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Presentation Now More Than Ever

Corporate caterers, universities and college foodservice and B&I operations have been struggling with packaging for many years even prior to COVID-19. The issues have ranged from availability, selection options, materials used and costs. Caterers for the most part have led this charge simply through the idea that you are only as good as your last event, and we tend not to want to do things twice. We are always looking for custom packing, unique options and how we can be creative with what we have. 

Within the vast majority of operations, there are talented cooks, culinarians, beverage specialists and mixologists that are highly capable and willing to create great food and menus. The challenge becomes how you get these offerings to the guest’s plate in a manner that does justice to the effort involved in the preparation.

The first major stumbling block for most operators is the additional costs of line items such as paper and disposables or non-food item expenses. These costs now have to be looked at as part of your overall food cost. The first and foremost change is to think differently about your food cost percentage and begin to discuss it as production cost that includes both labor and cost of packing materials as one number, not separately.

For many years, restaurants and food operators chose the cheapest and most convenient options for to-go meals. Aluminum wraps, Styrofoam and a saddle bag.  Why? Because the business model was based on indoor, seated tipped service not packaged foods designed for delivery. However, with so many options for delivery and curbside, do these options hold the same weight as well-prepared offerings offered by caterers. Restaurants are definitely in a rebuild, rethink mode but caterers have been delivering displayed and ready to serve food and offerings for years.  

Photo courtesy Calihan Catering, Chicago IL 

So why should caterers reinvent the wheel and change the presentation and packaging of the food you deliver? Because restaurants are now racing to capture the same dining dollars for those groups of under 50 or 100 guests. These guest counts have been the grey area of event caterers for many years because they can often be too small to be profitable, but they can also be too large for the restaurants due to the production impact on dine-in service. That is all up for grabs right now since that’s where the revenue is.   

In order for operators to capture those dollars, the ability to create an exceptional “open the box moment” relies on many key factors to make that experience exciting, not just in the quality of the food, but in all of the contributing factors of the guest experiences that caterers create at in-person events. Opening the box should be just as exciting as the food and beverage within.

So, what are the new considerations for delivered social distance and DIY catering and creating an exceptional “open the box” moment: 

  • Branding and labeling. They need to know who it came from 
  • Shorter concise menu descriptions. It has to fit on a label and provide clarity of the dish
  • Include more fork friendly ingredients arranged to be visible and not buried under one another
  • Designed for individual hot delivered, chill/retherm applications or ambient temperature service
  • Use packaging that compliments the menu item allowing a creative and attractive view. 
  • Individualized with all of the extra touches that make the dining experience enjoyable with mini menu cards, condiments, box garnishes and personal notes from the staff
  • Links to information about their meal such as reheating instructions with images, QR code links to nutritional information and presentation, videos from the team thanking them, and comment cards 

Some packaged ideas include, personalized meal kits for board meetings, delivered tasting boxes designed for virtual meetings and meal kits to create the restaurant dining experience for groups of 10. Catering will slowly and steadily rise by relying on the expertise we have developed over the years and our ability to present our food and services at a higher level is greater than ever.  


John Reed

Owner, Custom Culinary Solutions, Chicago, IL

John Reed is a professional chef with over 30 years’ experience. He is the owner of Customized Culinary Solutions, a culinary consulting firm located in the Chicago Northshore area. He works with restaurant, catering, and foodservice companies to provide the highest quality food possible. His contributions include menu and recipe development, emerging concept development, and transition management for companies introducing culinary and production software programs. His company specializes as an on-demand culinary department supporting out-sourced culinary project management.

An active member of the ACF, he has earned certifications as a Certified Executive Chef, Certified Culinary Administrator, and American Academy of...