There are no two words that incite as much stress in the hospitality industry as “holidays” and “catering.”
That said, the last few months of the year are often the most lucrative for a restaurant—and catering can be a big part of this. The demand for catering during the holidays is consistently high, encompassing not just office parties, but also at-home dinners for the cooking-averse, large family gatherings, or even just saving someone from a burnt turkey.
Moreover, catering is a golden marketing opportunity, a chance to showcase your food to an entirely different group of people, many of whom may not have otherwise heard about your restaurant. Andrew Foster, owner of The Frogmore in Boston, says that through catering events he meets people who live around the corner from his restaurant, but are just then trying it for the first time.
For your existing customer base, catering offers a chance to create connections during one of the most important times of the year. “You regain the personal touch doing holiday catering,” says Foster. “When you’re working with a customer on an order, there is a trust that gets built. You aren’t calling a restaurant unless you really know them, so for us, catering builds this relationship in a way that feels genuine.”
But transitioning your restaurant into the catering business—particularly during the holidays—is tricky business. From staffing to menu prep to logistics, catering requires being attentive to every single step of the process.
“With catering, you have to execute, and if you don’t execute, you can make a lot of enemies,” says John Stage, founder of Dinosaur BBQ in New York. “If you’re messing up catering, you’re messing up the meal of 50-plus people. You have to make sure you can handle the operations.”
The challenges to catering during the holiday season are plenty. First and foremost, the stakes are high. “You’re often dealing with families, and more often then not the person in charge of the event is fearful that when the event is over, if it doesn’t go well, people are going to tell them it’s their fault,” Foster says. “You need to make sure that person feels taken care of—that you are on their team.”
There’s also the “national nightmare” (as Foster puts it) of trying to find consistent staffing during the holidays. “I end up doing a lot of events with the other owners, or borrowing from other restaurants because we can’t find staffers,” he says.
Don’t forget traffic, which Stage calls “the worst” during the holidays, or purchasing, which is particularly “difficult, as prices of holiday-related products like turkey always go up,” according to Bahr Rapaport, Executive Chef of Mezetto in New York. “And then you have to think about the cost of waste.”
Yes, holiday catering is difficult, but the challenges are not insurmountable. With a little bit of advance planning, you can become a consistently great catering partner, and build lifelong customers. Just follow these tips for success:
1. Start your marketing early. “You really have to get out there months in advance, because people are looking to have things planned out by the early fall, especially in the corporate world,” says Rapaport. “We always try and get ahead of the game with our email blasts and menu drops, because for a restaurant, holidays can’t be an afterthought.”
2. When deciding on a menu, consider travel time. Crafting a group of offerings that feels seasonal yet true to your identity is, of course, important—but the most vital component, according to Stage, is making sure that when the food is going from a restaurant to a party (or to someone’s home), it stays in serving-ready condition. Make sure you are selecting dishes for your menu that you would still be proud to serve after they have been sitting for an hour or two.
3. Keep a highly organized calendar of all your catering orders. Unlike other parts of the year, when dates for catering orders can be more flexible, during the holidays, “There will be weeks at a time when everyone wants catering at the same time,” Rapaport says. To prevent overbooking yourself, have one master calendar for keeping track of orders and make sure to update it constantly.
4. Get to know your customer. “Have a deep conversation with your customer so that you know exactly what they want and how you can meet those expectations,” Stage says. “No one likes surprises. Remember that the people who are booking these orders have their reputation on the line. You’re there to make them look good.”
5. Make a timeline and be strategic about it. When it comes to a successful catering order, timing is everything. Rapaport recommends making a schedule to the half-hour mark that notes what time food needs to go into the oven or get carved or reheated. Making a good timeline also requires having a strategy; for example, if you only have two ovens, figure out what absolutely needs to go in the oven first, and what can be done at the last minute.
6. Use a checklist. “Once you forget something, you can’t go back,” Stage says. “Check and double check before you leave to make sure that you have everything you need.”
7. Individualize each catering order. Foster says this is the best way to ensure customers will keep coming back. He cites the example of a Greek-themed feast he custom created for a first-time customer who was nervous about an upcoming event. “She is now a regular at our restaurant, and she would never have come in otherwise,” he says. Even the small things, like coming up with a special cocktail for the evening, can go a long way in building loyalty, he adds.
8. Google Maps is your best friend. It will show you where the traffic is and give you real-time updates about your journey. “Being late is stressful,” Stage says. “Google Maps will tell you what you are getting into. Don’t go blindly into the night.”
9. Keep the standard of service that you would at your restaurant. “If you’ve been to an event run by a catering company, you’ll notice that the standard of service can be a lot lower,” Foster says. “If you are a restaurant business doing catering, treat the event like it’s a restaurant, and hold your servers to the same standard of service that you would expect in your own restaurant.”