La Palapa catering photoSalsas arranged on a catering set-up for La Palapa Cocina Mexicana
Consider Catering: Six Ways to Boost Event-Based Business
By Ed Avis
If there was a way you could pump up profits and tap potential new customers, would you jump at the chance? If so, adding a catering component to your business is something to consider.
“Actually, our very first work at La Palapa was catering for the Classic Stage Company—we catered before the restaurant opened,” says Barbara Sibley, chef/owner at La Palapa Cocina Mexicana, which debuted in New York City’s East Village in 2007. The restaurant now caters for a variety of clients.
While catering can be an important part or your restaurant’s revenue stream, it isn’t without its challenges. “Catering can be a two-edged sword. Adding the service to a functioning restaurant can bring in welcome additional income, but the pitfalls are many and your reputation can be tarnished if it doesn’t work out,” cautions Jerri Lee George, author of the book “Cater$avvy” and a 30-year catering business veteran. “If a restaurant owner is adding catering to ‘save’ the restaurant it’s a bad idea. But clearly, as demonstrated by the take-out business at Chili’s and other chain restaurants, putting food out on the streets these days can create an attractive and profitable outcome.”
The following tips can help avoid potential pitfalls and get you started on the road to catering success.
1 Deliver Flavor and Fun. Customers hosting catered events want to serve guests good food in a festive atmosphere. La Palapa offers both courtesy of La Taqueria, a make your own taco bar Sibley calls the restaurant’s signature catering fiesta.
“Our taqueria has a very artisanal and homemade, hospitable feeling,” she explains. “We have a station heating tortillas, then the host chooses the fillings. We always bring our Salsas de Mesa, which are traditional to have in Mexico City homes and taquerias, as well as our house-made queso fresco and crema. It makes a festive way to cater to many different tastes and dietary restrictions...We hope that people feel as if they have gone to Mexico for their party!”
Another popular selection is the Mexican street food-inspired Antojitos Menu. “These small bites pack a lot of flavor and can easily go from a light cocktail party to a full meal,” Sibley says. “Our most popular choices are the guacamole, Taquitos de Papa, chalupas and quesadillas.”
2 Make Sure Food Travels Well. Fortunately, many Mexican and Latin food items maintain their flavors and textures during delivery.
“The key word is transportable!” George stresses. “Keeping items separate works well, especially with Mexican foods. Meats, cheeses, and tortillas—all individually wrapped—and bagged chips can be delivered for self-service without fear of disintegrating.”
Fried foods, however, usually do not work well because they lose their crispness. “Items that hold well and do not break down, as with some sauces and gravies, and those that can stand for lengths of time without becoming soggy are the best,” she adds.
Food safety is also a concern. “Temperatures of items to be transported from the main kitchen and set up on site must be maintained,” George stresses. “Today, there are many great hot/warming boxes of all sizes that hold hotel insert pans easily and fit in most vehicles. These boxes keep temperatures to 160 degrees F+. Beverage coolers with ice or other bulk freezing devices can be utilized for salads and cold items such as sour cream, guacamole, fruits and cheeses.”
3 Send Knowledgeable Staff. La Palapa’s catering customers are likely to see the same staff they’ve seen in the restaurant. “It is important for La Palapa that the staff representing us at a catering event really know the restaurant and our food and mission,” Sibley says.
George suggests designating “one knowledgeable and organized server” to handle the catering—someone who can also travel with the order. “Delivery must be made by a competent catering manager or staff member who is trained in efficient setup of all items ordered with their proper accompaniments and sauces,” she says. “This person should be prepared to maintain a buffet, provide service to the guests, bus tables, refill beverages. Communication with the host or hostess is important as well.”
4 Price It Right. Remember to factor in the cost of packaging, equipment, serving ware, delivery, set-up and staff.
“Catering should be profitable, but charging [regular] menu prices and absorbing delivery and fuel costs can make the reverse true,” says George, who suggests developing a special menu with items in quantity, or special pre-set, all-inclusive menus. “Allowing the catering ‘division’ of the restaurant to take orders off the actual menu makes it simply a take-out and delivery service like the pizza place down the street,” she says. “Up-charge for the convenience of 30-plus portions or whatever your magic number is.” Also remember that orders of 100 or more will require extra kitchen prep staff.
5 Market Effectively. Tapping your regular customer base is a great place to start. “Reach out to guests who are enjoying your restaurant for their special and festive occasions and let them know that you can cater their next event,” says Sibley, who goes beyond face-to-face marketing by utilizing email, Facebook, and Twitter. George recommends promoting a “lunch for the office” contest via social media. Donating food for local charitable events or school sports teams, and bringing food to the food editor of your local newspaper are other ways to spread the word about your catering service, she says.
6 Don’t Overreach! As tempting as creating a new revenue stream may be, restaurants won’t succeed without having adequate staff and accommodations. “Your kitchen [staff] should be able to produce the additional food orders, but can they efficiently and correctly package and organize delivery?” George asks. “Proper packaging, packing and on-time delivery is very important to your success, as is [having] service ware, plastic or paper dishes/flatware/condiments in the correct numbers. Mistakes cost money and customer loyalty. Be careful not to sacrifice one entity for the other by stretching staff to their limits.”