Catering is a constantly evolving field. Market shifts introduce more clients to catering, and new trends in food sources and preparation affect your business.
More than 2 million American couples wed every year. Almost half the total cost of an average wedding is spent on the reception and catering. One segment in particular is growing within the wedding catering arena — large celebrations for gay weddings and commitment ceremonies. Caterers and wedding planners who cater to the gay market in their areas are finding many new customers. With gay rights on the front burner of the American political landscape and many state legislatures taking up the issue of gay marriage, the size, intricacy, and number of large celebrations for gay unions is expanding.
Natural, Organic, and Local Ingredients
As recently as ten years ago, caterers could use ingredients from just about anywhere. Fish was fish, beef was beef, and milk was milk. Caterers didn't have to be concerned with where their produce, poultry, seafood, and cheeses were grown, caught, or made, since customers weren't particularly concerned. As long as the food was fresh and prepared well, customers were satisfied.
Today, the culinary landscape has changed, and customers demand to know exactly what type of beef you'll be using, where the fish is from, and where the tomatoes and corn were grown. There have been huge changes in the food industry over the last generation that have caused customers to be more concerned about where their food comes from and how it was grown and raised.
Organic dairy products and meat products are vastly different from their conventional counterparts. The animals are not given hormones or antibiotics. Many organically raised animals are grass-fed and therefore require more grazing land. Because of their grass diet they have a lower fat content. Organic milk is worth the premium, especially for children and for producing flavorful dairy products like artisanal cheeses and ice creams.
Demand for large amounts of quick, convenient foods spurred the use of pesticides, antibiotics, preservatives, and chemicals to increase crop yields and meat production. The result is that most of our food supply is tainted with chemicals and is composed of overly processed foods. The natural vitamins and fiber have been stripped out for processing ease and have been added back in for fortification.
“Certified organic” is a subset of organic foods. It's a government-regulated process that requires producers to follow specific rules and methods in their growing. If you will be eating the skin or leaf of a food, like certain fruits or vegetables, organic versions are safest. Skins and leaves are more likely to have been exposed to and to have absorbed chemical and pesticide residues.
Locally Grown and Sustainable
Genetically modified foods, including grains and vegetables, are making the public uneasy. No one knows what the long-term effects of growing and eating these products will be. Over-fishing the seas has caused a shortage of many types of fish. To compensate, businesses are trying to cultivate fish in farms, where fish are no longer free to swim and eat what they want. Instead, they are kept in pools or tanks and fed processed food. Without having to swim much for their supper, their fat layers are increased, and consequently, so is their flavor and nutrient content.
Small farmers, dairy farmers, and ranchers are making a comeback. Not only are consumers demanding organic and naturally raised products in their local grocery stores, but they're learning from eating out at independent restaurants that products grown locally taste better. Many chefs around the country, especially today's younger cooks, are learning that it makes sense to support locally grown and raised products.
The best products often come from small, local farmers, who grow products and raise animals in a natural, organic way. If you establish a relationship with local farmers, you'll have the highest quality ingredients at fair prices. The result will be wonderful dishes to serve to happy customers.
Chefs feature pasture-fed beef and heirloom tomatoes on their menus, in addition to a wide array of locally available products, for several reasons:
The products taste better. Instead of buying tomatoes that are bred to survive sixty days from the vine to the consumer's sandwich, local ingredients are grown with natural fertilizer and bred for flavor. They won't last nearly as long as their commercial cousins, but they sure are juicier and have more flavor.
It makes good economic sense. Supporting locally grown products supports the local economy and creates jobs.
It makes environmental sense. Shipping goods over long distances requires massive amounts of fossil fuels. The less distance a product has to travel, the less fossil fuels are burned.
The products are healthier. Handmade cheese isn't bright orange because small producers don't use chemical colors and additives. When was the last time you saw a cow give orange milk? Small producers can't afford expensive pesticides and chemicals. They rely on old-fashioned methods to grow and make what they produce. Like caterers, they are driven by passion to make the best product they can.
Natural and organic ingredients can command a price premium. While the organic and natural market is still small, and demand is strong for these artisanal or handmade products, these ingredients can cost on average 20–50 percent more than conventionally grown or raised ingredients. Restaurants can charge more for these ingredients and make a higher profit margin on some of their dishes.
The people who buy organic eggs and milk at the supermarket and who eat grass-fed beef and wild Pacific salmon at restaurants are the same people who entertain clients, friends, and family and hire caterers. The demand for natural, local, and organic ingredients has spread to the catering industry through its clients. No longer can you get away with buying conventional ingredients from big conglomerates.
The Organic Trade Association (OTA) in Greenfield, Massachusetts, estimates that 23 percent of U.S. consumers buy organic products weekly. The market for organic poultry, meat, and fish has doubled within the past few years.
Know Your Local Cheese Makers, Growers, and Ranchers
Caterers need to know who grows the best fruits and vegetables in their area and who raises the best chickens and beef. While more time and care has to be taken with food procurement, the good news is that you can establish a close relationship with local growers. As a small local business, you have a lot in common with your suppliers. You work hard and struggle to make the best product available, just like they do. You can help each other promote your businesses. You can tell your guests where you bought the ingredients for your delicious leek and cheddar quiche, and your local grower can recommend you to cater area celebrations.
All cooks know that fresher, tastier ingredients end up making fresher, tastier dishes. No matter who the chef is, there's no way that canned tomatoes and tinned tuna end up tasting like line-caught tuna and ripe heirloom tomatoes. Using the freshest ingredients makes the caterer's job easier. Foods can be cooked simply, allowing their natural flavors to flourish. There's no need to mask or create flavors with sharp spices or heavy sauces.
Dan Barber, a young New York chef, is a master of using sustainable ingredients. At Stone Barns, about an hour's ride north of Manhattan, he slaughters his own pigs and grows his own vegetables right on the old Rockefeller estate.
Consumers are demanding healthy, organic, and local foods, and this is not a fad that will disappear next year. This trend should be reflected in your cooking philosophy, as well as in the ingredients you use and the dishes you serve. Using more locally produced ingredients means certain things will be in and out of season during various times of the year.
Catering as Edutainment
As clients ask for better and more sophisticated ingredients, caterers are responding to rising requests to teach about food and cultures through entertainment, or edutainment. Some high-end affairs around the country use their multimillion-dollar catering budgets to demand that their caterers and event designers re-create entire cultures, buildings, interiors, and atmospheres for their events. From new product launches to black-tie charity balls, today's events require caterers to be more creative than ever.
While your potential clients' catering budgets may not have nine figures — or even six — ideas and themes that start out at big events get media coverage and are copied and scaled down for other catered events. Clients who attend grand galas often challenge their local caterers to do a smaller version of what they saw. The more you as a caterer know about your food, its origins, and how it's made, the more value you can offer your clients.
Increasingly, clients expect the food to be the entertainment. People are interested in tasting things from around the world, and it's possible to offer clients varietal food tastings of exotic foods.
Some entrepreneurs offer guided tastings as entertainment for private and corporate events. One such innovative firm is New York Food Tours and Events, which teaches clients all over the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut area about different types of handmade and varietal foods. It offers tastings of varietal honeys and cheeses and guides food and wine pairings.
The more you can offer quality ingredients, delicious dishes, and knowledge about what you're serving, the more valuable and irreplaceable your services will be to your clients. In this way, you can distinguish yourself from other caterers.
The catering industry may be larger than you thought, but that means it has room for professional players who offer something different. Whether it's your ability to turn an average room into a tropical beach or your gift for instilling a passion for locally grown and handmade foods in your clients and guests, there's a niche in the industry for you. Composed of mostly small and medium-sized players, the catering business is an industry that rewards hard work, attention to detail, and creativity. Recipes aren't trademarked, and neither are décor schemes or serving methods. Draw inspiration from other events, menus, and dishes. Improve on them and make them your own.