Make it small and take it outside—two of the top trends in catering today. Indeed, small plates, such as tapas, and al fresco dining—also known as the good old-fashioned picnic—remain strong client-pleasers for major caterers. The findings come from the latest edition of the Special Events 25 Great, Big Caterers List."
"Call it what you will," says Stewart Glass, president of Catering by Michaels of Morton Grove, Ill., the little-bite trend "is huge."
"Everything is mini, on a stick, on a tiny plate, in a petite stemmed glass, in a 'push-up' vessel, in a spoon, and the list goes on," Glass says. "We have used this to bring more menu variety to events. This is also very conducive to menus based on street food, which is another growing trend."
Liz Neumark, founder and CEO of New York-based Great Performances, agrees. "Guests love the ability to taste a lot of different flavors without feeling like they overate," she says. "We are seeing the trend evolve into desserts as well, which is perfect for summertime."
John Crisafulli, head of San Diego-based Behind the Scenes, notes that small plates were big at corporate hospitality events his company produced during the Rose Bowl game in January. "Many of our menus were small-plate/tapas-style offerings," he says, "including many chef stations with the menu items being prepared fresh for the guests and custom-seasoned to taste."
SMALL + STATION
Merging two big trends--small plates with stations--is hit for Orlando, Fla.-based Puff 'N Stuff Catering and Events. "We promote small plates as a profitable and engaging menu through our chef bars," notes president and owner Warren Dietel. "This style offers clients and their guests great menu variety, entertainment and the opportunity to interact with our chefs while they are preparing their food. And because our chefs finish the dishes live for guests, they are delighted with fresh, restaurant-quality cuisine."
Along with small plates, offering "more options is still the trend," says Greg Karl, president and chief operating officer of Centennial, Colo.-based Epicurean Culinary Group. "Clients want to be able to experience 'foodertainment'--an experience with food. That can be traditional food done exceptionally or modern flavors, but give them more variety."
PICNICS STAY POPULAR
The cozy appeal of picnics and the desire on the part of many clients to avoid the appearance of extravagance prompted many caterers to add picnics to their repertories over the past two years, at events from ranging from bridal receptions to board meetings.
The picnic trend is still strong at Atlanta-based A Legendary Event. Even as companies emerge from the recession, picnics "seem to be more for the company thanking and rewarding employees and their families for sticking in there through the rough times," notes company CEO and founder Tony Conway, CMP.
With a reputation born on East Texas barbecue, Dallas-based Eddie Deen is a picnic natural. "Summer picnics have always been a large part of our business," notes Aaron Evans, the company's vice president of sales and marketing, citing, "budget-conscious barbecues, grilled hamburgers and more."
What's changing: "What we have also seen is people like a diverse selection of vegetables," Evans says. "Tasty, rich vegetables that feel like home."
But not all caterers find profit in picnics.
While picnics are a factor in his region, "There are a number of specialized picnic providers in our area," Dietel says, "making this an inefficient segment to pursue."
And picnics are not universally appealing, notes Debra Lykkemark, CEO and president of Culinary Capers Catering, with operations in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Beijing.
"Picnics have never been a big part of our business in Canada or China," Lykkemark explains. "In the U.S., many companies have picnics as a company get-together and team-building opportunity. This is not as common in China or Canada."
NEXT ON THE MENU
The big caterers have big plans for new offerings this year.
"For us, the next incarnation of budget-friendly food is our food truck," Neumark notes. "The 'Katchkie If You Can' food truck will be hitting the New York City streets this summer with creative, farm-fresh fare."
"Our new gastropub beer paired menu has been a big hit with our corporate clients and even some recent wedding receptions," Crisafulli notes. "We are also offering infused water shots with many small-plate menu items that are a big hit during the summer months."