State of the Industry, Part 1

Editor's note: Over the next few days, enjoy an 8-part series on disruptions that may affect your business in 2018 and beyond. They are:

Part 1: Natural Disasters & Disaster Relief

Part 2: Ownership & Planning for the Next Generation

Part 3: Millennial Weddings

Part 4: Corporate Catering

Part 5: Staffing Woes

Part 6: Sustainability & Food Waste Concerns

Part 7: Commodity vs Expertise

Part 8: Food Trends for 2018

Check back often for the next installment!

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It’s everywhere. Disruption. 

Disruption is a five act play with a heckuva denouement that we must watch, or play a part in, every day. Disruption may be considered the stream of email that constantly clogs our inboxes, the interruptions from colleagues when we are trying to concentrate, and the burnt dinner we eat anyway—but those are the small things.  

Industry disruptions are the changes that have rippled through every aspect of how we do business. It’s taking a risk or maintaining the status quo, it’s understanding that many consumers can’t discern the difference between your short ribs and someone else’s, that your promotional wedding photos on your website look very much like everyone else’s promotional wedding photos on their websites. How do you stand out? How do you retain great employees? How do you contend with and rise above a disruptor that you have absolutely no control over? 

Catersource is in a unique position to give you the answers, whether it’s here in print, online at catersource.com, or at our four-day live event in Las Vegas. Below, you’ll gain insight into many of the top issues facing our industry. In February, come to Catersource for over 125 live educational sessions that will expand upon this article; and also engage with vendors on our tradeshow floor, representing some of the most ground breaking products and services available. Network to your heart’s content with the thousands of other attendees who are also in search of similar knowledge, and gain valuable insight from their opinions. 

Your five-act play: Status quo, risk, disruption, redefinition, success. What are you waiting for?

To begin…

Disruption: natural disasters & disaster relief

We will start with a true disruption, via Terrica Skaggs of Cocktails and Details, St Simon, GA, in an email out-of-office response. 

As you may know, Hurricane Irma is barreling her way up the coast, causing authorities to call for a mandatory evacuation of the Golden Isles. To allow our entire team to care for their families and leave safely, our offices will close at 8 AM on Friday, September 8th until Wednesday. We anticipate being let back into the area on Wednesday, September 13, 2017, provided everything is safe and sound. All communications will be returned at that time, in the order received.

How many catering and event businesses were disrupted the storms, wildfires, and hurricanes with buildings structurally compromised, or events cancelled or downsized? A caterer in Houston confided that, “If it wasn’t just the 52 inches of water over three days’ time …even if the venue survived and the couple to-be-wed were unaffected…less than half, sometimes none, of the guests could attend.” 

From catering to quick serve to full service restaurants to venues, all aspects of food and event service were disrupted by myriad 2017 natural disasters, including the southern California wildfires in December that were ongoing as I wrote this article.

In mid-November, Technomic’s Sara Monnette, Vice President of Innovation reported that the top 50 quick service restaurants in the Houston area, “lost an estimated 30% of their weekly customer spend on a year-over-year basis” the week after Hurricane Harvey. Yet, with the hurricane in the rear view mirror, most restaurants “were able to recover and meet consumer demand” and were “more likely outperform rather than decline for several weeks thereafter.”

For those businesses affected by the storms, tableware company, The Oneida Group, committed to seven establishments and one auction as of Nov. 2017 to donate $200,000 of tabletop product to those in need. “We ran a social media campaign for restaurants to be nominated for help,” said Sarah Landsman, Senior Marketing Director Food Service and Specialty, The Oneida Group, “then our sales teams visited those restaurants to assess the damage, understand how we could help, and assist them in choosing the right tabletop product their needs.” The reach of donations stretches from Florida to Texas to California. 

Ridgeline Wildland Support Services feeds emergency responders and affiliate groups. Photo M Culinary

Additionally, some caterers have found that recovery efforts are a lucrative endeavor to enter into.

“For 14 years, we have worked every year,” said Brandon Maxwell, M Culinary, Scottsdale, AZ, who contracts the company’s Ridgeline Wildland Support Services to the US Forest Service to feed emergency responders and affiliate groups. “The business is not convenient. It’s a bear when you get a call at 2:00 in the morning. You just have to say ‘yes’ and be prepared to do it and have the people in place. As soon as you stop thinking about it, they call you. The margins are pretty sweet, however inconvenient to do this [type of work].”

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"Forty-five thousand pounds of protein was used just for dinner. You have to prepare for the fluctuation of 1,000 people in just an hour."

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Boutique caterer Joy Wallace and her company, A Joy Wallace Catering, Miami, FL, was a recent entry into catering relief efforts when Hurricane Irma hit. “We started out with three sites and each one was with 1,000 people, but within 24 hours went to 3,000 per site. We were using 40,000 pounds of ice per day per site. We distributed 68,000 bottles of water a day. Forty-five thousand pounds of protein was used just for dinner. You have to prepare for the fluctuation of 1,000 people in just an hour,” she said. “Twenty thousand pounds of liquid eggs—and we are not a production company—we’re a boutique caterer! It’s an overwhelming opportunity.”

Entering into an agreement to cater relief efforts is a bit like “playing Whack-a-Mole,” said Ashley Epting, Epting Events, Athens, GA. “You are planning for seven different scenarios and managing the cost of a ‘false start’ as in, ‘This may or may not happen but if it does, I need you to commit to what you committed to.’”

Anticipate disruption: When Epting initially traveled to Puerto Rico to assess the damage, it was to ascertain “what kind of power (if any) was available. Logistics to support the relief team. What kind of equipment and staff training was needed, how quickly could relief teams localize, as well as understand the balance regarding now to appropriately deal with the crisis—but also not overspend.”

In true “anticipate disruption” form, one could look the south’s Waffle House for its pre-emptive plans in place for natural disasters. The company, excellent at disaster management, has its own FEMA metric—the Waffle House Index—to determine the severity of a storm and the likely scale of assistance required for disaster recovery. What do they do? Waffle House implements a shortened menu with nonperishable items in some of its units, and then continues to roll the condensed menu to additional units depending upon the severity of the storm. It is rare that a Waffle House is forced to close, and indeed, according to Technomic, customer spend increased year-over-year in the Miami area, “a whopping 130% the week of September 11.” 

Finally—relief efforts are taxing, both physically and mentally, and need to be anticipated. Wallace, Epting, and Maxwell all pointed to the long hours and overtime that teams put in getting relief efforts off the ground and running smoothly. “We lost some staff due to stamina issues,” said Epting. “And that’s okay, of course. But, this is a natural disaster and we have to solve the issue.”

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Tune in tomorrow for Part 2!

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Kathleen Stoehr

Kathleen Stoehr is the Director of Community & Content Strategy for Catersource, which includes print and digital content, as well as live education at both Catersource and the Art of Catering Food.