The Tech-Savvy Caterer

Photo by Catering by Michaels

Tips for choosing the right digital tools for your business

By Connie Jeske Crane

The digital revolution is here—bringing with it challenges as well as benefits. Whether your catering operation is small or large, old-school or tech-savvy, today it’s hard not to feel a constant pressure to stay on your toes technologically. From ordering and delivery to advertising and accounting, the questions swirl: Am I doing OK? Should I rejig this part of my business? What will I gain? What’s the best solution? What will it cost?

To get a snapshot of where caterers are with tech, we talked to a number of operators who’ve successfully incorporated various digital tools. We asked them about their challenges, the benefits they’re seeing, and what advice they have.

The current landscape

If you’re not exactly tech-forward (yet), you’re not alone.

The degree to which caterers have embraced tech still varies dramatically. Jeff Ware, a senior consultant with Certified Catering Consultants (certifiedcateringconsultants.com), and also director of operations for Chicago-based Catering by Michaels (cateringbymichaels.com), says: “It’s all across the board in my experience working with different caterers in different cities all across the country. There are very tech-forward, advanced companies utilizing technology throughout their business to improve both the customer experience and the effectiveness of the business. There are companies that are using a lot of tech but not necessarily in a positive way—that is, where it’s improving the guest or client experience.”

Ware also sees smaller operators struggling to get onboard. “Catering has traditionally been a very mom-and-pop, small industry,” he notes. “It’s evolved from that significantly, but there are still a huge amount of very small caterers that don’t have the money, time or resources to really invest in tech.”

Photo by Catering by Michaels

Popular tools

So where are tech-savvy caterers deciding to invest? Here’s what we heard from the operators we contacted:

1. All-in-one catering solutions

In Madison, Wis., David Porto, director of sales for Blue Plate Catering (blueplatecatering.com), says his company has implemented a leading catering and event management software package, Caterease (caterease.com). The program handles menus, proposals, letters, orders and invoicing, plus back-of-house documentation like packing lists. It also comes in multiple versions to accommodate different-sized operations. Porto says a key selling feature was Caterease’s ability to interface with the company’s accounting program. “Now we just create an order in Caterease and export that order to QuickBooks. It saved about 10 to 12 hours of one of our senior team member’s time per week; instead of inputting every single invoice from scratch, it is done basically with one click.”

Beyond efficiencies, Porto adds there’s client appeal to things like mobile-friendliness, and being able to communicate and capture electronic signatures online. “I think it is viewed in a positive light as more of our couples are millennials and then Gen Z; they’re just more familiar with the tech,” he says, “and also more used to immediate gratification.”

In Vancouver, British Columbia, Nin Rai, founder and president of Truffles Fine Foods (trufflesfinefoods.com), has implemented another catering solution called Triple Seat (tripleseat.com) and confirms that, for his tech-savvy clientele, getting things like quotes out quickly is most helpful. He also likes the capability catering packages offer of having all business documents ready-to-go online, branded and professional-looking.

Finally, Ware notes another huge bonus with catering solutions—the ability to collect, analyze and produce meaningful data that caterers can use “to adapt and adjust our business to be more successful.” Since his company started using Caterease, for example, “we have seen a major improvement in our profit margins.”

2. Recipe management

For large operations, Ware says a further investment in a comprehensive recipe management program can also improve margins. “That requires you to know what your costs are, and that’s why we also use a recipe management program—we have to start by knowing what it’s costing us to produce these items.” Catering by Michaels, Ware says, is transitioning to ChefTec (cheftec.com).

3. Staffing/payroll

Staffing challenges are another popular place to enlist tech. In Vancouver, Rai is a fan of Push Operations (pushoperations.com), cloud-based labor management software integrating HR, payroll, time-tracking and scheduling. “It’s not just a set schedule for everybody, so trying to keep track of it all can be quite challenging. This definitely helps. The servers can go online and clock in remotely from anywhere.”

At Blue Plate, Porto uses a scheduling app called When I Work (wheniwork.com), which includes “a work chat feature where you’re able to communicate with other staff, have someone else pick up your shift, etc.”

Ware recommends Nowsta (nowsta.com) or StaffSmart (staffsmart.co) to caterers he consults with. “There’s so much opportunity to reduce your costs by properly leveraging the data you get in these programs.”

Nowsta is an all-in-one staff management platform designed specifically for catering and events companies. While some caterers may rely on a mish-mash of free web tools, spreadsheets, text messages and paper timesheets, Nowsta consolidates all aspects of staff management in one easy-to-use platform. The company says caterers using Nowsta will spend less time on busy work (by scheduling each shift in minutes, for example); waste less money (by accessing data that helps control labor costs); and better retain employees (by making it easier for staff to receive and accept work requests). Its latest offering, NowstaPay, gives staff the option to get paid as soon as a shift ends.

4. Customer feedback management

In Provo, Utah, at Magleby’s Fresh (maglebysfresh.com), Paul Morris admits to some “old-school” processes. The company (where catering comprises about 32 percent of business) wants to invest in staffing, loyalty and other systems eventually, yet Morris says their most recent tech investment went another way, after they identified a need to boost Google reviews. Magleby’s incorporated Ovation (ovationup.com), an iPad-based system, which gathers customer reviews and lets vendors “instantly chat with unhappy customers.” Today, Morris says, “Anything from a medium review down, we do guest recovery.” By addressing customer concerns quickly (before customers vent online), Magleby’s has, in a year-and-a-half, seen Google reviews rise to 4.5 from 3.8. Factoring in customer retention, valuable feedback and the power of Google, Morris says, “The $100-plus a month we spend is worth every penny.”

5. Ever more tech

When it comes to tech, caterers have many more offerings at their disposal, from smart fridges and food safety tech, to chatbots, to VR applications. Expect the innovations—and the decisions—to continue to grow in the coming years.

Nowsta’s features include the ability for staffers to accept or decline shifts instantly on the mobile app.

Words of advice

While potential gains are great, successful integration doesn’t happen overnight, as caterers are quick to point out. The market is also crowded with options. So how to do it right?

Do your research: Rai says, “Definitely research what’s out there and compare, because there’s a lot out there. Make sure it’s the right fit, test them out, get the free trials.”

Check references: Caterers don’t always know the right questions to ask salespeople, so Ware recommends asking vendors for references. “If you’re going to buy a program and you want to make sure it interfaces with program Y, ask to talk to one of their customers that’s already doing that.”

Look to the future: For companies looking to grow, Ware recommends investing in a program like Caterease that can grow with you. “For companies that want to be really small and stay small, there are other options out there that are faster to set up and deploy and are less expensive; but if they then choose to grow, that’s kind of wasted resources.”

Designate a point person: With a new system, “So many companies are like, ‘Oh, it’s going to be a team effort, and we’re all going to work on it,’ and it just never happens,” says Ware. “There has to be somebody who is assigned as being responsible for making that implementation happen.”

Proper training and time: “You have to be realistic about timelines,” says Ware, adding that many caterers underestimate the time it will take to set up and transition to a new system. Also, take time to learn how to use software features correctly, he says, to get the most out of it.

Keep an open mind: Finally, rather than saying, “Well, this is the way we’ve done it and it works,” Porto encourages caterers toward continuous improvement. “Trends change so frequently, software changes so frequently, and you just kind of need to stay up on the times and take a risk,” he advises.