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Throughout the year, Catersource magazine has been gathering information about our industry in a variety of ways. We’ve generated surveys, presented and attended conferences, and listened to hundreds of industry leaders express their opinions about the challenges and joys they are experiencing in their markets. With a years’ worth of information to disseminate, certain topics have risen to the top. Let’s have a look.
Acquisition, training, retention: good news/bad news
One of the overarching concerns expressed this year relates to staffing: How to hold onto employees during the lean months, how to retain good employees, how to motivate, how to reward, how to compensate them, and how to find temporary workers.
Chefs bemoan the lack of qualified kitchen help; business owners want more dedicated and confident salespeople; front of house needs more servers; back of house needs people to plate.
Why is there such an issue finding qualified help in 2015? The good news: enhanced revenue. Catersource can point to its July 2015 readership survey, in which over 80% of respondents offered that they expected their companies to show positive-to-significantly-higher growth in 2016. This is up by about 3% over our previous survey, conducted in mid-2014.
Additionally, almost 75% of respondents to our 2015 survey said they had already seen an increase in their businesses by mid-year 2015—again, up by about 3% over 2014. Finally, examining our reports from a year ago, the number of events being catered has increased by about 2%. 2015 survey respondents as well as event professionals quotes in Catersource magazine pointed to three top areas of growth for 2016: an uptick in wedding business, more venue contracts, and a surge in corporate catering, be it drop off box lunches or an increase in corporate spending for holiday gatherings. Congratulations!
But with growth—increased business, et al—comes the need for more employees. Staffing events is definitely a collective thorn throughout the food service and event industries. What’s the solution? In a series of round table discussions in late 2015, industry leaders looked at the question, "How do you handle part time staffing for extreme high volume times" as well as acquiring and motivating qualified help any time of the year.
Chefs spoke to keeping relationships with departing workers friendly, as they might return to work an occasional event for quick cash, as well as encouraging employee reciprocity within non-competitive markets. Executives spoke of the many ways they recruit and interview, including university job fairs, employee referrals, using online systems such as Craigslist/Gigs or shiftgig.com; employing pre-interview questionnaires via SurveyMonkey and offering specific times each month for basic walk in interviews. All agreed that rewards and recognition are very important and run the gamut from doughnuts in the office to company “bucks” programs that employees can trade in for merchandise and gift cards, and quick cash incentives, such as rewarding the first salesperson to book an event in a specific week, or $50 for a five star review on Yelp.
Acquiring, training, and retaining qualified help is one of the more taxing concerns facing the hospitality industry today. Here, staff from Duvall Events, Charleston, SC, set up a red snapper crudo station. Photo by Alex Quijano
Ta ta! to personalized tastings?
Read any bridal magazine or hit on any nuptial website and you will see flagrant touting of The Tasting. Brides and grooms—you deserve it, and if it isn’t to your liking, ask for another!
According to most catering companies, however, tastings are the proverbial fly buzzing around a beautiful banquet table. Tastings are expensive, and unless the cost to produce is offset by a fee (one executive shared that he charges $200 a head for tastings), both sales staff and chefs alike are taxed by offering this service to potential clientele.
So, how is it being handled in 2015? Comments and suggestions from industry leaders range from banning personalized tastings and only offering group tastings; customizing the entree in group tastings but keeping the dessert and hors d'oeuvre stations the same with potential for upsell; and facilitating tastings only after the venue has been booked—never before. Another suggestion: offering a tasting no more than four to six weeks prior to the event to keep food costs accurate and the menu seasonally appropriate.
Another company mentioned that they schedule group tastings every first Wednesday of the month. Yet another trains all staff on the tasting stations to spread the workload throughout the company. At the far end of the spectrum, one caterer made the decision to discontinue tastings completely. They say they have not experienced any decline in their bookings.
Off-peak pricing strategies
How often have you said this in a staff meeting: “We’re good at filling those Saturday nights. How do we fill the rest of the week?” Another common 2015 industry conundrum. Fill those dates and your sales will rise even further. Let’s look at comments Catersource recently gathered from top industry executives:
> If they don't have the money for an in-season wedding, we try to push them to January. We charge less depending upon the season.
> We lower our minimums and then throw in amenities to make it a better value.
> Signature pricing, signature level. Then if you want a Sunday or Friday, it's classic pricing—and the menu is scaled down accordingly.
> We know we will book our Saturdays. Peak pricing starts at $179++. However, guests will get the same experience for Fridays and Sundays at a lower price. It is easier and more efficient for us to make and staff the same experience. You know that hotel room you stay in is the same any night of the week, but you're going to pay more for it if it's New Years Eve or the Super Bowl. We follow the same strategy.
> I sell one product. We offer consistent products and our menus change seasonally, though the proteins are similar. Friday and Sunday we serve exactly the same food as Saturday. However, it’s $25 less for a Friday or Sunday. For that, I'm going to charge you my cheap price. It evens out.
> In the off-season, I do low-priced weddings. I would rather keep my core people and break even in order to hang onto my staff.
> We tell the potential client we can make the same thing happen, you just need to change your date. Be flexible. What date do you want? OK—that date is $179. But this date? It’s $149.
> We hold meetings every week and ask sales, “what's the reaction out there?” If the date gets closer and it hasn't booked, we will discount.
> Our sales people are empowered to offer a ton of additional decor on ‘off’ nights instead of discounting food. The décor we have stocked—it’s not going to cost us anymore; we’ve already bought it. The food—not so much.
Filling Saturday nights is generally not an issue—but Fridays and Sundays are a different beast altogether. Shown: Connecticut Wedding Group; photo: CMC Photography
Food trends 2015
You can survey all the restaurateurs around, but if you want to know what is trending in catering, you need to talk to catering chefs. So—we did just that. We asked about a dozen chefs from top catering companies around the U.S. and Canada where they find inspiration, and what they’re cooking up in the kitchen in 2016.
As we noted in our January 2015 issue, molecular gastronomy was taking its leave. Chefs agree—“it’s challenging and not profitable,” one said, while the rest of group exchanged knowing nods. However, if you want to impress the guests with a little smoke and mirrors, “people lose their minds over liquid nitro meringues.” Liquid nitrogen is easy to work with and impresses the guests. Editor’s note: If you would like to see liquid nitrogen in action, click the link below for a short on-the-spot video I filmed of Executive Chef Matt Greene of Duvall Events, Charleston, NC, freezing lime wedges for use as garnish. If you have difficulty viewing it, use your Safari browser.
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, the Art of Catering Food, and Leading Caterers of America Executive Summit.