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Picnics, Partnerships: Caterers Try New Tactics to Survive the Recession

The brutal recession has burned many caterers over the past year, with corporate business showing the sharpest decline. To cook up sales, some caterers are not only revamping the menus they offer for special events but also are venturing into entirely new segments, particularly budget-friendly picnics.

With corporate clients dropping from 75 percent of revenue last year down to less than half this year, Orlando, Fla.-based Puff 'n Stuff Catering is exploring many options, notes president and owner Warren Dietel, from the picnic market to a new commissary concept targeting convention centers, country clubs and other event food providers. Thanks to his high-volume production facility, Dietel is considering offering fresh, prepped food for other chefs to plate. "We are creating a line of hors d’oeuvre and center-plate options and will also custom-make items based on client requests," he notes.

Philadelphia-based Feastivities Events is so committed to the picnic market as a budget-friendly option for both corporate and social clients that the company has launched Philadelphia's Picnic Co.

"Although Feastivities has executed several picnics throughout our years, clients don't put 'Feastivities' and 'picnic catering' in the same sentence generally," says marketing and public relations director Scott Barnes. "We had to take action and re-brand ourselves into a more approachable and affordable caterer." He says the shift has been "successful and profitable for us."

And Feastivities is spreading the picnic gospel. Along with "cousin" caterers Different Tastes in Boston and Catering by Design in Denver, Feastivities last week announced the debut of MAJIC, a picnic marketing package available to caterers in other cities.

High-end Miami-based A Joy Wallace Catering Production & Design Team is also poised to launch a picnic division within a few weeks, according to marketing director John McPhee. And in another departure from the past, the company now offers package menus.

The company's lower priced "Pretty Packages" feature smaller protein portions and limited menu selections yet great presentation, McPhee says.

The result "has been astounding," he says. "The venues where we are a preferred vendor now realize that we are in the price range of most of their clients. Our referrals from venues have increased exponentially. Many of our new social clients do not even realize that they are viewing a value-based proposal. Our sales team has been able to create a proposal from our package menus in a third of the time as a customized proposal created from scratch. It has been a well-received and hugely successful project."

Wendy Pashman, head of Chicago's Entertaining Co. is slicing costs wherever she can.

To cut down on printed marketing materials, she turns to Twitter and Facebook to reach out to clients, and is promoting "Casual Summer Menus" on her Web site. "Based on the current economy, 'casual' seems a better route than 'over the top,' and summer seems the best time to do it," she says. She is promoting a series of specialty bars such as the Mojito Bar, Lemonade Bar and Decanter Fresh Fruit Bar, which "alleviates the need to have a full liquor bar while raising the fun quotient."

Pashman also is courting the social client who now entertains at home. She points to a recent Technomic study claiming that a third of consumers say they are entertaining more at home this year than last, and 40 percent expect to increase at-home entertaining over the coming year. "We’re also seeing more brunch events, and we’ve been talking up 'Sunday as the new Saturday night,'" she says. "This fits in with less drinking, less food cost and a more casual, relaxed approach."

Her work is paying off; Pashman notes her company's sales year-to-date are ahead of 2008.

Caterer Jerry Edwards, CPCE, cautions against a complete overhaul of a company's core. "The trick is to chose the right reaction based upon the facts at hand," says the founder of Timonium, Md.-based Chef's Expressions.

"We saw that we were one of the very few high-end caterers in our marketplace remaining," he says."We also saw that clients had certain expectations of us. Lastly, the recession is going to be long-term, but we believe in our market, not a whole lot deeper. Therefore we decided to remain true to who we were. In fact, we have upped the message to the marketplace that we stand for top quality, and we are not changing what we do or how we do it. We are selling smarter menus and designs, but they are still 'up market, as the Brits like to say."

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