A profile of three off-premise caterers, who share the trends they’re seeing, the growth they’re planning, and their outlook on the business
By Sara Perez Webber
How’s business in the off-premise catering world? That’s the question we posed to three catering companies of varying sizes, in different areas of the country. Their answers are encouraging, as each company grows and expands into new segments. One common thread? All note consumers’ increasing demand for unusual, personalized events—a demand that off-premise caterers are uniquely qualified to meet.
Puff ’n Stuff Catering & Events
Last year, Puff ’n Stuff Catering, with locations in Orlando and Tampa, Fla., celebrated its best year ever, with a revenue growth of 18 percent from 2015 to 2016. This year the company is setting the stage for more expansion, by recently launching delivery/pick-up menus.
“I’m very excited about the release of our new Premium Platter menu and see 100 percent growth in this category,” says Heather Hofmann, executive director of sales and operations. “Our goal was to create high-end, seasonal food displays that provide a convenient alternative to our full-service catering.”
Puff ’n Stuff decided to launch the Premium Platter menu after identifying pick-up and delivery as a growing food trend in their market. “We felt there was an open opportunity to provide premium food in this category,” says Hofmann. “We are able to offer both new and existing products to our current clients, and will also begin targeting new demographics ideal for this menu.”
Offering breakfast, snack, sandwich, salad, dessert and party platters, “the menu includes recipes that are stable at room temperature and pair easily together,” explains Hofmann. “The items are artfully displayed on premium white platters, and orders include all necessary service ware and menu cards for a finished look.” The Party Platters, for example, range from the relatively simple—House Made Chips & Dips (with potato, plantain and sweet potato chips, with harissa tzatziki; artichoke, spinach and feta dip; and chipotle hummus)—to the more substantial, such as the Pacific Rim, with spicy tuna rolls, chili-lime grilled shrimp, Vietnamese beef and scallion rolls, yakitori chicken satay, shishito peppers, cucumber kimchi and more.
Drop-off catering is the latest innovation for a company that has its roots in a small pastry shop on the island of Trinidad, founded in 1971 by Susie and Glenn Dietel. The couple eventually moved to the Orlando area, re-opened the Puff ’n Stuff pastry shop in 1980 and started offering catering services. In 2003, their son Warren Dietel purchased the business from his parents. Under Warren’s leadership as president and owner, Puff ’n Stuff is now one of Central Florida’s largest and most prominent caterers, with 65 full-time employees and up to 500 support staff, depending on the season. It shares staff and resources between its locations (Tampa opened in 2010, and now accounts for 37 percent of business), giving it an edge when catering large events.
“Over a recent holiday weekend, we executed a 420-person wedding in Tampa that required the Orlando operation staff to make up 25 percent of the service team,” says Hofmann. “Additionally, we were able to transfer ovens, hotboxes and miscellaneous event equipment to support the Tampa inventory, without needing to rent additional items.”
The company also transfers linens weekly from Orlando, where it has full laundry facilities, to its Tampa commissary. “Being able to ‘borrow’ equipment helps keep our inventory levels lower and maximizes our potential on large events,” says Hofmann. “Keeping everything in-house instead of managing rentals from multiple vendors helps to streamline the process for the customer, while remaining competitive.”
Puff ’n Stuff caters a wide range of corporate and social events, including weddings, with its busy season running from October through December (it executed 400 events in December 2016), and late January through May. Hofmann notes that customers continue to be well informed, coming to them with menu and service ideas, and that “fresh, local, craft and seasonal” are still at the top of most clients’ wish lists.
And Hofmann observes that while competition continues to heat up—“especially with our local and national restaurants offering catering services”—off-premise catering “is getting more credit for being savvier than hotel catering.”
Puff ’n Stuff’s customers benefit from the array of enhancements that the company can offer, she points out. “It’s not only about the food when it comes to catering; it’s about the experience and the display of food on interesting elements,” says Hofmann. “I think clients are finding more unusual venues to host events, and we are always available to go anywhere.”
STK OUT (The One Group)
Ever since the first STK restaurant opened in New York’s Meatpacking District in 2006, the steakhouse company’s management has been focused on private events. The original location, STK Downtown, has five floors—three of them devoted to private events. “Catering is such a big part of the business,” says Celeste Fierro, co-founder and senior vice president of The ONE Group, which now operates 14 STK restaurants worldwide, with additional locations under development.
With a thriving on-premise catering business, now the company is also focused on off-premise catering—bringing the vibe, energy and service that STK is known for (its restaurants feature DJs, chic décor and the tagline “Not your daddy’s steakhouse”) to venues such as the Super Bowl. The off-premise catering arm, known as STK OUT, accounts for about 10 percent of business, and is available anywhere—not just in areas with an STK restaurant location. “This is what I want to grow,” says Fierro. “It’s a great source of revenue and great for brand awareness.”
STK has been involved in catering Super Bowl events for five years. For this year’s Super Bowl, it built a kitchen in Houston to be able to serve 50,000 guests over four days. STK catered for VIP attendees at Club Nomadic, the venue for the three-day concert leading up to Super Bowl Sunday, with performances by such artists as Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift. Its menu featured such small bites as roasted Brussels sprout skewers with smoked bacon and maple gastrique, shrimp rice crispy with coconut curry and cilantro, and chili-rubbed lamb chops with Greek yogurt and dill; and desserts such as mini peanut butter pie featuring sweet and salty peanut butter ganache and double chocolate cup, and Grand Sequoia chocolate mousse, featuring bittersweet chocolate mousse with chocolate bark and gold-dusted chocolate leaf. Guests could also sip iconic STK cocktails, such as Strawberry Cobbler (Belvedere vodka and muddled fresh strawberries with a graham-cracker-crusted rim); and Cucumber Stiletto (cucumber muddled with lime juice and simple syrup plus Ketel One Citron vodka and St. Germain, garnished with a cucumber slice).
On game day, STK catered a pre-game event for the NFL and a post-game celebration party for the New England Patriots. “We catered to 14,000 people that one day,” says Fierro, adding that the operation required 800 employees, including many managers and supervisors flown in from various STK locations.
Food served at the Super Bowl included “composed dishes,” notes Fierro, such as sliced ribeye with truffled polenta, and seabass with roasted fingerling potatoes. “The reason why we are usually hired is that clients know they’re going to get an elevated experience, and they know it’s consistent,” she says. “People want that unique experience.” Even when clients want traditional fare, STK will elevate the menu with details that are perhaps unexpected, Fierro says, such as twice-baked potatoes instead of baked potatoes, risotto instead of mashed potatoes, or ribeye with chimichurri sauce instead of prime rib.
The company has also carved out a niche catering celebrities’ in-home parties, including Mariah Carey’s party celebrating her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and Michael Strahan’s birthday party. Carey “wanted something very fresh, light and simple, but good,” says Fierro, adding that an executive chef is always on-site for such events. The buffet dinner featured an assortment of STK’s classic dishes, including tuna tartare with avocado, soy-honey emulsion and taro chips; Lil BRGs (mini-burgers made with Wagyu beef); and steak.
Demand for STK’s off-premise catering services is growing, notes Fierro. “Two years ago we did three events at the Super Bowl, this year we did five events, and next year maybe we’ll do seven events,” she says. “We probably do four or five a month in Malibu, whether it’s movie premieres or VIP dinner parties. We’re catering for a private home in Malibu for the whole month of July.”
Fierro says that clients increasingly want events that are more personalized, and that’s leading to more in-home catered events. “People are choosing to eat at home because it’s more comfortable, more intimate, and it’s a completely different experience than it would be in a restaurant,” she says. “You can tailor your menu to what you want.”
Blue Elephant Events and Catering
When he was just 18 years old, Fausto Pifferrer started his catering career in Philadelphia. “I remember my first client; her initials were ‘M.S.’, and I remember thinking that I was the cat’s meow,” he recalls. “It was paper products, cole slaw and hot roast beef.”
Pifferrer eventually opened Blue Elephant Events and Catering in Saco, Maine, in 2007, with business partner and husband Reuben Bell, and the menu has come a long way from cole slaw and roast beef. Under Chef Justin Badorek, Blue Elephant’s cuisine could be described as “upscale American with a New England twist,” says Pifferrer. “We don’t do a lot of traditional lobster bakes, but have many menu items that include a lobster component that elevate a traditional wedding or corporate menu.”
The company’s unusual name comes from a small plastic blue elephant toy that Pifferrer has had since he was about 4 years old. “He has kept it all of this time, and it has become a bit of a good-luck charm,” says Bell. “When we opened Blue Elephant Events and Catering, he thought that it would make a good name and might even be lucky. So far, so good!”
Indeed, business has grown steadily over the years. During peak season, April through October, Blue Elephant averages 20 weddings and 30 additional events each month. While business does slow down in the colder months, “in the last few years, we have noticed a marked increase in winter weddings, which is great,” says Pifferrer.
While weddings make up the bulk of the business, Blue Elephant has been booking more high-end corporate events in the last couple of years. One of its distinctive assets is “The Trunk,” Blue Elephant’s prop and décor department—4,500 square feet of warehouse space filled with antique furniture, linens, china, silk florals, mannequins, holiday décor and more, to enhance clients’ events and for private rentals. One of Pifferrer’s favorite recent purchases is a ski lift chair that now serves as a photo booth background.
Such touches help Blue Elephant meet the detail-oriented standards expected by today’s customers. “With the advent of the internet, there is no end to the ideas and examples that bombard our clients,” says Pifferrer. “This gives all of us the opportunity to constantly grow and improve our services and products.”
As far as menu preferences, Pifferrer has noticed a trend toward clients requesting traditional fare—such as filet mignon and salmon—that is exquisitely prepared with non-traditional sauces or garnishes. “People recently seem to want to serve something familiar in an unfamiliar way,” he says.
Examples that Blue Elephant has served lately are salmon with habanero and mango salsa—“the flavors and colors on this are spectacular!” says Bell—as well as filet mignon with lobster étouffée. “Our étouffée is a modified version that is a cross between a traditional Cajun étouffée and a milder bisque base,” says Bell. “We combine this with fresh-picked Maine lobster meat for a flavor and texture that is decadent when paired with a medium-rare filet mignon.”
Clients are also looking to add an unusual element to their events by holding them in interesting places, adds Pifferrer—a boon to the off-premise catering business. “In our market of southern Maine and New England, there are countless great venues to choose from—oceanfront, barns, industrial spaces, meadows, camps, etc.—that offer a huge variety of options for clients looking to do something unique with their events,” he says. “Business is constantly growing for us, our competitors and other event professionals.”