In the last several months, the events segment has faced more than its share of challenges.
The impact of COVID-19 on the catering industry is expected to reduce what operators will spend on food, nonalcoholic beverages and packaging to $1.1 billion in 2020 from the original projection of $3 billion, according to Chicago-based Datassential. Losses for the lodging industry, which also hosts special events and includes catering business, will hit about 44%, falling to $10.1 billion in operator spend.
In Datassential’s 2020 Lodging Recovery Guide, which surveyed lodging foodservice guests about what kind of COVID-19-era changes they would be willing to accept in the short and long term, one of the greatest levels of acceptance was in limiting the number of people allowed for special events.
Thinking Outside the Box
Event spaces and caterers continue to innovate to address the current environment. In addition to making basic changes to procedures, such as administering temperature checks and COVID-19 exposure questionnaires for event guests upon arrival as well as suspending family-style service, Great Lakes Culinary Center in Southfield, Mich., has implemented technology to meet today’s demands. It is one of the few indoor/outdoor event spaces in the area and also has a fully equipped commercial kitchen on-site. The facility doubles as a test kitchen and demo center for foodservice equipment dealer Great Lakes Hotel Supply Co.
“It has been a process where we’re trying things out and adjusting constantly,” says Taylor Brown, director of operations. “First we had a glove machine for those at the buffet line, but now we’ve instituted a touchless buffet.” This setup includes clear shields along the buffet line with chefs on the other side serving each guest. These buffets typically feature four stations, with a chef manning each.
Prior to the pandemic, grazing menus with charcuterie boards, dips and spreads were popular items served at events of all sizes. COVID-19-friendly menus instead offer individual appetizer servings and plated meals, in addition to the aforementioned touchless buffet.
In the back of the house, staff conduct frequent deep cleaning, and fewer cooks work the kitchen overall. “All of our employees have a procedure checklist, and we purchased specialty masks with our logo [for branding purposes],” says Brown.
Deciding whether to choose plated meals or a touchless buffet will vary greatly by gathering. “It’s more about the perception,” adds Stephen Swisher, restaurant consultant and owner of Paris, Ky.-based Advanced Restaurant Consultants (ARC). “If there are 120 people who are family members and everyone is of the same ilk, they are more likely to be okay with a [traditional] buffet.”
One large Kentucky catering business added a made-to-order pasta bar, which has become pretty popular, Swisher notes. “There are a bunch of ingredients to choose from, such as vegetables, meats and sauces, and a chef cooking with saute pans and burners or induction stations to create custom orders,” he says. “It’s like Mongolian barbecue but with pasta.”
Action stations like this may become more the norm than the exception at catered events. “Food is cooked on the spot by a professional. It is very inexpensive and versatile to accommodate different types of dishes,” says Swisher. “It’s fun and creative, but safe, unlike a buffet.”
Chefusion opened its doors in Green Bay, Wis., as a restaurant in 2012, but chef/owner Robert “Tony” Phillips says, until recently, the majority of its profits came from its catering arm. Prior to the pandemic, the operation averaged 200 to 300 off-site catered events annually that served as many as 2,000 to 3,000 guests. It takes a unique approach in serving these events.
“We treat catering almost the same as we do our restaurant; I provide all of the necessary equipment and cook on-site,” says Phillips.
Along with the china and glassware, Phillips brings in major cooking equipment, including one to two convection ovens that accommodate full-size sheet pans and a six-burner range. The equipment package also includes one or two reach-in refrigerators and a display top freezer, along with a generator that provides the power.
“We’ll pass on catering jobs if I’m not allowed to cook on-site,” Phillips says.
The equipment, which Chefusion keeps in a storage unit when not in use, features modifications that allow for easier transportation for off-site use. The convection ovens, which formerly ran on natural gas but were converted to propane, have eight wheels for easier transport.
“I had a friend weld the wheels on our catering convection ovens. Four help stabilize the oven when it’s moved, and the front and back wheels lock,” Phillips says. “Depending on the venue, I may bring equipment and food the day before, but usually we take everything the morning of the event; then we fire up the ovens, make sure the tents are up and the gas is running.”
Staff make use of a cargo truck to transport all the equipment, including the ovens, refrigeration, freezers and up to 20 hot boxes of food, plus china and tableware. Though this equipment allows culinary staff to cook hot food on-site, the team also completes some prep in the Chefusion kitchen prior to an event. For example, staff preblanch vegetables, pregrill steak from a raw state and sear chicken, and then chill it prior to completing the cooking process at the off-site venue.
When Green Bay, Wis.-based Black Sheep Wedding & Events opened its doors this past summer, Chefusion’s Phillips assisted in designing the kitchen space. At this indoor/outdoor venue, third-party caterers provide the food for the events, the majority of which are weddings.
“Because we are a private event hall, we allow customers to dictate the protocol beyond the state and federal mandates that we follow,” says Jennifer Process, Black Sheep’s manager. “However, [we] want waiters to wear masks and provide sanitation stations throughout the building and on the bars.”
Rather than traditional buffets, more event customers at Black Sheep now opt for manned cafeteria-style service. Although the event hall typically holds up to 300, local mandates require the space operate at a reduced capacity. Tables that formerly sat eight guests can now accommodate no more than six occupants and must be 6 feet apart.
Black Sheep requires caterers to wear gloves and masks when using its catering kitchen, which can only accommodate three staff members at one time. The on-site prep kitchen includes two 150-plate warming ovens, a prep sink, a microwave, a double-door refrigerator and a dishwasher. Caterers can also use a walk-in cooler to store beer and wine, and the double coffee maker for coffee service. Unlike restaurants that need to constantly wipe down tables between turns, event spaces have more leeway, since guests stay seated at their respective tables.
“They’re not moving around much, and tables have linens on top, so these areas need less attention,” says Process. “Although, this is not the case with the restrooms, door handles and bar area, which we disinfect every 30 minutes.”
Those customers that choose traditional self-serve buffets will see either gloves and/or hand sanitizer at the beginning of the line and hand sanitizer at the end.
“Our cleaning supplies haven’t changed, but we do use a bleach solution every morning to sanitize sinks, countertops, chairs and other surfaces,” says Process.
In terms of menu items and service protocol, event spaces typically take their cues from restaurants, according to ARC’s Swisher. Yet there are many differences. “Restaurants are constantly moving with tables turning over, whereas events can better control the entire environment [since guests are more stationary],” he says. “This includes the number of people inside at one time, the type of space, where to put the hand sanitizers, table placement. We can plan for things, unlike restaurants, which have to get creative with their operational models.”
The most significant shared lesson learned, Swisher says, is the importance of increased cleanliness. “Constant cleaning is an operational item that has been added and won’t ever go away,” he says. “If I’m building a restaurant or event space, I’ll look into the HVAC system with HEPA filters or air purification units. Maybe I’ll consider UV treatments to clean surfaces. Venues bringing in $3 million a year can afford the cost of hiring a company to sanitize with UV light.”
People will also likely continue to be wary of table and seating spacing, Swisher believes. “We may no longer see the ultra-packed chic restaurants with seats crammed everywhere or full events, as people are less likely to approve of their personal space being invaded,” he says. “From an event perspective, we’ll have to cater to that specifically.”
That may require a larger space for a wedding, and possibly a related higher price tag. “People running those events and owning those spaces need to consider this,” says Swisher. “We have already seen how events are being moved outside and spaced apart, but in many states, going outside in the winter is not an option. This means the cleanliness and personal space issues become more imperative.”
From the event industry side, Brown at Great Lakes Culinary says people will not stop celebrating, so events-related companies must adapt to what can be done to provide safety. “The hard part about events is they are planned so far in advance,” says Brown. “We’re so used to having everything secure and ready to go a month or more beforehand, but now we have to roll with the punches and adapt in a shorter time frame.”
Event venues and caterers also have to be fluid enough to meet changing state and federal mandates on the fly. For Great Lakes Culinary, planning for the cold Michigan weather has already begun. “We’re starting conversations now, so hopefully we will have a game plan in place by winter,” says Brown.
Because the state of Michigan counts fully tented events as taking place in indoor venues, and the limit at press time was no more than 10 customers inside at once, Great Lakes Culinary may have to alter its sales strategy for November through April. “We may need to figure out another way to make money and stay open if we can only hold summer events,”
Alternative ideas under consideration include a virtual cooking class featuring the company’s executive chef, hosting intimate weddings with 10 attendees on-site and additional guests attending virtually, and possibly instituting a meal delivery program. “We could send boxes with premeasured ingredients, and our chef can hop on virtually and walk them through a cooking course,” says Brown. “We’re trying to spin that for events, with precooked items wedding guests can enjoy virtually. We need to develop good, solid events and catering options we can utilize during the off season.” Winter is generally off-season for weddings.
Like every other foodservice segment, event and catering operators are navigating an uncharted course. Yet they continue to show resilience in adapting to today’s challenges.
Catering in Motion
Parker John’s BBQ and Pizza has a history of catering events throughout its four operating areas in Wisconsin, all within about an hour of Green Bay. “Catering is something we have always done,” says Derek Mattson, general manager of Parker John’s. It has catered 200 weddings in the last four years, serving from 10 to 2,000 people. “Before COVID, we had 47 weddings booked.”
Parker John’s most popular catering package is the sandwich and meat buffet, which includes two meats prepared in its 400-pound capacity smoker, two sides, buns, barbecue sauce and pickles. Sides range from macaroni and cheese to baked beans. Its individual boxed lunch offering, which includes a sandwich, chips and a cookie, has become more popular.
Staff prepare all food in its restaurants and transport it to event sites in catering hot boxes. “We don’t bring equipment on-site, although we can accommodate pig roast requests with our travel trailer,” says Mattson. “No electricity is needed, and our food stays hot in the boxes for up to eight hours.”
In addition to its traditional setup of metal chafers, Parker John’s has added food shields to its manned cafeteria-style buffet lines. Servers are gloved and masked.