When a restaurant starts getting more and more popular, it’s natural for management to start thinking of options for expansion. For some it’s a food truck. For others, it’s a second brick-and-mortar location. But for many, it’s expanding their service to catering.
There are a few ways to go about easing into the catering business model. First, there’s the simple “drop-off” catering. This is where you prepare all food in-house and the customer either picks it up themselves or you deliver it to their location. In this model, your restaurant does not actually provide staff for full service.
This style of catering is very popular among restaurants that cater to professional businesses because so many offices choose to cater in lunch when feeding employees at long business meetings or work events. If you’re a lunch place (especially one that has easy-to-package-and-deliver sandwiches and salads on its menu), this kind of catering is a perfect fit, requiring less training for your existing staff and no necessary additions.
You’ll still have to adjust how your kitchen works behind the scenes, since you’ll likely be making orders in bulk more frequently than if you simply served in your dining room or with normal take-out. But as long as your cooks coordinate the additional work and account for it in their regular prep/shift time, it should be easy to avoid completely throwing off your kitchen.
Buffet-style or plated?
A few other styles of catering may require you to devise a special menu specifically for clients looking for large orders to be delivered or even served offsite. Buffet-style catering, for instance, could be all chilled dishes, but any hot items need to be served in chafing dishes over sternos.
If you already have a buffet setup at your restaurant, adjustments of staff roles and menu choices for off-site buffet catering should be minimal. And the preparation methods should be very familiar to your chef.
However, this style of catering does require staff to put up and take down trays and dishes offsite, and dedicated staff might be necessary depending on the size of your business. In any event, whatever staff person manages the delivery and implementation of buffet catering will need to be flexible, able to think and problem solve on their feet, and be very gracious under pressure. You’ll never know where you need to set up your food next, and what hurdles you’ll have to surmount to do it.
The other option is to do a set, full service menu — a fully plated meal where everyone receives the same dish (save for those with dietary restrictions) course after course. While this seems the most like a standard shift at a restaurant, remember that a catered plated menu requires each plate of any given course to be presented to their guests at more or less the same time as every other guest.
When you’re talking about an event with dozens if not hundreds of people attending — in an unfamiliar setting — this can be an overwhelming situation for those without extensive experience. Ultimately, this scenario requires an assembly line of cooks plating one component and passing it down the line, so that servers can present the entire room with their meals more or less simultaneously.
How to know what works best.
Understand that not every item on your regular menu will work to cater, even if it’s a big seller for you.
When it comes to a buffet-style catering, anything that needs to be prepared immediately before serving (or anything that gets soggy or can’t hold up well under prolonged heat) will be very difficult to create to your restaurant’s regular standards in a buffet setting. Even for plated catering, you certainly want dishes that are delicious and impressive, but also ones that can be made and plated consistently (and with relative ease) by your catering team.
The biggest thing to know about choosing your catering menu is knowing what your catering customer is looking for. If an event planner picks your restaurant’s catering over a full time caterer, it’s usually because there’s something special that they want to be part of the event. Be careful not to lose your strengths (whether it’s a farm-to-table approach or your authentic Mexican cuisine) in an attempt to make your food catering-friendly.
Also, be prepared to customize some of your catering menu to fit specific needs of event guests, including vegan/vegetarian, gluten-free, and allergy restricted adults (as well as preparing options for kids and anyone who just happens to be a very picky eater).
Make sure to discuss these complications with the customer when finalizing the menu in order to be fully prepared on the day. On top of that, be prepared to make an extra number of those customized dishes just in case something goes wrong with your primary menu, in case there ends up being more vegans/vegetarians/gluten-free guests than you’d planned, or someone just simply decides that option looks more attractive to them.
Train your staff — and you.
Catering a meal isn’t the same as working a restaurant shift in a kitchen, and training your cooks to be able to handle the very different pace of catering is key to it going smoothly. It’s not just about timing a plated menu right or ensuring a buffet is always full, but doing so in a kitchen space they’ve never been in before.
If it’s a residential party, that could even mean working from sternos in a garage. Your kitchen staff could very well feel overwhelmed by this change of pace, and you’d rather they work through that anxiety during training than during the event.
If you’ve never run a catering event before, you’re going to need training as well. Managing a catered meal is very different from managing a restaurant shift, even if you’ve done prix fixe/plated menus at your restaurant before.
Consider including on-the-job training by hosting small practice events yourself and running through the catering step-by-step with your staff. If you can, host a trial run at someone’s house or another venue so your staff will get used to cooking outside of your kitchen.
Start off with smaller events.
Regardless of what kind of catering you decide to go with, it’s highly recommended to start off with smaller events. This allows you and your team to get used to the differences between catering and a regular day at the restaurant — not only in terms of service, but also in extra ingredient ordering and prep work. Start small and build towards larger events so that your catering customer experiences amazing service and great food, every time.
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