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The Foreseeable Future of Catering

Full service & limited service

There has been a massive buildup of asset-based household wealth in the U.S. This is in part because of the remarkable (and sometimes perplexing) runup in the stock market, and because of spending deferred during the pandemic. Most U.S. workers, particularly in white collar jobs, have remained employed during the pandemic. They have been banking a lot of their pay due to deferred spending on vacations, restaurant meals, sports and entertainment, and other typical activities.

The business and personal subsidies coming from the federal government have helped as well, though those have been more targeted toward the middle rather than the upper middle class. 

How does this impact the full-service catering outlook?

We are confident that there is an enormous amount of pent-up demand for catered events. This will impact the various types of full-service catering within different time frames:

  • Life cycle catering events, particularly weddings, quinceañeras and mitzvahs, are already recovering. Some of these have been rescheduled from the pandemic months, but much of this business is just part of the typical flow of life cycle events.

  • Social entertaining catering is already generating incoming bookings and will start to recover substantially during this summer. This will include both full-service and drop & set catering.

  • Corporate marketing driven catering, including VIP sponsorship events associated with sports and entertainment, are likely to start back up in the fall. Many sports and entertainment events were either held without spectators or cancelled altogether during the past year. When these events return, catered VIP hospitality will as well.

  • Small to medium local and regional meetings with catering requirements are starting to show up on the calendar for later this year. These include SMERF (social, military, educational, religious, and fraternal) events, as well as corporate events.

  • Fundraisers and galas are already happening, sometimes as hybrid events, and sometimes as face-to-face events. It will probably be next year before we start to see fully reloaded gala schedules.

  • Convention and incentive travel-related catered events will probably take some time to return to previous levels. But we are confident they will return eventually.

The sales numbers for the full-service catering industry have in the past tracked very closely with the overall economy. This has proven to be a very predictable trend through most of the economic downturns of the past 40 years. A quick economic recovery from the current downturn likely augurs well for the catering industry as a whole, though as noted above, some sectors will benefit sooner than others.

Limited-service catering

The recovery of limited-service catering, except for the social entertaining drop & set orders mentioned above, will primarily depend on offices, factories, stores, and warehouses starting to repopulate. Some of this return-to-work trend has started already, but how completely and how soon remains to be seen.

An article in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago discussed the return to office process in Australia, a country that is essentially in post-pandemic mode already. One interesting takeaway from the article was that food was being used to encourage the return to office movement. If you have office clients, make sure that they know that your services can help encourage key staff back to the office.

It may very well turn out that relatively junior staff doing rote work will be the last to return to working in person. Many senior corporate executives are anxious to have their teams back under the same roof, since the exchange of ideas among employees is one of the most important value-adding aspects of the successful modern corporation. The most forward-thinking companies use catered events to boost their employees’ feelings of being appreciated.


In the corporate world, there are two different dynamics at play: YOLO and FOMO.

YOLO is an acronym for “You only live once.” Many office grunts are considering whether in the post-pandemic era they want to go back to their former work lives, or instead travel the world, write that screenplay, or start selling on Etsy. If they are still working, they are considering whether they want to continue working at home to avoid the commute and spend more time with their families.

Many of the most ambitious and valuable employees are already feeling fulfilled at work and may not be anxious to take more time away than they have in the last year.

Fear of missing out, or FOMO, will also impact catering. Many finance and tech personnel want to go back to the office, for fear of missing out…on promotions, on creative group thinking, on camaraderie. Same with some in the creative and educational pursuits. There is a strong case to be made that the remote workers are unlikely to either contribute to or benefit from creative interaction in the same way that those who work together in person do.

If YOLO rules, it may take some time for corporate catering to return, since the offices will remain sparsely populated. If FOMO dominates, then business may be back sooner.

Many of these trends will begin to reveal themselves over the next several months. Join us at Catersource + The Special Event in July, and we will revisit these predictions.  

Carl Sacks

Director of Consulting, Certified Catering Consultants

Carl Sacks is a highly respected veteran hospitality industry executive. Sometimes described as the consummate catering industry insider, he has one of the longest track records of management success in this most competitive sector.

As a consultant to caterers as well as to companies serving to the catering industry, his client list numbers in the hundreds, and includes the entire range of the industry from small entrepreneurial caterers to major multinational companies. His acute and perceptive analysis has helped many caterers achieve a level of success and profitability that they would have been unlikely to reach on their own.

He is also the executive director...