Win at Winter Holiday Catering

Don’t let operational and culinary challenges leave you in the cold.
Restaurant workers assemble holiday catering foods
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This article originally appeared in the Gordon Food Service Foodscape publication.

Holiday season is make-or-break time for most restaurants. While sales may be brisk right now compared to last year, don’t underestimate the potential of catering.

Before the pandemic made it essential, off-premise restaurant dining was in growth mode. The desire remains, and operators can build their brand through catering. It requires planning and employing best practices on the operational and culinary sides.

With people ready to indulge during the holidays, you don’t want to disappoint, says Christine Morgan, a Gordon Food Service Business Solutions Specialist from Pittsburgh.

“Help consumers splurge with special offerings, flavors and ingredients that enhance the off-premise experience,” she says. “It’s possible to build excitement for them and, with some planning, make it manageable for your staffing and service capabilities.”

Understand operational catering needs

Everything starts on the operational side. Create a menu that’s innovative but easy to execute. This lets you plan labor, prep space and logistics—all key to protecting brand integrity when products leave the restaurant.

These menu tips play into operational effectiveness:

  • Call on speed-scratch/value-added. Save labor with washed and cut salads, trimmed fruits and veggies or pre-breaded chicken and seafood.
  • Offer prepared dishes. Save time with heat-and-eat foods prepared ahead and ready for delivery or pickup. 
  • Create meal kits. Package ingredients in a branded box and include a recipe for at-home preparation.
  • Make it a party. Cookie decorating kits or cocktail packages are easy and profitable add-ons to a meal package. They also can be a party kit by themselves.

To meet demand, restaurants also need to manage the calendar. Labor will be a nightmare if you schedule every party on Friday and Saturday. If possible, offer customers an incentive to book weekday events.

Because labor is delicate, Morgan recommends motivating your team. “Ask for their input. If they have a stake in your offerings and presentation, they’ll be less stressful and more dedicated to success.”

Consider culinary catering strategies 

On the culinary side, expect an appetite for indulgence during the holidays. For operators, success means identifying strengths and opportunities.

“It’s important to align catering menus with your current menus as an extension of your business,” Morgan says. “Your offerings should expand on things you do really well—these menu items define your concept and set you apart.”

The culinary part of the equation, she notes, calls on equal parts planning and creativity.

1. Planning

  • Manage your menu. Cross-utilize products as well as employee skills and productivity.
  • Match offerings to manpower. Review your preparation needs and focus on the end product/experience.
  • Use Recipe Manager. Cost out ingredients and determine plate price. 
  • Know your limitations. It’s the best way to address needed resources and services.
  • Call on experience. Reach out to past employees or students home from college for labor help.

2. Creativity

  • Upscale menu offerings. Favorite seasonal flavors include pumpkin, cinnamon, cranberry, sage, ginger, peppermint, sweet potato, eggnog or chocolate.
  • Try sensational shortcuts. Save time with thaw-and-serve desserts or coffees and shakes with a shot of mint or hazelnut.
  • Innovate with beverages. The season calls for old-school cocktails or warm drinks like Irish coffee, cider and hot chocolate.
  • Don’t overlook trends. Plant-based options and alcohol-free upscale beverages can differentiate your business.
  • Call on LTOs. Local and seasonal ingredients work well for limited-time offers, creating “get-it-while-you can” excitement. Cross-utilize regular menu items and test items you’re thinking of adding permanently.

“Adding value wherever possible—in the kitchen, on the menu and with the experience—is the best strategy for feeding a holiday crowd,” Morgan says. “It’s possible to build your brand without compromising quality.”
 

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