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SECRETS OF FINDING THE FINEST FOOD IMAGINE you are catering the ultimate dinner party. But the appetizer tray features chunks of processed cheese instead of the double-cream French Brie you had planned. The bouillabaisse is devoid of seafood, and the chef has just informed you there are no cherries for the jubilee sauce. Aaack!!

This nightmare catering scenario could never happen, could it? Well, if you can't find the right food supplier, this bad dream could be your reality.

Searching for food sources that are reliable as well as creative is an ongoing process for those in the catering industry.

SIZE VS. SPECIALIZATION Large national distributors offer convenience and variety.

Blue Plate Catering in Chicago recently contracted with national distributor Alliant Foods to consolidate its food-purchasing process. "Con-solidating our perishables purchases allows us to take advantage of better buying power by setting up a program with a national vendor, but we would have never done it if it meant compromising quality," explains Ed Mugneni, Blue Plate director of operations. "We expect to save at least a point off our food cost. Also, there's the beauty of 24/7 service via Alliant's Internet Web site, AlliantLink, so our chefs and purchasing agents can log onto the system from anywhere, which eliminates a lot of mispicks."

McCall Associates, a full-service catering and event company in San Francisco, blends the price savings of large vendors and the quality associated with smaller suppliers. With annual catering sales in the $22 million range, McCall works with most vendors via annual purchasing contracts.

"We'll commit to buying 1,000 cases of wine or 20 tons of shrimp, but we don't want it all right now," president Stephen Denison says. "Our suppliers lock in the price for a year and warehouse our foodstuffs for us in exchange for our guarantee that we'll take delivery of a set amount between August of one year and the end of the following June. There's no storage problem, no waste and a cost benefit for us."

Specialty or "artisan" food vendors that specialize in just one product, such as goat's milk cheese, whole-grain breads or herb-infused cooking oils, have grown rapidly during the past decade.

"You're more likely to get something different, not the same old stuff, when you deal with an independent vendor," says John Olde, owner of Cloud Nine Catering of Littleton, Colo.

THE LOCAL TOUCH Olde recently discovered a small cake and pie vendor called Sweetie Pies in the Denver area. Olde was delighted to discover that this particular vendor offered "specialty items like Turtle Cake, with flavors you don't find elsewhere, which is what we like to offer our catering clients."

Deborah Macfie, director of sales for Toronto-based Gourmet Cuisine, says: "Clients today want food that's authentic, so our chef is really in tune with the artisan suppliers. We prefer to use local Canadian products when possible, whether it's bison, lamb or salmon. The Royal Winter Faire we participate in annually uses all Canadian product, even the wines."

Catering clients are becoming more demanding in their food choices thanks to international travel.

"Caterers often come to us because their client was just in Australia or Africa, and now they're looking to replicate the kinds of meals they enjoyed in those places at a party," says Russ McCurdy, founder of Seattle's Finest Exotic Meats. "After the Summer 2000 Olympics in Sydney, [Australia,] we were deluged with requests for kangaroo meat, one of the items served on the Olympic training menu."

Although most specialty produce vendors can deliver out of season, the price tag can prove hefty. "It gets pretty expensive when you have to handpick items to satisfy size and length requirements," explains Karen Caplan, president of Frieda's in Los Alamitos, Calif. "We recently had a caterer call us for 400 Anaheim chiles that were exactly 4 inches in length. It was doable, but expensive."

Caplan notes that caterers looking for specific ingredients out of season often find success by being flexible with a close substitution recommended by their vendor. Frieda's sends a weekly availability Hot Sheet via e-mail to catering businesses upon request ([email protected]) to let customers know what's in season.

"We view our relationships with our food vendors as partnerships," Denison says. "It's the only way to win."

RESOURCES: Blue Plate Catering, 312/421-6666; Cloud Nine Catering, 303/347-5543; Frieda's, 714/826-6100; Gourmet Cuisine, 416/461-5890; McCall Associates, 415/552-8550; Seattle's Finest Exotic Meats, 800/680-4375

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