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Catersource State of the Industry Part 3

Supply chain and staffing shortages

Editor's note: This is Part 3 in our State of the Industry report. To view Part 1 (where we look at some recent survey results and the 2022 wedding boom) click here; to view Part 2 (corporate catering) click here.

Supply and demand

It’s no secret that the supply chain has continued to thwart caterers at every turn. With consumer demand higher than ever, it seems as if everything is harder to get than usual. Some items are unavailable, while others sport exorbitant prices reflective of the current market status.

For caterers, these issues have been especially challenging to navigate while operating on such delicate profit margins. At the same time, they rely on purchasing inventory to provide clients with top-notch experiences.

“It has been frustrating to say the least, but things have gotten a lot better,” says Elkins. “The good thing is there is so much volume out there with jobs that caterers have been able to offer different items without a ton of push back.” 

 Chef-Tendered Fully Loaded Station from the JDK Group. Photo Courtesy Mark Buckwalter Photography

Selden agrees that she is starting to see an improvement in supply, but prices are still a source of concern. 

“I don’t want to jinx us, but we aren’t seeing it much now,” she says. “Prices are through the roof, but we are able to get almost anything that we need now.”

Recent supply chain slowdowns have multiple causes, including labor, transportation and container shortages, and inflation-fueled cost increases. The biggest contributor has obviously been the pandemic. 

In the wake of supply shortages, caterers have had to get extremely creative with their solutions. For some, trimming down menus has been the best course of action, while others have had to put on their experimentation hats to find substitutions. 

“The good news is that we’re just getting super creative,” Kelly said during the ICA webinar. “We’re looking at different ways to serve typical dishes.” 

A Mediterranean Grazing Station from the JDK Group. Photo Courtesy Courtney Dueppengiesser

Frozen foods have emerged as a pinch-hitter in the face of supply shortages. According to new research conducted by the American Frozen Food Institute to assess the operational landscape within the foodservice sector, respondents overwhelmingly reported that supply chain disruptions remain a significant problem when sourcing ingredients. Frozen food can be a particularly useful tool to help overcome this challenge. For example, AFFI’s research found that many operators are looking for ways to “future proof” their supply chain by ensuring their ingredients are consistently available year-round and are further integrating frozen food into the mix. In fact, 40% of operators surveyed reported using more frozen food since the start of the pandemic. 

The use of frozen ingredients and foods such as produce, seafood, and appetizers can help ensure year-round availability for products that may vary seasonally and, with a longer shelf life, can remain available for use for a longer period of time. Plus, with a growing consumer acceptance of frozen food and new flavor and taste innovations, there are myriad options to add to your menu that clients will enjoy.

Another creative approach to combatting the supply chain is farm partnerships for local ingredient sourcing. 

“If you source everything in one place and the system fails, what options do you have?” said Nicholas Walker (Cobb Galleria Centre and Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre) during his 2022 Catersource + The Special Event session, Culinary Supply Chain for Caterers, Stability through Farm Partnerships. “We had to strengthen our supply chain because we weren’t getting the things that we needed.” 

As we move into 2023, the supply chain won’t magically improve overnight, so creative solutions will continue to be the answer. 

“A lot of it comes down to communication and planning,” Elkins says. “Caterers have been forced to look at other options for their purchases. Rather than just doing things like they always have they have been forced to look outside the box and find other solutions to help with rising costs and shortages.”

People problems 

Beyond supply shortages, staffing shortages continue to be one of the biggest issues in the catering and events industry. 

To date, 3.5 million have left the U.S. workforce since March 2020 because of the pandemic, and 1.2 million of those were in the leisure and hospitality industry, according to Cathy Hardin (Instawork) during her 2022 session at Catersource + The Special Event (Rethink Your Staffing Strategy: Practical Ways to Navigate Ongoing Labor Shortages).

“Everyone is feeling the pain of people leaving the industry,” she said. “Additionally, there's obviously the one challenge of getting staff, but there’s another challenge of getting that staff ready for their first shift.” 

“It cleared the decks a bit,” said John Crisafulli (Behind the Scenes Catering & Events) during Rethink Your Staffing Strategy: Practical Ways to Navigate Ongoing Labor Shortages. “It made it very clear who was in it, who liked hospitality, who liked customer service, and who enjoyed what they did and had the work ethic to put the time and effort in and who those people were who were just playing around the edges.”

As far as recruitment goes, caterers still rely heavily on referrals, but online job boards have also continued to be a great source of staff leads. Although culinary programs at colleges and universities have always offered great opportunities for recruitment, many caterers are even branching out into high schools now.  

“Where are we not sourcing staff from? If there are humans there, we are sourcing staff from there,” said Ware during a 2022 session at Catersource + The Special Event (Serving Up Staff: Optimize Business with Better People Operations). 

As important as recruitment is, caterers are also putting a closer focus on their company cultures, benefits packages, and employee wellness as a way to attract (and retain) the best candidates. 

“There are more jobs available than there are workers to fill them and if we approach it the same way, you’re going to get the same results,” said Anthony Lambatos (Footers Catering) during Serving Up Staff: Optimize Business with Better People Operations. “We can’t sugar coat what the job is anymore, that's completely the wrong approach. You might get a few more bodies in the door, but you’re creating more work for yourself on the backend.

“We need to be able to embrace the difficulty of the job because you're going to attract the people that are drawn to that. There are people who want to be Navy SEALS in this world.”

When hiring staff, it’s also important to put a strong emphasis on a person’s passion, rather than their skills necessarily. 

“I hire for passion, willingness to learn, and resilience,” Sanchez said during Serving Up Staff: Optimize Business with Better People Operations.“ They must have a fire or spark for something, because we can train anyone. Give me a body and I will teach them.” 

Labor shortages will most likely continue as we move into 2023, but many caterers are hopeful that it will start to turn around soon. 

“It’s super frustrating to see people who are qualified workers sitting at home collecting unemployment,” Selden says. “We still struggle to build our team and find new talent but I truly believe that it will be turning around.”

Check back next week for Part 4  in our State of the Industry report where we'll look at technology and sustainability.  


Amber Kispert

Content Producer

Amber is the Content Producer for Catersource. Amber previously worked as a Communications Specialist for LeClair Group and a reporter for the Woodbury Bulletin, both located in Woodbury, Minn.  As a self-described "foodie," Amber loves to experience the world of food and beverages, and is excited to help share the stories of Catersource and the world's caterers.