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Catering Outside the Box

If there’s one thing the COVID-19 pandemic and its response has shown us, it’s that the hospitality and catering industry is a creative bunch. As events continue to be cancelled and social distancing remains top of mind, caterers have found themselves having to think outside the box on how to not only maintain business, but also ways to stay engaged with their current clients, and they have more than risen to the occasion.

“We still need to celebrate life’s moments because they’re not going away,” said Robin Selden, of Marcia Selden Catering & Events. “Life is too short, so we need to celebrate these occasions by finding ways to creatively do it while finding ways to do it in a safe way.”

Celebrating “together”

Selden and her team have embraced the challenge of thinking of new and unique ways to keep business on the books, via everything from family meal delivery to providing meals to medical personnel. But recently, they took it one step further by bringing people “together” for celebrations.

Last month Selden fielded a call she had gotten so many times already: a planned event wasn’t going to happen, so they had to cancel and were asking for their deposit back. In this instance, it was a 50th birthday party for around 40 people. But Selden had another idea.

“This is a special life moment and they still kinda need to celebrate it, so let’s find a way to help them do that,” she said.

After some discussion, and a lot of “outside the box” thinking, Marcia Selden Catering & Events was able to help put on the birthday party by marrying virtual and delivery together. On the day of the event, the company pre-packaged the menu, along with a bottle of wine and a custom batched cocktail, which then went out for delivery to each guest. Each guest then got on a Zoom call with each other to enjoy their meal and share birthday wishes.

“But we also started thinking about how we could tie it all together beyond the Zoom call,” Selden said. “That is what is getting us through this mess, seeing the faces of our loved ones, but how can we take it to the next level?”

The solution? Bring a DJ onto the Zoom call for some music and karaoke.

“After the party, the client told me she never thought she’d be able to feel so much joy being in quarantine,” Selden said.

The gift boxes that Marcia Selden Catering & Events delivered to gala attendees included sour patch lips, mixed nuts, truffle popcorn, and chocolate dipped pretzels. The boxes also included a bottle of wine, a bottle of vodka, and a custom cocktail mix. Photo courtesy Make-A-Wish Foundation.  

Marcia Selden Catering & Events hasn’t stopped at birthday parties. Just a couple weeks ago, they teamed up with the Make-A-Wish Foundation to offer an entirely virtual fundraising gala, which had previously been a plated dinner.

“They came to me and asked how could they possibly ask for money during this time,” Selden said, “but at the end of the day the only way they can make these wishes come true is through donations, so we had to think of a way to make them feel special enough so that they are more inclined to give.”

For the event, Team Selden delivered gift boxes to each donor who had previously purchased a seat at the gala, which included a variety of sweet and savory snacks such as sour patch lips, mixed nuts, truffle popcorn, and chocolate dipped pretzels. The boxes also included a bottle of wine, a bottle of vodka, and a custom cocktail mix. The donors then got on a Zoom call with each other to chat, and to participate in an online auction.

The company will be catering another fundraising gala this summer, but since meal delivery won’t be possible for 400 guests, they will be set up at the event location in tents distributing meals to guests. Each guest will have a designated window for when they can pick up their meal.

“We can always say the glass is half empty,” Selden said, “but we’re choosing to have a positive attitude and we are going to do everything we can to stay alive in this and come out on the other side.”

Tastings to go

While Marcia Selden Catering & Events got creative in order to maintain its current clients, Jay Varga’s creativity helped him bring in a new client. Earlier this month, Varga, executive chef at The JDK Group, was contacted by a couple scrambling to find a new caterer for their fall wedding after their previous caterer closed their doors permanently. Just like any other couple planning a wedding, they were hoping for a tasting before officially signing with them. But how is that possible in the world of social distancing and sheltering in place?

“I had been toying with the idea of tastings to go, but I was a little weary of it,” he said, “so if I was willing to think outside the box a little bit to see how we can still make this work for them, it could bring in more business.”

After talking with the couple about their menu and what types of food they were looking for, Varga was able to identify some menu options that they could pick up and bring home with them to sample. For the tasting, Varga included a miniature crab cake, a deconstructed French onion soup bite, honey glazed chicken topped with toasted walnut crumble, a vegetable medley, and roasted baby potatoes.

“I decided what I was willing to do and what I wasn’t because I didn’t want to do something that wouldn’t reheat well,” Varga said. 

For a tasting to go, Jay Varga of the JDK Group cooked up a summer squash ratatouille and a honey glazed chicken with aleppo pepper pecan crumble. Photo courtesy Jay Varga.

After the couple had sampled the food, Varga got on a phone call with them to answer any questions that they had.

“They loved everything and signed on the dotted line,” he said.

Varga has already gotten a couple more inquiries for tastings to go; going forward will also include a photo of a plated meal to go along with the packaged meal so that they can get a better sense of the full experience.

“You have to be willing to take chances and be confident in your skillset,” he said.

Virtual visits

As social distancing and stay-at-home orders continue to be the norm, that doesn’t mean the planning stops.

“We are still servicing our clients virtually,” said Carizza Rose Villa of 24 Carrots.

To wit, 24 Carrots is even receiving inquiries about 2021 events. It may seem counterintuitive to book an event when you can’t tour a venue, but fortunately 24 Carrots has embraced the power of the virtual world. Couples are able to virtually tour any of 24 Carrots venues through Google tours, which is something that they had operational prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Couples are utilizing 24 Carrots’ virtual backdrops for postponement and save-the-date announcements. Photo courtesy 24 Carrots. 

24 Carrots has recently taken their virtual tours one step further by offering images of their venues as virtual backdrops, which can be used for video calls or they can be used as backdrops for save-the-date or date-postponement announcements. Even graduating seniors have gotten in on the fun by celebrating their graduations from the comfort of their homes.

“We wanted to have an opportunity for them to celebrate a little bit of something,” Villa said. “You don’t have to be here to feel like you’re there, and that’s what we’re able to give people.”

Villa said the virtual backgrounds have opened up the possibility of transposing couples or other clients into the venues going forward as a way of helping them visualize their event.

“Even if you’re not experiencing a walkthrough in person, it’s giving them another layer,” she said. “We’re having to paint the picture in creative ways right now.”

Safely serving

While some caterers are thinking about what they can do now, Vince and Kelly Early of Thomas Caterers of Distinction are thinking creatively for when events come back. One way they have started preparing for the future is by designing two serving trays: one for appetizers and one for beverages, that include a sneeze guard.

“It’s about protecting ourselves, our clients, and their guests,” Kelly said. “If nothing else, it’s there for everyone’s peace of mind.”

Thomas Caterers of Distinction’s new passing tray design utilizes a plexiglass sneeze guard as a safety precaution in response to COVID-19. Photo courtesy Thomas Caterers of Distinction. 

Vince and Kelly Early have been designing their own serving ware with the help of a laser machine for the past few years, so after some brainstorming, trial-and-error, they were able to come up with something unique that can be used as events start coming back.

“The norm is going to be coming up with unique and creative ideas that are still visually appealing and design oriented,” Kelly said.

As events remain on hold, more and more caterers are going to start thinking beyond what they know, instead looking to the unique and creative for how to survive in the new normal.

“We’re all gonna learn from this,” Selden said.

Amber Kispert-Smith

Content Producer

Amber is the Content Producer for Catersource. Amber previously worked as a Comunications 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...