A special kind of outdoor event
It helps to have a pro team—especially a football team—in your market, but you don’t have to limit your options to professional sports to have tailgate catering business.
“We get a lot of people during the summer who want tailgate-style menus,” says Melanie Union of Sodexo at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.
“People want to be outside, even if there’s no game.”
While most tailgate parties take place outside professional or college football games, there’s no reason that some markets can’t support them even for high school games—or for events that don’t have anything to do with athletic competition.
The differences between a tailgate party and a picnic are:
• Limited timeframe. A tailgate party is normally held before a game, so it’s likely to be a quick set-up, service and clean-up.
• Expectations. It’s certainly possible to serve brats and beer at a tailgate party, but if customers are ordering from a caterer, they are likely to expect more for service and cuisine.
• Time of day. Many football games start at noon, so the tailgate cuisine may need to be more brunch-like.
• Limited space. Although not every tailgate party takes place in a parking lot, many do—or at least in space just off a parking lot. That can present challenges for everything from water supply to staff and guest safety.
But sometimes there may be no real difference. Some tailgate parties go on all day long. Some are held in large outdoor areas, not cramped parking lots. The one, key, differentiator seems to be that tailgate parties are attached to athletic events, but even there, some customers ask for a tailgate party when you might call it a picnic.
Kevin Lacassin, owner/chef of Good Food Catering Company in Tampa, says tailgate parties are “a great way to fill in the gaps during football season.”
He markets his tailgate parties to corporate clients, who use them to entertain customers and/or to reward employees. These tend not to be huge parties, he says, but in the range of 30 to 50 guests. The menus are designed for tailgate parties, which means items that can be prepared or finished on-site with relatively little equipment. “We design around the equipment,” Lacassin says. “We tend to do things that are easily executed using 6-foot catering grills or large sauté pans, like grilled New York strip steak over caramelized onions, grilled buffalo chicken and fresh grilled vegetables.”
Other menu items are dishes that are easily transported and that hold well, including hash browns and egg casseroles. “And we always have to have a Bloody Mary bar,” he says. “That’s the key to a good tailgate brunch.”
Lacassin says that even though it’s an event before a football game and the guests may be quite casually dressed, the gourmet tailgate party looks gourmet. “We go all out with table linens, chairs, cocktails, the whole thing.”
The traditional route
For tailgate parties at Georgia Tech, the menu can range from hamburgers and hot dogs to upscale items. “We have had a lot of people wanting to go back to the very traditional tailgate party,” says Union. “That’s brats, burgers, barbeque, wings and so on.”
Michael Gumbert, executive chef at Georgia Tech, says that although the menus can look pretty familiar, it never really gets boring. “One of the really good items we came up with this year is a buffalo chicken breast, garnished with blue cheese,” he says. “We had a carving station and did a corned beef steamship with a make-your-own Reuben sandwich. There was sauerkraut, cheese, dressings and several different kinds of bread, so guests could get their corned beef and dress the sandwich any way they want.”
The Georgia Tech catering operation is doing tailgate-type food for fans in the parking area, but also in the suites at the stadium. “We do heavy tailgating during football season and take care of everything the athletic association needs,” Union says. “I would say it’s probably 35 to 40 percent of our total catering for the year.” She says they have a ballroom on campus that they’ve used a couple of times for large tailgate parties before games, and they hope to use it more. There’s also open space between the campus buildings that could work.
But tailgating isn’t restricted to the football season. Many people want to do tailgate-style menus during the summer. “People want to be outside, even if there’s no game,” Union says.
You might expect disposable serviceware on a college campus, and that’s what Sodexo’s catering arm at Georgia Tech used to use. But Gumbert says that they actually cut their costs significantly by going to non-disposable platters and bowls for service. “We had spent almost $12,000 on disposable bowls and platters the first year,” he says. “Replacing them with non-disposables cost about $4,800.”
Disposable flatware and dinnerware is still a basic part of the operation. They started using logo plates and buying disposable flatware already rolled in a paper napkin. The disposable plates with logos are so popular that some suite-holders at the stadium have asked if they can buy them.
Develop new ideas
Katherine Farrell and Rula Bawardi of Katherine’s Catering in Ann Arbor, MI are experts at putting together creative tailgate menus and parties. Their suggestions for putting together parties that will sell include:
• Brainstorm with your whole team to get new ideas.
• Use words that relate. For example, for a Beach Bash Tailgate, incorporate sun, sand, umbrella drinks, palm trees, volleyball, lounge chairs, sandcastles, surfing, etc.
• Take risks. Think big first, scale down later.
• Try new ideas. Use ideas from other kinds of catering events, adapted for a tailgate party. Small bites, for example, or a twist on comfort food.
• Keep playing. Try out new props and techniques.
• Tie it all together. As with any event, make sure the menu, décor, colors and presentation all reflect the theme.
Tailgate themes Katherine’s Catering has used include: Under the Sky Autumn Harvest, Vintage Tailgating with a Modern Twist (using old photos as part of the décor), Sunrise to Sunset Tailgate, Taste of the South, Family Fun Day and Motor City Tailgate (for a classic car rally).
Katherine’s Catering often does very large—just under 1,000 guests—tailgate parties, with total revenue of more than $50,000. The menu for a typical Made in Michigan Tailgate included everything from Michigan Chicken (in a dried cherry and wild mushroom sauce) to Kielbasa with Sauerkraut to Grilled Ciabatta Sandwich Bites to Apple Crisp.
This grilled flank steak from Kevin Lacassin, Good Food Catering Company, Tampa is perfect for tailgate events that call for something more elegant than hamburgers and hot dogs.
Southwestern Grilled Flank Steak (Photo courtesy of K&K Photography)
10 lbs flank steak
8 oz lime juice
16 oz pineapple juice
6 oz soy sauce
Southwestern or Fajita seasoning
(we custom blend ours)
For marinade, combine lime juice, pineapple juice and soy sauce. Season flank steak liberally with fajita seasoning or Southwestern steak rub and place in hotel pan (or zip top bags), covered by marinade, for 2-3 hours.
Sear the meat on a hot grill and cook for several minutes on each side, to medium rare.
Remove from grill and rest for several minutes before slicing against the grain in small strips. Keep in mind that the meat will continue to cook while it is resting, especially if you plan to hold in a chafer or hot box.
To plate, serve the slices of flank steak on top of Mexican rice, with charred corn and black bean salsa and drizzled with Cilantro Chimichurri.
• Tailgate recipes from Blue Plate Catering in Chicago.
Marinated Grilled Prawns, Avocado, Mango Carpaccio, Green Tea Soba Noodles and Chili Lime Vinaigrette
Texas Style 5-Chili Chili
• The recipes for Cilantro Chimichurri, Charred Corn and Black Bean Salsa and Blue Cheese Coleslaw from Good Food Catering in Tampa, FL.
• The Made in Michigan tailgate menu from Katherine’s Catering in Ann Arbor, MI.
Pinconning Cheese Soup
Creamy, tangy and comforting with a generous sprinkling of homemade spiced croutons
Oberon Braised Beef
Tender beef brisket is slow roasted in the Midwest’s favorite beer until it melts in your mouth
Lightly breaded and sautéed breasts of chicken are smothered in a dried cherry and wild
Kielbasa with Sauerkraut
Smoky links of Dearborn Sausage with classic sauerkraut and assorted condiments
Roasted Butternut Squash
Slices of home grown squash, drizzled with a cinnamon glaze and topped with candied pecans
Marinated Vegetable Salad
Crisp, straight from the garden vegetables, tossed in a zesty lemon dressing
Assorted Rolls with Whipped Butter
Fresh Fruit Display
An array of sweet, seasonal fruit, beautifully arranged by hand
Grilled Ciabatta Sandwich Bites
Our variety of ham and Swiss, turkey and cheddar and vegetable lovers sandwiches make for an easy bite to grab and go
Just like mama used to make, with Michigan Jonathan apples, crunchy streusel topping and served with maple whipped cream
Assorted Brownies and Cookies
Variety includes our Simply Sinful Walnut Fudge Brownies, oatmeal raisin cookies and more