How to nail catering

14 August, 2018 by
Brittney Levinson

Event catering has evolved beyond uninspired finger food and stodgy canapés. The reality is consumers in 2018 want restaurant-quality food, no matter the setting. Restaurants are seeing the potential to bring in additional revenue by adding catering services to their business.

Here, we speak to three restaurant groups about feeding the masses and how to make catering profitable for your business.

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NEW TERRITORY

For Melbourne’s Commune Group, which counts Japanese eatery Tokyo Tina and Vietnamese restaurant Hanoi Hannah as part of its portfolio, catering was a natural extension for the business. “People were asking for it and then we realised Japanese and Vietnamese cuisine packages and travels well and holds its form,” says director Simon Blacher.

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Commune Group initially started an offsite catering company that offered the entire service, from food to drinks and even waitstaff. But they quickly realised running an entirely separate catering business was extremely demanding and, as restaurateurs, felt they were better suited to smaller clients.

“We’ve since shifted back to more platters and office catering, which is great because we can use existing resources,” says Blacher. “We’ve moved away from doing big events because we’re restaurateurs and we like to control our environment.”

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Sydney venues Yellow, Bentley Restaurant and Bar, Monopole and Cirrus also offer external catering services for events ranging from 10 to 1000 people. Nick Hildebrandt, cofounder of the four restaurants, says catering is a great opportunity to introduce the brand to new customers and clients while also appealing to regulars. “We cater for intimate celebrations at home along with larger-scale corporate events,” he says.

Catering became such a big part of Porteño in Sydney that after moving the restaurant to a new location, the venue was turned into a dedicated events space now known as Porteño Events. “While we were at Cleveland Street [in Surry Hills], we did a lot of off-site events and we used to get lots of requests for that sort of thing,” says co-owner Ben Milgate. “So when the space came up at Holt Street [Surry Hills] and we moved Porteño there, we left Cleveland Street as an events space so we could cater to all those requests we were getting.”

GETTING CREATIVE

Catering gigs at Porteño Events can involve anything from canapés and buffet-style meals to sit-down dinners and family-style shared menus. But Milgate says it’s important to be flexible when it comes to creating menus.

“You’ve got to be open to tailoring things and working with a theme,” he says. Porteño Events recently hosted an event for rum brand Kraken, who requested a dark colour palette. “They wanted everything to look really black, so we had to try and incorporate that and make all the dishes look black but also really beautiful and edible,” says Milgate. “We did a spiced red wine-braised octopus with a little bit of squid ink in it and a rum baba with charcoal and a liquorice cream.”

Hildebrandt says catering opportunities are a great way for his restaurants to get creative and experiment with different dishes. “Off-site catering often presents more of a challenge than cooking in our own venues, so we have the opportunity to get creative with our menus,” he says.

EXTRA REVENUE AND GREATER EXPOSURE

For many restaurants, catering can provide a steady, additional revenue stream. To ensure catering is profitable, Commune Group uses existing resources to make the food in-house before transporting it to the client. “If you can keep it running out of one kitchen and use your resources, then it’s beneficial in terms of extra revenue,” says Blacher.

Catering can also give your restaurant greater exposure to a broader range of consumers. Blacher says bringing the restaurant experience to an external event opens your brand up to new customers.

“You’ve got to look at it from the client’s side as well because they often want the restaurant experience outside of the restaurant,” he says. ”Because we’ve got relatively strong brands, it allows us to take those brands into different environments and bring a little bit of the restaurant into their environment. It definitely gives us more exposure.”

Making food look ‘Instagrammable’ also goes a long way towards getting your restaurant’s name out there and attracting new clients. “People are always capturing their experience, so if you make a beautiful catering package or platter, people will snap it, share it and Instagram it — it all kind of feeds on itself,” says Blacher.

OVERCOMING CHALLENGES

When catering for off-site events, it is crucial food travels well and is simple to set up once it arrives at the location. At Commune Group, the catering menu features a selection of food items that hold their shape when travelling and can also be easily consumed by guests.

Hanoi Hannah offers rice paper rolls, mini banh mi and mini salad bowls, while Tokyo Tina’s catering options include baos, noodle boxes and ssam platters. “Our food travels really well, it looks really pretty and once it leaves the restaurant, it doesn’t require much plating,” says Blacher.

The biggest challenge for Porteño Events when catering sit-down dinners is ensuring all meals go out on time. “It’s all very hard and fast, it’s not like an à la carte service where you start at 6pm and finish at 11pm,” says Milgate. “You’ve got an hour to pump out most of the food.”

Organisation is key when it comes to large events. “Have all your plates counted out and just be super organised,” says Milgate. “Elvis [Abrahanowicz] and I are doing all the events stuff and we’ve been working together for 15 years, so we know each other’s strengths and who does what. We just roll with it.”

Dietary requirements can also present challenges for the kitchen when catering for large groups. At Porteño Events, they approach dietaries by tailoring the whole menu to be suitable for as many requests as possible.

“If you’ve got a lot of gluten-free or dairy-free requests, you can really tailor the menu to not have any of that element so everybody gets the same dish and you’re not having any confusion or people feeling like they’re missing out,” says Milgate.

WEIGHING IT UP

When catering for events, it’s important to understand exactly what the client wants and expects from your business. Blacher advises venues to look at their capabilities before offering the service. “The last thing you want to do is provide a bad product,” he says. “It’s easy to say yes to everything, but you need to make sure you can provide what you’re promising. Make sure you are putting the client’s needs in front of yours, so if they want something there at 11:00am, it has to be there at 10:30am.”

Overall, offering a catering service has been a beneficial move for Commune Group. “It’s definitely worthwhile, it’s an extra revenue stream and if you can use your own resources, it can be quite profitable. But you’re serving your food in an environment that you don’t really control, so you’ve got to make sure you’re doing as much as you can [before it leaves the restaurant].”

Before offering catering services, weigh up the options and assess your capabilities. By utilising existing resources and creating event-friendly menus, venues can bring in extra revenue and attract new customers in the process.