become bourbon or tequila bars."
Themes prevail at every turn. For example, the Swan's kitchen hallway has been transformed into an alley that would be found outside of a Chinese restaurant, complete with Asian graffiti and kung fu movies playing on the walls.
The resort's catering program also holds cooking classes with its chefs at parties and provides cocktail-making stations for events, including a food and wine event held in conjunction with Epcot. The setup for its world's largest chef's table event simulates a cooking line, with the addition of fresh herbs on display and supplies like colanders and bamboo cutting board placemats. The latter can be personalized as a take-home momento with a company logo, or an individual's name if it's a private event.
"Today's catering customers are seeking more than just a sit-down meal, they want an experience," says DiAntonio.
The Ultimate in Diversification
What happens when a photographer, flamenco dancer and actress decide to pool their talents?
A waitress staffing company emerges, of course. One that has evolved into a successful catering company in the heart of New York City.
When Great Performances opened for business more than 35 years ago, it took its current CEO and founder Liz Neumark three years to find its first kitchen in SoHo. Now operating out of a 28,000-square-foot commissary/office space in Hudson Square, the prep spot for 90 percent of its food items, the business still caters to a staff that's passionate about the arts.
"We like to support people in the arts, with catering as their main source of income," says Dean Martinez, president of Great Performances.
Great Performances operates as two separate joint venture companies. It handles the Goldman Sacks corporate cafeteria and boasts another partnership with The Plaza Hotel. The unique arrangement with The Plaza grants the catering company a 25-year lease on the hotel's ballroom and terrace room, plus Great Performances handles all banquets.
As if that wasn't a full plate, Great Performances has 14 exclusive relationships with several New York City venues, including the Apollo Theater and The Museum of Modern Art. It also caters off-premise in the tri-state area. With a full-time staff of 350, along with 680 on-call captains, chefs and assistants, this business caters events up to 15,000 guests.
Martinez has seen a shift toward more on-premise catering since the 2008 recession. "Businesses are doing more events in their offices, even converting office space to event space," he says. "We're also doing more on-premise daily catering and meetings, coming up with different themes, such as a radish or tomato festival, or a celebration for a food holiday." The business has also seen an influx of ethnic fare, such as Indian and Asian items, along with sweets and farm-fresh items.
Great Performances looks to an organic farm for many of its ingredients. Menu items include the signature Farmer's Bowl, which incorporates steamed or raw vegetables, a protein and choice of dressings.
The commissary's main equipment includes a grill, tilt skillet, ovens for roasting, speed ovens for reheating, combi ovens and refrigeration equipment. The cook-chill process is integral to the operation. "We're working on a new inventory control process from a business structure standpoint, so we'll be looking to incorporate chillers to improve our production efficiencies and cool down food quicker," says Martinez. Six refrigerated trucks and one refrigerated van deliver items to its many spaces.
Great Performances uses a software program to coordinate all aspects of the business, whether from the kitchen, beverage or disposable side, menus, recipes, or order placement. "We've become our own vendor, operating a warehouse and beverage department," says Martinez. "The good part is we're a small artisanal vendor that delivers products, so we can negotiate one big delivery to a single location with our vendors, rather than having many small deliveries to multiple sites. This helps us optimize our costs and control our specs better in terms of our recipes."
The catering company also has two food trucks, which helps to further diversify offerings.
"Looking ahead, we're anticipating more equipment upgrade projects," says Martinez. "On-premise catering is very competitive."
Fulfilling a Need
Dan McCall created his event planning business in the 70s, not taking any event with less than a six-figure budget. He joined forces with Dennis Berkowitz, owner of the famed Max's Café chain, and also ran an operation out of a wholesale gift and jewelry mart that included a cafe and kitchen.
In 1980, McCall purchased Max's catering business and grew it into the operation it is today. McCall's Catering and Events in San Francisco caters 800 events a year and operates multiple on-premise catering businesses at locations such as San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art's fifth floor and the Wattis room at the San Francisco Symphony.
"The industry has changed, and we work with different markets, such as conventions, non-profits, the opening of the ballet or Cancer Society charity events," says Lee Gregory, McCall's executive vice president, director of sales and marketing.
While seasonal, sustainable and organic are novel or trendy in other parts of the country, these are par for the course in the Bay area and in McCall's business. "It's standard to be seasonal, and we know it is necessary to be fresh and showcase these ingredients," says Gregory.
McCall's depth of staff on its culinary team, with origins from Asia, Mexico, Europe, Australia, and both South and Central America, easily add authenticity to ethnic menu items. "One example is when we partnered with the Asian Art Museum, we started a sushi program and make dim sum in house," says Gregory.
Its small but efficient catering kitchen can handle meals for up to 25,000 people. Gregory describes it as a well-tuned machine that contains various stations for things like chicken and sushi, all separated to adhere to stringent food safety standards. "Nothing goes back to the kitchen after an event, no dirty dishes or leftovers," says Gregory. "It's a one-way transfer of food items."
McCall's customizes its menus, with sales staff working closely alongside clientele to create unique selections. "I like to reverse engineer our parties, with permitting, labor, dividing the room into zones and figuring out the courses and flavors. It's important to give clients what they want, but also to make sure all components are working," says Gregory.