Demanding clients, tough competition, a skittish economy — the environment for caterers is a challenging one. To see how one operator stays ahead of the pack, this month we interview Stephan Baroni, managing partner and chief operating officer of Tentation, the American arm of international catering/event design firm Potel et Chabot, based in Paris. In addition to its off-premise catering business, the New York operation holds exclusive contracts with Sotheby's, the Grand Ballroom at Manhattan Center Studios, Bulgari Cafe and Milk Studios.
Special Events Magazine: What are your social clients asking for today?
Stephan Baroni: Social clients differ in their needs because personal tastes generally have a big influence on what they like and don't like. They always desire quality foremost, followed by creativity and consistency. But many of them are also looking for something original and are often willing to stray from the traditional, in some cases requesting thematic menus that are reminiscent of an era gone by.
Q: What about your corporate clients?
A: There are those who seek classic elegance and those who venture into new territory with something so different and noticeable that it sets their event apart from everyone else's. For example, we recently did a large event for a designer where instead of the traditional buffet setup or specific themed stations, we created a streamlined buffet that incorporated a custom-made stainless steel service platform. The look resembles a modern, elevated sushi table. The items are advance-plated out of sight, then the plates are placed on top of the stainless counter. Since the debut of this style, we have been asked several times to feature it at other events. Themed events where the reason for the occasion is reinforced through one or more elements of the party such as tray decor, food style, specialty cocktails, service uniforms, invitations, etc., are one of the things we are known for.
Q: Do you see a difference in special event styles in the different counties in which you operate?
A: There are standard elements that you see over and over again, whether it's the passed trays of orange juice and premixed cocktails in France or numerous types of caviar and vodka in Russia. Oftentimes the most successful elements do not translate from country to country because of different customs and expectations. Guests in the U.S. are less receptive to certain types of food than guests in France. Often, however, we will be able to translate specific ideas to the American market or vice versa. For example, we began doing the martini bar a few years back — now it is requested in many other countries.
Q: Is Tentation adding services to take better care of your clients?
A: Tentation has recently developed a Style and Design department, which makes us more of a full-service provider. We now have the ability to better customize our services and fill the needs of the client looking for the themed/custom event. We also offer small arrangements and centerpieces to our exclusive locations. In addition, we are going to introduce a very high-end box lunch for our corporate clients incorporating real china and glassware packaged in an elegant, custom-made box. Of course it features first-class food. We also manage boardroom service for our best clients, such as Sotheby's. These clients often entertain abroad, and we offer them international affiliations as well, thus assuring them that when going to a foreign country they either work with us or a direct affiliate.
Q: What do you see as the biggest challenge facing event caterers today?
A: Most recently, it's keeping your piece of the pie or capturing more of it. For a while there was a new caterer established every day, particularly spinoffs from restaurants or hotels. Many of them realized that catering, while in the same industry, was very different and required a different operating model, which they didn't expect. Consequently the spinoffs either failed and closed or were eliminated following a downturn in business activity. Our biggest challenge currently is keeping ourselves fresh and new. We don't want to become the establishment caterer, nor reinvent ourselves every year, but rather be known as an innovative, creative, reliable and quality-driven caterer that makes our clients look good and makes their job easy.
Tentation's New York office may be reached at 212/564-7530.