SIMPLY BECAUSE AN event's catering budget is slim doesn't mean guests will be leaving on an empty stomach. Whether by selecting seasonal menu items or omitting expensive serving pieces, these off-premise caterers share their best budget-stretching strategies.
Rob Hoaglin, president of Hoaglin Fine Catering in Indianapolis, says that catering budgets are “loosening up a little, but people are still pretty conservative and a little tentative about the economy.” Hoaglin came up with a solution to meet demand for frugal fare, forming his lower priced American Pie Catering division four years ago. “Many of our clients used us for their big Christmas dinner or museum opening, but when it came to something like a company picnic they assumed that A, we wouldn't do it or B, based on the price points of Hoaglin Fine Catering, it wouldn't be within their budget,” Hoaglin explains.
He points out that even though American Pie serves casual fare, clients still demand quality cuisine. “We're not dumping something out of a box and throwing it in an oven or deep fryer,” he says, “but the presentation is different. Clients aren't getting the high-end china, the sterling silver and the flowers, but they are getting healthy, house-made food at a more reasonable cost.”
Christine Bib, president of Christine Bib Catering in Toronto, explains that while her corporate clients are asking her “to supply the same menu I did three or four years ago at a lesser price,” she finds that when she educates them about costs, they “are willing to adjust their expectations so a less expensive menu will suit their needs.”
Bib also notes that some of her social clients are coming up with creative cost-cutting measures of their own. “For social catering, I am not being asked to reduce prices, but I find that [clients] are savvy and will supply store-bought or homemade items to supplement items they want supplied by the caterer,” she says.
It's no surprise that labor-intensive styles such as French service can quickly increase catering costs, as they require a larger wait staff to attend to the food. Selecting alternative service styles is one method of keeping expenses down.
For clients on a budget, “Instead of a sit-down dinner, we suggest cold hors d'oeuvre set out on pillars throughout the venue, followed by chef-attended food stations,” explains Debra Lykkemark, president of Culinary Capers Catering in Vancouver, British Columbia. “Food at the stations should be filling and easy to eat standing up so you don't need to rent tables, chairs and linen.” She advises using less expensive cuts of meat or seafood served with a starch or vegetable such as potatoes, rice, noodles, bread or salad. A station offering sliced beef on a baguette grilled in a panini press and served with a pot of au jus and shoestring fries is one popular choice. “Dinner in a glass” — such as risotto, mashed potatoes topped with beef bourguignonne, or chicken cacciatore served in a martini glass — is another example of stylish fare that won't break the budget.
While buffets can cut the service cost associated with plated meals, they don't necessarily lower food cost because guests might keep refilling their plates. For that reason, “Plated dinners can be less expensive due to portion control,” Bib says. “There may be times that a buffet is needed, in which case if the budget is low, we rent stainless chafers and set some inexpensive potted plants around the chafers to create a garden effect.”
Using seasonal, local ingredients not only boosts flavor, but saves money. “In season, locally produced food is always less expensive and better, not only for the pocketbook, but also for the environment,” Bib says. “This is often a good way to cut costs while retaining excellent quality.”
Lykkemark says that while her clients appreciate the appeal of local ingredients, they still “are willing to pay more to get food that is top quality and politically correct, such as wild salmon instead of farmed salmon, free-range chicken, and sablefish instead of sea bass.”
Many ethnic cuisines, such as Chinese and Indian, feature dishes that add flavor to menus while curbing costs.
“You can do a lot of things with many Asian cuisines because they use a lot of vegetables and noodles — things that aren't very expensive, but have substance and great flavor,” Hoaglin says. “They combine many elements that appeal to a client trying to feed a large group inexpensively while accommodating different tastes and dietary needs.”
Catering events on a budget is challenging, but it doesn't necessarily mean saying farewell to filet or bidding adieu to ahi. These pricey treats can still make an appearance on the menu, albeit in smaller quantities. “In my experience, a budget just means small bits of lobster, caviar, shrimp and beef tenderloin,” Bib says. When money is tight, “We include a taste, not a chunk, of such high-end foods.”
Christine Bib Catering, 416/533-6832; Culinary Capers Catering, 604/875-0123; Hoaglin Fine Catering/American Pie Catering, 317/924-3389
Tips for stretching your catering dollar:
“We do a number of Asian stations and serve the food in little [take-out] boxes that people can carry around — it eliminates the cost of wait staff that would be needed for table service.”
— Rob Hoaglin
“Serve soup in a small espresso cup with a tiny grilled panini on the side. Our favorite: butternut squash and pear soup with a grilled shiitake mushroom sandwich.”
— Debra Lykkemark
“If a budget is particularly cost-conscious, we suggest offering half the amount of hors d'oeuvre — which are labor intensive — and opting for less expensive entrees such as chicken or pasta, which can be prepared elegantly.”
— Christine Bib