How’s business, what’s trending, and who’s entering the catering industry? Experts and established caterers share their thoughts
By Sara Perez Webber
What’s the temperature in your corner of the catering industry? If it’s anything like what’s described by the experts Catering recently consulted, it’s hot. Business is strong, there’s more innovation than ever, and a new crop of enthusiastic, well educated caterers and chefs are ready to take the business into the future.
Founder and president
Sweet Hospitality Group
After 30 years in business, Julie Rose thinks the time is right to expand her company, Sweet Hospitality Group, in New York City. “It’s a good environment for catering at the moment,” she says. “We’re in a boom right now, and it’s competitive, but people are finding their own style and where their niche is.”
Rose carved out her niche years ago, when—after going to acting school and working for a company that catered film and TV shoots in New York—she heard about an opportunity to head up the concessions at a Broadway theater. She initially declined, but then read in the The New Yorker that the theater was about to put on a play by David Mamet, who had just won a Pulitzer Prize for Glengarry Glen Ross. That piqued her interest, and she ended up taking the job. “It was a wonderful environment,” she says. “I was an important part of the team, putting on the show with everybody else. I was hanging out with David Mamet.”
Rose grew the business from there, “one theater, one job at a time,” she says. Today Sweet Hospitality Group has more than 100 employees and is the concessionaire for 26 theaters in New York, including the New Amsterdam Theatre, the four Roundabout theaters and the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center. Her company also caters events at those theaters, and many others.
“Every caterer says, ‘We’re putting on a show,’ but we really do,” she says.
From the beginning, Rose has emphasized presentation, taking her cue from a more successful competitor of the catering company where she worked. “I wanted to find out why this other company was better than the company I was working for,” she says. “I found that they had a much better presentation. They had real flowers, they had real tablecloths, and they had silver urns.” So Rose invested $500 in housewares and tableware when just starting out to set herself apart from the crowd.
“You can tell the difference between our concessions and anybody else’s concessions on Broadway or Off Broadway,” she says, noting her staff’s distinct uniforms and the “really cool” serving platters. “It’s all about the display.”
Most notably, Sweet Hospitality Group started the trend of specialty drinks at Broadway theaters, an idea copied by the other theaters’ concessions. “We name them after parts of the show,” she says. “We read the scripts, look at the sets, and do a lot of research to make our bars hook up to the show somehow.” Current examples include Lola’s Heel, inspired by Kinky Boots (vodka, ginger liqueur, pomegranate and lime); Heavenly Touch, inspired by Jersey Boys (light rum, Aperol, lime, basil, cane syrup and rhubarb bitters; and A Whole New World, inspired by Aladdin (rye whiskey, hazelnut liqueur, fig, lemon, honey and orange flower water).
For a production of Cabaret at Studio 54, Sweet Hospitality Group partnered with the Roundabout Theatre Company to provide an immersive experience to patrons sitting in the orchestra and first rows of the mezzanine level. That area of the theater was transformed into a burlesque dining experience that brought theater-goers into the show. “The costume designers designed our staff’s uniforms, the set designers designed the bar, and we designed the menu that would be appropriate for being in Germany during that period,” she says. “That was very, very fun.”
Rose credits her company’s employees for the creativity that Sweet Hospitality brings to events. “We hire people that are innovative and artsy,” she says. “Not everybody is an actor, but a lot of people have come from an arts background. You just think in a different way, and that’s why we are really good at what we do. That’s how I think, and I’ve hired people who take it even farther than I can ever take it. We get ideas from an art museum, we get ideas from being on the street, we get ideas from everywhere.”
In fact, one of the major trends in the industry is that people outside of the culinary world now recognize the artistry of it all, says Rose. “I think catering is an art, and food is an art, and that’s where we are trying to go with this—making something beautiful, having it taste beautiful, and having it look beautiful,” she says.
To that end, Sweet Hospitality Group just opened a second kitchen in Harlem and is focused on expanding its off-premise catering business. “We were doing it all along, just nobody knew us as a caterer,” she says. “Now we want to do more of it.” Rose is working with the chefs to create “clean and light” menus for events that aren’t heavy and that make people “feel great after they eat it,” unlike the salty and greasy food often served at cocktail parties.
“Everything is going really well,” she says. “We just want to put on more shows.”
Audubon Nature Institute,
Alan Ehrich knows better than most what a rocky ride the catering business can be. He was serving as executive chef at the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans—a position he’s held for 18 years—when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, devastating the city. “Everything came to a standstill for a good few months,” he says.
Ehrich was laid off for six months. After he was rehired, Ehrich had to hire an almost entirely new staff, as most of the previous staff members had fled New Orleans and were scattered across the country. “When we started doing events again, our greatest fear was that nobody was going have the money to do anything,” he says. “It was totally the opposite. It seemed to be that people wanted to spend their money on meaningful events. People really wanted to cherish what was close to them, so weddings and family occasions were something they wanted to go out and purchase. It was really like starting over.”
Ehrich believes the businesses that survive such a catastrophe and come back stronger than ever are staffed by people with a “pioneer-type attitude,” who look forward rather than back. “My advice is to forget about the loss and enjoy the new beginning,” he says.
Today at the Audubon Nature Institute—a family of 10 museums and parks dedicated to nature, with multiple venues for events, including the Audubon Zoo, Audubon Tea Room, Cajun Ballroom and Audubon Aquarium of the Americas—catering business is booming, with sales back up well past pre-Katrina numbers. In fact, “New Orleans is doing really well,” reports Ehrich, who has been named one of Louisiana’s top 20 chefs by the American Culinary Federation of Louisiana and is an active NACE member. “All of my friends in NACE seem to be having good years.”
In New Orleans, a place with such a rich culinary scene, keeping up with trends is important, says Ehrich. “People here love food and live for food,” he says. “We’re planning our dinner when we’re eating our lunch.”
Small plates are not going away anytime soon, he says, adding that African, Indian and South American foods are hot right now. “The biggest trend is healthy and light foods,” he says. “Vegetables are the stars of the plate.”
Ehrich has also seen changes in the types of people working in the kitchen. “It used to be a male-dominated sort of field and that’s just not happening these days,” he says, adding that his chef staff is a mix of “strong, hardworking” young women and older men.
His staff members keep up with food trends in part through social media, says Ehrich. “Every time we have a new dish, I see it on Facebook from one of my employees,” he says.
They have that in common with the customers. “We have three weddings a weekend here at least, and my brides are very well informed,” he says. “They read magazines, they go online to different websites, they look at Pinterest, they look at your competitors’ websites, they watch Chopped every night; they’re totally different than brides from a few years ago.”
Meeting the demands of such savvy clients requires creativity and nimbleness, he says. “People want what’s new out there; they want their wedding to be different from their friend’s wedding even if they’re in the same venue,” he says. “Somebody who stays with a certain style is going to get lost in that. The person that can be flexible and make new and innovative things is the one who’s going to win the day.”
Jonathan (Jay) Judy
Rosen College of Hospitality Management,
University of Central Florida
As a chef instructor at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management who specializes in fine dining, catering and banquet preparation, Jay Judy sees the growing interest in catering and events careers firsthand. The Rosen College was established in 2004, has approximately 3,500 undergraduate and 100 graduate students, and is one of the fastest-growing academic programs at UCF.
“At the Rosen College, many of our students are pursuing degrees in Event Management; it has been one of our fastest-growing majors,” says Judy. “Our Restaurant and Foodservice Operations programs and general Hospitality programs have seen a great deal of growth over the years as well. A large percentage of these students have a strong interest in catering. We are in the process of expansion to accommodate the increased number of students.”
Judy believes students are becoming increasingly aware of the viability of careers in catering. “Many of our students complete internships in the catering departments of hotels or at private catering operations, and we are seeing many of these students being offered permanent positions with growth potential,” he says.
While the students enrolling in these programs are demographically diverse, Judy points to one interesting trend—an increase in older, non-traditional students. “Some of them are second-career students, but many are coming out of the foodservice industry, wanting to take their careers to the next level,” he says.
Judy—whose background includes positions as an executive chef, private chef and caterer—sees such trends in the industry as specialization and full-service offerings. “I am seeing quite a bit of growth in niche and boutique catering operations, as well as growth with operations that specialize in very specific services, such as Indian or Bollywood-style wedding events or quinceañeras,” he says. “Branding is also becoming very important; professional caterers are increasingly known for their ‘brand,’ or what it is that makes them stand out from the rest. Many caterers are also expanding into full-service operations, including décor, floral, DJ, transportation services, etc., becoming a ‘one-stop shop’ for their clients.”
As for challenges facing caterers, Judy points to “the ever-increasing diversity of society and increase of specialized or restrictive diets, such as gluten-free, vegan or reduced allergen. Caterers must not only be aware of these trends but be able to offer creative menus that do not just meet, but also exceed, expectations.”
National Association for Catering and Events (NACE)
“There is a new energy in the next generation of professionals entering the catering and event industry,” says Bonnie Fedchock, executive director of NACE. “They have greater focus, education, experience and access to information than previous generations. They have seen lavish events, food preparations and designs on television, and know that there are more and diverse opportunities as the industry grows.”
Fedchock is impressed by newer professionals’ passion for the industry. “They love the hospitality industry, and the opportunity to make their customers’ dreams come true, and in truly making a difference in the personal lives of everyday people,” she says.
The increasing interest in catering and events careers is evident in the myriad of hospitality schools and universities throughout the country, notes Fedchock. “Students are investing in this career through their education, including internships and student memberships in professional organizations, including NACE,” which has 10 student chapters, she notes. “We see a diverse set of students in our NACE membership, including many from other countries.”
As for overall trends in the catering industry, Fedchock points to the increasing focus on fresh, local, sustainable and organic foods. “Another twist is the inclusion of nostalgic foods, with a new component,” she says. “To encourage interaction, we also see more chef’s tables being incorporated into more events, allowing guests and chefs to interact.”
Personalization of events—including food made to order and individualized beverages—is another key trend, and represents a big opportunity for caterers and event planners to stand out from the crowd, Fedchock believes.
“As our customers seem to have more responsibilities and less time, they want to feel unique when at events, and they want to know their food and event is being tailored to them,” she says. “This allows for our professionals to use their incredible creativity to adapt their food and events to provide their customers with a memorable and unique experience.”