By Kerry Montgomery, Director of Enterprise Caterer Partnerships, ezCater
According to foodservice research firm Technomic, business catering is on the rise and already worth an estimated $21 billion annually. The growing demand for food in the workplace is contributing to this growth, and is presenting caterers and restaurants that do most of their business on nights and weekends with a tremendous opportunity to maximize their resources and tap the lucrative 9-to-5 revenue stream.
But as straightforward as it may seem to cater a large function or social event, business catering comes with a unique set of requirements that center around making the customer look good. Catered business events and meetings can be important, high-stress, even career-changing scenarios, like a sales meeting with a critical prospect or a quarterly company-wide seminar. It’s important to understand that even the slightest details can make or break a meeting, and the food is no exception.
As a business caterer, making sure your food is fit for office eats starts with crafting the right menu, but given the unique nature of the business customer, this can be more challenging than it seems. Here are six tips to consider:
1. Start with your most popular items. Restaurant or consumer catering menu favorites are likely to please office workers’ palates, too. When just beginning your journey into business catering, select a handful of your best-sellers—I recommend about a dozen starters and entrees—and see if demand from the business crowd jives with your everyday customers. If certain items don’t perform as well as expected, swap in your next-best dish, and test it again until you’ve identified your office favorites.
2. Strike a balance. Much like the classic, well-balanced meal, your menu should consist of a solid blend of proteins, starches and vegetables. I recommend including at least two proteins, two salads and two starches on your menu. This should provide at least one option for picky or dietary-restricted eaters, a well-balanced meal for folks sampling the spread, and help keep things simple and concise when crafting the menu. And don’t forget about indulging in the office’s sweet tooth. Desserts can go a long way in keeping your customer’s audience happy and satisfied.
3. Think beyond salads for vegetarians and vegans. While we do recommend at least two salad options on every business catering menu, the odds are your vegetarian and vegan customers are craving other options for their office lunch as well. Consider protein-rich sides, like baked beans, corn, or macaroni and cheese to provide non-meat eaters a substantial meal, while keeping the carnivores happy, and powering both groups through meetings and luncheons. For the salads you include on the menu, look to provide options with nuts, sunflower seeds, beans, chickpeas or tofu for a welcome vegan-friendly change from the usual cheese and veggies.
4. Don’t forget about dietary restrictions. Digging into a tray of food isn’t always easy for someone allergic to such common triggers as gluten or dairy. Your business catering menu should not only provide options for these customers, but it should also clearly identify these items. Good labeling on the actual packaging, too, can make or break the catering (and meeting) experience for these eaters. I also recommend making a note at the top or bottom of your menu as a reminder to consider common restrictions or allergies. The businessperson placing an order will thank you when he avoids ordering a shrimp dish for his shellfish-allergic boss.
5. Consider time of day, weather and season. How, when and what we eat can shape an entire day, and the same holds true in a business setting. If you’re catering to both a breakfast and lunch crowd, make sure your menu includes substantial selections for both times of day (remember: protein, starch, and vegetables or fruit). Also consider making seasonal adjustments to your menu. For example, in the cold winter months, offer warm, hearty comfort foods like chicken pot pie and soup, and in the summer, add barbecue favorites like pulled pork, burgers and corn on the cob.
6. Take temperature into consideration. It’s common for business customers, especially those hosting conferences, seminars or other day-time work events, to have to feed large groups over the course of an entire afternoon. While offering something that doesn’t need to stay hot, like sandwiches, is always a safe bet, consider offering foods that hold their heat and reheat well, such as casserole-style dishes.
As with any restaurant or catering menu, the most important thing to consider at the onset of your business catering endeavor is that your menu should be treated as a work in progress. Create your initial menu, test it, revise it, and then test it again until you get it just right. Keeping these six tips in mind when crafting your menu will put you on the right track to doing just that.
About the Author
Kerry Montgomery has over two decades of experience in restaurant and catering operations. She is currently the director of enterprise caterer partnerships at ezCater, the only nationwide marketplace for business catering. She has also worked as a private consultant and held various corporate roles at Earl Enterprises, where she represented Buca di Beppo, Earl of Sandwich and Planet Hollywood. For more information on ezCater, visit ezcater.com.