As of June 2021, state-by-state guidelines are still in place concerning the number of people who can gather inside or outside at catered events. Many establishments have fully reopened, while others have kept limits in place ranging from 50% to 75% capacity for the time being.
Despite any possible caps on capacity, all caterers are permitted to reopen in some way. And the summer wedding and graduation season showed us that catering clients are ready. In fact, according to a recent survey conducted by Tripleseat and SevenRooms, 72% of the 1,000 consumers interviewed said they were planning to host an event in 2021, with 32% planning to invite fewer than 50 guests and 39% planning to have between one and 20 guests. The average event budget was $1,000, with 25% of respondents planning to spend up to $5,000.
As illustrated above, budgets may have shrunk after a rough 2020, and headcounts may be a bit smaller, too. But one thing is certain. America is ready to celebrate, and people will turn to caterers to do so.
From Change Comes Innovation and Growth
For many caterers, the shutdown, albeit unwelcome, provided time for reflection and a renewed focus on their business. They asked the hard questions about what was working, what was not and how they could use the extra time to make changes to their operations.
Like restaurant operators, many caterers turned to takeout, delivery, to food markets and online learning to keep the lights on. Now, those who stuck it out are ready to get back to business, even if things may look a little different.
In April 2020, Chef Keith Blauschild, CEC, chef and owner of The Cook & The Cork and Parkland Chef Catering in Coral Springs, Florida, had $140,000 in corporate catering appointments on the books that dropped to zero due to COVID-19.
Chef Blauschild kept his restaurant closed until October 2020, when he began offering delivery, takeout and catering to the local community. “We’re definitely doing smaller social events and weddings now,” he says. “We recently catered a daytime wedding at the restaurant for 40 people; before the pandemic, our minimum was 50.” He says that guests now seem to want a more intimate social gathering that costs less.
On the other end of the spectrum, Chef Blauschild fed 8,000 guests per day for three days straight this May at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. “The festival broke it up into two sessions each day with social distancing,” he says. “It was a lot of people, but it was spread out, and they limited the entrance times, so it was safer than everyone coming in at once.”
Catering changed completely during the pandemic for Chef Chimere Ward, owner of Clean Plate Co. in New York City. The company normally offers catering services for corporations, government agencies and wedding parties, but that all came to a halt mid-2020. “Since I’m a mother of two, I wasn’t able to work, and providing services for 400 guests was no longer permitted,” she says. “I could not continue my culinary educator position due to social distancing requirements.”
Unexpected changes like those caused by the pandemic caused many caterers to forge new paths to stay afloat. “I had to pivot tremendously and unwillingly at times,” Chef Ward says. “Catering was my most notable service for 11 years.” When the pandemic interrupted her catering and instruction services, Ward turned to her mentor, SheChef founder Chef Elle Simone Scott, who offered Ward a co-founder position.
Lavish Roots Catering & Hospitality, based in Burien, Washington, has always offered a serve-yourself cafe-style system to corporate tech clients; that was until March 2020. “In March, we turned to all prepackaged grab-and-go items,” says Chef Brandon LaVielle, CEC, director of culinary and partner. “But by April, we were completely shut down due to COVID.”
Lavish Roots benefited from supportive clients and partners who made it possible to keep the company humming throughout the lockdown. The company was able to keep 160 team members; spend time on getting the team certified in ServSafe; revamped its employee handbook; wrote menus for 2021; and more.
Thanks to its generous clients that kept the team paid, Lavish Roots utilized its staff to start offering takeout through its catering kitchen at the start of June 2020. “I spent all of April and May developing the takeout program, redoing the website and learning about Google ads,” Chef LaVielle says. “I kept the prices at cost so we could keep the team working.”
Through her new co-founder position at SheChef, Chef Ward says she’s been able to experience far more of the culinary industry than she had hoped. “Virtual programming via Zoom helped us reach people nationally and internationally with educational events,” she says. “We’re also building partnerships with food and beverage companies and working with Good Food Jobs to help people pursue culinary careers.”
Chef Blauschild has integrated new sanitation protocols into his catering, including the use of an innovative new product that resembles giant tongs holding a plate and allows you to deliver and serve guests hands-free. In addition, large platters have taken a backseat to individually packaged or plated items, according to Chef Blauschild. “Instead of a basket with carved vegetables and lettuces for a crudité, it’s more of an individual presentation with smaller micro greens, with dip or hummus on the bottom and neatly stacked vegetables.” And while more caterers are turning to this trend, Chef Blauschild recognizes it’s leading to more food and packaging waste in the short term.
Recruitment and Retainment
Through culinary education, Chef Ward’s goal is to prepare students for careers in the food, beverage and hospitality industries. “With all my experience, I like to consult my students and offer service opportunities through my catering company,” she says. “It’s a great way to expose our underserved youth to New York City opportunities they may be unaware of due to lack of food education and unaffordable programming.”
Chef Ward is using websites, social media and software solutions to market her business and close any gaps that exist between herself and local community members. She hopes to secure more career opportunities, capital and business partners for women chefs of color.
Chef Blauschild seeks out culinary students when staffing his restaurant and catering company.
“Culinary schools are definitely a lifeline to the catering and restaurant business,” he says. “Without the schools, there would be no more foodservice.”
Lavish Roots recently hired a full-time recruiter to assist in the hiring of 150 new staff members. “It’s brand new to our business, but we’re trying to recruit people from all over the country,” Chef LaVielle says. During on-site interviews, chefs test recipes from existing menus. The food is then donated to local food banks.
In normal times, Chef LaVielle says it’s hard to get people together for a crew meeting, but during the pandemic, his team met so often that everyone developed a great camaraderie. “I think that the kitchens that weathered the storm are going to be the strongest kitchens because they experienced a lot of things together.”
Looking Toward the Future
Chef LaVielle’s team catered its first post-COVID wedding in June and is opening two more cafes, which will require 150 more employees. “Our team’s growing and will double in size by the end of the year,” he says. “A new contract will book us through the first part of 2022.” The company’s new food and physical safety team will also be on site during events to maintain checks and balances, ensuring each event is safe for guests and team members alike.
Chef Ward, in her new role, says she’s looking forward to helping change lives. “After such a challenging year, I’m thrilled to start new tasks that will benefit my community. Career mentoring is what helped me as a self-taught chef and entrepreneur. I’d like to help more women and youth attain those same goals.”