The relationship between a caterer and a venue is one of the most important for guaranteeing continuing success for each organization. JHW Hospitality has teamed up with our venue partner, Catalyst Ranch, to offer these suggestions for building a strong and winning relationship.
- Know each other’s differentials. Whether they book their venue or their caterer first, clients often turn to one for advice on selecting the other. “Each of our caterers are unique in their own way” says Krissy Dabrowski, Special Events Assistant at Catalyst Ranch. “We have implemented a strategy that we meet with them every 8 -12 months for a deep dive of their offerings, see what’s new and exciting, etc. so that we are able to continuously give our clients the best suggestions.” By communicating their own distinctive qualities to their event partners, venues and vendors ensure that they are well-represented to clients.
- Be selective. For a long time, the goal of most caterers has been to earn a spot on the vendor list of every venue in town, but this is not necessarily the right strategy for every company. Not every caterer is a good match for every venue. Consider paring back on the list of places you work. Focusing on a smaller number of venues will allow you to dedicate the time and resources necessary for delivering the most successful events. Also, caterers shouldn’t join venues just for the free marketing and exposure. Venues will know that you are using them and may resent being taken advantage of. Rather than trumpeting that you’ll work at any location in town, pair yourself with venues that best complement your food and style of service.
- Get to know as many people as possible. A strong partnership goes beyond the venue’s sales representative meeting the caterer’s event coordinator for lunch twice a year. Instead, make sure that event staff, sales reps, cooks, security guards, and executives all meet and understand each other’s responsibilities. As Krissy explains “I honestly feel that when everyone feels respected and appreciated, it makes for a calm and nearly flawless event every time!”
- Promote each other. Go beyond the guaranteed marketing you are contracted to provide each other. Look for ways to highlight your partner such as interacting on social media and attending each other’s open houses and networking events. These small exchanges help strengthen the foundation of the venue/vendor relationship.
The partnership between venue and caterer is valuable and important to the success of both organizations. Our thanks to Krissy
Dabrowski of Catalyst Ranch for sharing some tips for maintaining that relationship. Contact Catalyst Ranch for Chicago’s most creative meeting and event space!
This post appeared on our original blog back in July 2012. Grant Achatz's Next is in the middle of a Throwback of their own: through December 21st they are revisiting the menu from the long-closed Evanston restaurant Trio.
Grant Achatz is one of the most progressive and inspiring chefs in the world. Every few months, his restaurant, Next, changes its menu to reflect a new culinary theme. The same menu is served nightly throughout each period. Thus far, Next has celebrated the cuisines of Escoffier and Ferran Adrià of El Bulli, as well as Achatz’s own childhood reminiscences. Reviews of the restaurant are always incredible as is the long list of diners eager to spend hundreds of dollars to experience the creative menus and culinary wonders.
For all the acclaim the restaurant has garnered, however, the idea of regularly recreating the menu isn’t revolutionary to catering companies and our chefs. We too serve different themed menus, except, rather than changing them seasonally, we do it constantly. It is not unusual for a caterer to prepare anything from Mediterranean to Asian, Classic French to Texas BBQ…all in a single week!
There are other challenges unique to the catering world. For example, while a fine dining restaurant serves dozens of guests at various intervals, caterers may be required to serve hundreds simultaneously on a strict timeline. Caterers are often responsible for designing different visual themes that may extend to equipment, decor, and even server uniforms. Add to that the challenges of producing events in historic venues, tiny galleries, private homes, or a tent under the stars, and you begin to understand how complicated the job of “Caterer” can be.
How many times have I heard catering chefs say they yearn for the familiar routine of working a restaurant line? How many times have I seen fine restaurant chefs, stripped of their normal
surroundings and equipment, wrestling with their first off-premise event? Caterers should take heart! I believe that if you can master the off-premise event with its ever-changing demands, curve
balls, and peculiarities of cooking and serving spaces, you are prepared to succeed in any hospitality setting. Consider that you are positioned to be the industry’s “Next” big thing.
A series for clients and colleagues who are seeking support, asking for advice, and hoping to reignite their passion for hospitality.
How should I handle clients who continually ignore our guest count deadline? The last-minute additions (and subtractions!) are driving me crazy! -C.H., Chicago
A caterer’s policy on receiving an accurate guest count is one of the most important sections of your Terms & Conditions. A correct guest count affects every aspect of your deliverables and finances. As you have probably discovered, last minute changes can result in a hectic kitchen, a scramble for additional staff and equipment, wasted product, and out-of-pocket expenses. It can also lead to client dissatisfaction. That’s never good for your business!
The solution to your problem starts long before the event. First, engage your attorney to review your contract template. Your guest count policy must be clear and should use language your clients can easily understand. Each contract should specify the exact day and date the event’s guest count is due. It should also indicate what price increases clients should expect as a result of any last minute changes. Then, when the client confirms the event, verbally remind them of the deadline. By directing the client’s attention to the deadline well in advance, you’re emphasizing how important this information is to you. This will almost always hedge against any problems and will allow all to focus on and enjoy a great experience on event day.
Good luck and keep us posted on your progress!
Do you have a question for Jon? Ask in the comments or send us an email. We may answer your letter next!
My wife, Carole, Melanie Spratford, and I just returned from the 2014 Catersource Conference & Tradeshow in Las Vegas. After 5 days of attending programs, consulting, and speaking, a curious thing happened: I remembered what initially drew me to our industry; namely, great food, service, artistic satisfaction, and the excitement of bringing happiness to a lot of people.
Over the years, as I owned my own catering company and as I’ve consulted, coached, and led sales training programs for others, my focus has transitioned almost entirely from the aesthetic to the business side of our industry. Helping owners fashion plans for growth, accelerate sales, and improve operational and financial systems is the dull but necessary underside of our romantic industry. But, spending 5 days among thousands of highly passionate caterers was cool. There were incredible exchanges of ideas, fantastic new menu items, clever thematic concepts, and more. I believe strongly that, without the academics of running a business, artistic satisfaction cannot be realized. But I also believe that it’s important for each of us, especially during stressful times, to tap into the pleasures and the passions of our work. The Catersource Conference is an annual reminder of that passion. So, the lessons learned and the curious things that happened in Vegas won’t stay there. I’m carrying them with me.
I spent time with too many wonderful folks this week to mention each one, but it was, as always, a pleasure to see, from Catersource, Pauline Hoogmoed, Linda West, and Carl Sacks; Bill Pannhoff of B&B Catering; Jack Milan of Edibles by Jack; Bill Hansen of Bill Hansen Catering; Kevin and Larry Walter, and Ellen Harte of Tasty Catering; and all the great caterers from Chicago who somehow I only see when we’re in Vegas.
Lastly, I must acknowledge the absence of our dear friend and mentor, the late Mike Roman. Echoes of the Catering Guru’s wisdom were everywhere at the conference and his legacy lives on in the passion our industry continues to have for good food, great service, and exciting events.
Back by popular demand! In honor of our nation's pastime, we're revisiting this fan-favorite series!
In our series exploring the parallels between Major League Baseball and the catering game, we've covered the subject from the perspective of both the owners and the managers. The MLB season is now wrapping up what are commonly referred to as the “Dog Days of August” and it’s time to turn our attention to the people who really make it happen. Assuming that the management has put all of the pieces of the team puzzle in place, at this stage, the game is strictly in the hands of those on the field: The Players.
By mid August, the end of the regular season looms and the playoffs are in sight. This is when would-be contenders fade fast and the most resilient, talented, and disciplined teams surge ahead. Players are responsible for staying healthy, making smart behavioral choices, narrowing their focus, and playing harder than ever. Ball teams are made up of power hitters, speedsters, dependable fielders, and domineering pitchers; each player working to maximize his individual success and that of his team. The same can be said of catering companies. Here, salespeople, cooks and chefs, operations staff, and event servers must work in harmony for the benefit of the clients and the team.
Catering company employees are responsible for keeping their energy high, approaching each event enthusiastically, and staying alert to handle any curveballs. In order to achieve success, the entire staff must be dependable and work together trustingly. Chefs rely on smart work from the sales team. Servers depend on good decisions by the operations team. Sales people must trust their event staff to serve their clients well. If the entire team can work together, the caterer will be hitting home runs. If resentment and egos get in the way, there can be no hope of becoming champions.
Success all boils down to player execution. Home run titles, strike out records, MVP and Cy Young awards are fantastic but it is a World Series trophy that sums up the success of the team. Likewise, reaching personal sales goals, moving up to Sous Chef, or learning a new service style is valuable for personal growth but catering companies are judged based on whether or not they hit it out of the park on event day.
And who does the judging? The Fans. But that’s for next time....
Back by popular demand! In honor of our nation's pastime, we're revisiting this fan-favorite series!
At the start of the MLB season, we looked at the parallels between the roles and responsibilities of baseball team owners and those of catering company owners. We are well into the season now and, for some teams, careful preparation has paved the way for exceeded expectations. On the other hand, some of the teams who had high hopes during the preseason are struggling just to play .500 ball. Is it because of unseasonable weather? Injuries? Poor recruitment decisions? Bad coaching? The classic case of unexplained slumps by otherwise dependable stars? There could be any number of factors contributing to a team’s poor performance, but now is the time for managers and coaches to assess their team’s status and, if necessary, make significant changes.
Department managers of catering companies are similar in many ways to baseball managers and coaches. Both baseball managers and catering company managers must:
- Evaluate and hire the best players. The talent pool is wide and deep; it is up to managers to recruit those who will make the best team.
- Manage an eclectic group with varying competencies and experience. A locker room, like a sales office, kitchen, or staffing office, holds a lot of different personalities and skill sets. Good managers know how to set a tone that fosters teamwork and encourages big wins.
- Drill players continuously on the sport's fundamentals. Just because we've reached the big leagues, it doesn't mean we can skip batting practice. Catering managers must make sure salespeople are strengthening their negotiating techniques, cooks are fine-tuning their knife skills, and servers are refining their hospitality skills.
- Eliminate those who don't produce or who cannot blend with the program. Sometimes, regardless of how well-liked or seemingly talented a player is, they just don't blend with the team. It falls to manager and coaches to cut these people so they can take their talents somewhere they can be successful.
- Be ruthless when examining systems. Be willing to throw out the old and bring in the new. "That's the way we've always done it" is one of the worst things a manager or coach can say. Instead, do what needs to be done to win, even if it's new or unfamiliar.
Three months into the baseball season, managers and coaches should re-evaluate what is working on their teams and what needs tweaking. Thankfully for caterers, our season goes long past October and it’s never too late for our department managers to emulate the successful techniques of World Series-winning coaches.
Next at bat: The Players
10. There's not enough time to make the improvements we need.
9. We got beat on price.
8. Let's just get someone - anyone! - to fill the position.
7. That's not how the cooks/servers/salespeople like to do things.
6. Let's just win the business. We can figure out how to make it happen and worry about costs later.
5. I basically know how much everything costs.
4. We don't have any theft; I know most of my crew.
3. I'll make up for the price break somewhere else.
2. Since we own our equipment, we don't have to charge the client for equipment.
And the #1 Thing a Caterer Should Never Say...
1. Let me have one for the road.
One of the questions I was asked after my Catersource presentation on the Sales Pipeline was about which Customer Relationship Management system I recommend. CRMs are a software or cloud-based tool for managing your communication with current and potential clients. They can help organize and track every interaction you have with a customer.
I say “can help” because it’s important to note that the effectiveness of any system you choose will only equal the amount of commitment you make to it. Collaborative features won’t benefit your sales team if some people refuse to adopt the program. Likewise, if you don’t use the program consistently (for example, you casually meet with a client but don’t track it in your schedule), your data will be incomplete.
It is also important to make sure that any system you use is a good fit for your current business model, current volume, and the volume you are projecting in the next few years. You will waste a lot of time switching systems if you outgrow one, and if you’re a small operation, you probably don’t need all the bells and whistles of some of the more complicated systems available.
With those caveats in place, I suggest looking into Salesforce CRM or utilizing the CRM features in Caterease. Both include tools which can greatly benefit a sales team.
Just remember: CRMs are a tool to support your sales effort. They cannot replace the hard work of selling and they should not take time away from your interactions with your clients.
For caterers, the frenzy of holiday planning is at its pinnacle. It’s all we can do to corral clients for last moment selections, secure rental and decor orders, fulfill staffing assignments, and ensure that, with a few deep breaths, a wipe of the brow, and many sleepless nights, parties go off without a hitch. But before popping the champagne in celebration of having survived the holidays, remember that the job continues until well after the last gingerbread man is served.
All too often, attentive customer service ends when the event ends. However, a proactive post-event strategy is as important as your pre-event sales process. It is a key to developing ongoing business and client trust. Here is a post event step-by-step strategy:
- Call client the next day to say "thank you" and include a short event debrief. For more involved events, schedule a conference call or meeting.
- Call venue contact to review execution of the event.
- Hand write a Thank You to the client.
- Review event reports from Sales Executive, Chef and Supervisor.
- Generate a P&L.
- Create client/venue/vendor information files noting their preferences.
- Evaluate the client using a grading system based on criteria for your Best Fit Clients. Grading should be based on event revenue, profitability, frequency of events, ease of function, and client's willingness to promote your company.
- Request a client testimonial.
Following these steps after each event will help nurture your relationships with clients and venue managers. You will quickly find that a proactive and comprehensive post-event program leaves the sweetest taste and wraps up each event with the prettiest bow.
Exclusive! Here's a sneak peek at excerpts from an article that will soon appear in Catersource Magazine:
I recently began consulting with a busy catering group whose beverage packages were losing money. They knew that alcohol sales should generate great financial return and they couldn’t understand why that wasn’t happening for them. One look at their liquor storage room and I began to see the problem. First the door to the room was wide open and completely unattended. A couple questions revealed that there were half a dozen keys to the liquor room floating about. Secondly, there were no specific policies regarding packing or pre- and post-event inventories. Lastly, the bar staff were largely unsupervised, with no one responsible for on-site beverage management or consistent handling of the product. Without any monitoring of their liquid assets, this company might as well have been pouring all that booze down the drain.
Fortunately, these problems can be addressed with straightforward solutions rooted in focus and intentionality. I worked with this company to implement what we called The New Rules:
- Lock it up. We changed the lock to the liquor room and produced just 2 keys to the new locks. One is for the owner and one is for the kitchen manager or her assistant. They are required to sign the key in and out for each use.
- Write it down. An inventory sheet is posted outside the liquor room. The manager initials each item as it is removed, noting the date and time. Liquor pull sheets are produced for every event using a system that monitors inventory multiple times: when it arrives at the event site, when it is packed up after the event, and when it is returned to the shop.
- Keep your eyes open. Bar servers are now carefully schooled in proper bar management. They are taught to provide consistent and measured pours, and they are regarded for high performance. They have been enlisted in the company's goal to improve beverage profits and their new sense of purpose shows in their careful efforts.
It may seem that The New Rules are redundant or over-the-top, but because good bar management can play such a dramatic role in increasing profitability, it's worth being vigilant in this area. Within a short timeframe, my client began to see increased margins on liquor sales. Even better, the new discipline has begun to carry over to other areas of the business.
My wife, Carole, planned a wonderful birthday weekend for me in Milwaukee. (No gifts please. Your readership and comments are gifts enough.) The trip included a Brewer’s game at Miller Park and a stay at one of the country’s coolest and best-run hotels, The Iron Horse. Carole announced that she had a surprise outing planned during our stay. Immediately, I thought…a tour of the Harley Davidson Museum or, better yet, enrollment in Harley’s Motorcycle Boot Camp. I imagined myself decked in black leather, boots, and a shiny helmet racing on a V-Rod, jumping canyons à la Evel Knievel. Instead, we drove down a pretty little country road to a quaint museum called Ten Chimneys in Genesee Depot. Ten Chimneys is the famed estate of the iconic couple of theatre’s Golden Age, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. While not what I had envisioned, it was, indeed, a surprise and the experience was wonderful.
The Lunts staged their house as if it were a Broadway set. Each room is designed in a different motif, with a liveliness and style that lured Hollywood and Broadway luminaries. Rooms magically combine the garish with the elegant. Some rooms are named appropriately to reflect eras of the theatre. Others touch on humor like "The Flirtation Room." Bedrooms are named for beloved guests such as Laurence Olivier, Katharine Hepburn, and Noël Coward.
The Lunts went to great lengths to make their guests feel welcome and to create for them memorable experiences. Guests were hosted in beautiful suites, wined, dined, entertained, and bestowed with gifts. The Lunts maintained that hospitality is all about thoughtful planning, theatricality, and attention to detail.
"Thoughtful planning, theatricality, and attention-to-detail.” The very pillars that caterers and hospitality professionals hold dear. They are also the foundation that makes The Iron Horse such a special hotel. So, while I didn't take Harley lessons, I did take a lesson from the famous couple: we should imagine ourselves as theatrical producers or directors. We set the stage and create the magic so that our clients may star. As they take their bows, we can await the best of all client requests: “Encore!’’
Every summer, my family vacations on Cape Cod because, in the words of the old Patti Page song, we're “fond of sand dunes and salty air/Quaint little villages here and there....” As anyone who has visited the area can tell you, behind each of those sand dunes stands a seemingly endless string of restaurants and clam shacks with identical menus and interchangeable names (Ahab's, Capt’n Parker's, The Yankee Clipper…). Each establishment boasts “The Cape's Best Lobsters/Chowder/Fried Clams.” You can almost imagine that every buttery lobster roll or fried seafood plate is cooked in the same gigantic kitchen.
Yet, for all of their similarities, some of these spots thrive year after year while others last only to the end of the season. Why do these restaurants have varying levels of success when they are all offering the exact same menu? The difference is in the execution:
- The successful spots offer exceptional hospitality. Note the smiling hosts, caring managers, and well-trained servers. At the shack with the longest line of diners, you never have to ask a sluggish waiter to wipe ketchup from the duct taped vinyl booth or to bring silverware with the meal.
- Success is also based on operational systems that are simple and dependable. Sunburned families can trust that their piping hot dinner will arrive at the table before the cranky younger cousin finishes a second baggie of oyster crackers.
- The best restaurants are well-tended with clean rest rooms, new looking menu boards, and freshly painted trim. Patrons aren't greeted by the unappetizing scent of cheap disinfectant, stale beer, old cooking oil, or the dreaded "fishy" smell.
Even in the most casual settings, the secrets to success in hospitality are not a mystery. Placing a premium on care, cleanliness, and consistency makes all the difference. The companies who do this are the most financially stable and earn an ever-growing fan base.
Having returned to Chicago some ten pounds heavier, I find myself dreaming of my loved ones, laughing around a table filled with succulent lobsters, a quahog or two, and a round of ice cold beer. Patti Page was right:
If you spend an evening you'll want to stay
Watching the moonlight on Cape Cod Bay.
How far would you travel for good barbecue?
I never thought I'd hop a plane for grilled meat, but Bovinova 2012 changed my mind. Held annually in Greenville, South Carolina, this unique event raises funds for the Wounded Warrior Project and celebrates the thrill-of-the-grill in grand style. This year's menu included lamb, goat, chicken, turkey, whole pigs, 1 whole cow (approx. 1,200 lbs), and 1 whole llama. There was also great paella and numerous side dishes for those actually seeking a balanced menu. Add the generous contributions of home-brewers passing pitchers of their latest creation and you have a food festival well worth the airfare.
This event was miles away from Villeroy & Boch china and tuxedoed waiters, but I observed many parallels to the more traditional catering model of our consulting clients. Event planning, at its most cohesive, isn't unique to any specific style of entertaining. Although Bovinova took place in the great outdoors and was as casual an event as you can imagine, the same principles for exceptional event orchestration were in play. I witnessed creative menu design, careful quantity control, and safe food handling. There was the coordination of essential equipment, tents, lighting, and the installation of specially designed racks and rotisseries for those whole roasts. A team of proactive and well-instructed staff managed the location, music, and other entertainment. A strong outreach effort had attracted sponsorship and TV crews from The Cooking Channel, and a concentrated social media campaign ensured healthy ticket sales to an eclectic and fun-seeking group of patrons. All of these elements added up to a fun event benefiting an important cause.
Whether you are serving BBQ or truffled foie gras, the success of any event is dependent on attention-to-detail, enthusiastic service, and a menu that exceeds the highest expectations. Kudos to my friend, Jeff Bannister, and the entire Bovinova team for hosting a wildly successful event. Lastly, if you are interested in tasting the llama for yourself, check out www.bovinova.com and put the 2013 date on your calendar.
I was recently interviewed by Bob Ryals, the host of "Business of Foodservice" on FoodserviceRadio.net, for my thoughts on hiring and managing staff. We talk about the best ways
to hire the right people and how to develop a staffing program renowned for "Ninja Service." Listen now!
I came across an article titled “Culinary Mercenaries” that describes chefs as temperamental, egotistical, rootless, and unreliable. Many of you will vehemently argue against the article but some of you may recognize the traits of your chefs in these descriptions (or, worse, maybe you recognize yourself?!). To be fair, for every chef depicted in the article, there is at least one non-culinary boss who may be described as having similar poor management skills. It is no secret that the tensions between employer and employee can sometimes resemble a battlefield more than a workplace, and it’s easy to imagine chefs as soldiers-for-hire, willing to pack up their knives at the slightest provocation.
During a recent consulting assignment, the troubled owner of a popular catering company complained that his company had burned through yet another chef. I reflected on my own HR successes and failures. I also thought about the noted companies that manage to retain employees for upwards of 25 years. Why are these companies successful and others not?
I shared with my client that the success of these companies seems to begin with the leadership style and behavior of the person in charge. In these models, the leaders set an example of stellar and consistent behavior. They work to create a strong culture and a safe, stimulating work environment. They compensate employees fairly and encourage a mutual trust. They also refused to tolerate employees who fail to follow their leadership cues.
My client took time to consider this and ways that he might adjust his mindset and actions, In tandem, we created a program with which to evaluate the competencies, qualities, and skills of each current employee and new hire. Will these efforts pay off? Time will tell but he and I are both optimistic.
Ultimately, we cannot dictate how employees behave. We can hire smartly, set a fine example, hold employees accountable, and terminate the bad ones. There will always be workers who hop from gig to gig like soldiers-for-hire but, as owners and managers, it is our job to run our companies as businesses and avoid being dragged down into the trenches.
A perfect staff uniform is essential to your company’s success. Long before clients and guests enjoy a first sip of wine or taste of hors d’oeuvre, they form an impression based on the image of your staff. When the planner, chef, and server are carefully attired, neatly groomed, and professionally poised, clients relax and guests trust that they are in good hands.
I recently consulted with a company whose strong sales team generated smart proposals and whose Chef was quite talented. Clients seemed fairly pleased with their overall performance but the company failed to win repeat business or client referrals. The reason became clear almost at once and was easy to remedy.
The staff’s appearance was in complete disarray. Their uniforms were not standardized and their general presentation was sloppy. Additionally, the staff arrived to event sites in common street clothes. It was not unusual to see servers enter a client’s home wearing any combination of leather wrist bands, tank tops, hoodies, eye-catching jewelry, open toed sandals, or tennis shoes. One memorable outfit was composed of a Foo Fighters tee-shirt, bathing suit, and flip flops! With tuxedo bags slung over shoulders, these young men and women often juggled lattes, cell phones, cigarettes, and bags of fried food.
The company’s management did a complete makeover of its staff wear so that servers and chefs appeared starched and polished in standardized uniforms. Even the sales team was coached by an image consultant. Servers and chefs were instructed to arrive to events in full uniform, properly groomed, with straight posture and a friendly smile. No cigarettes or fast food were permitted once in uniform. Numerous staff members later volunteered that they felt new pride in their jobs and believed that their uniform helped them reach this professionalism. Within no time, the company tracked a significant increase in repeat business and referrals.
Proper attire and focus on image reflect care and respect for all concerned. When clients and guests see how much care your company puts into presenting a polished appearance, they will feel confident in your attention to all the other details that combine to make a great event. As much as good food and flawless event orchestration contribute to the overall catering experience, don't forget that presentation will prove your strongest suit. So, regardless of your company's style or mission, a thorough review of uniform policy is beneficial. Even if the preferred choice of ensemble is a colorful tee with a swimsuit!