It takes hustle and finesse to get a picture-perfect, palate-satisfying meal from your kitchen to the diner’s plate in the next room. It’s trickier still when you’re filling dozens or even hundreds of plates at an event located miles away.
Such is the challenge of catering. One common misstep is allowing insufficient time for catering delivery, says Jody Birnbaum, former owner of a catering business in Chicago for 20-plus years and president/founder of Caterconsult Inc. in Buffalo Grove, Illinois.
“You also need to think about where you’ll park,” she says, “and how you’ll unload. The logistics are critical. If it’s a large order or an event that requires serving food rather than dropping it off, you absolutely must do an advance site inspection.”
Despite delivery challenges, catering can be a profitable sideline. As an add-on for an existing restaurant, catering is “not a huge investment,” Birnbaum says. Catering work often can be done during a restaurant’s slower hours, using equipment and staff you already have. “Catering can produce a good revenue stream,” she says, “if you do it right.”
Diana Vallorz has catered diverse events, such as pizza for 2,000 people at a high-tech firm and a gathering at a mountaintop vineyard. Her catering radius extends 30 minutes around the San Jose, California location of Tony & Alba’s Pizza & Pasta, which she bought last June from her parents. It’s one of three Tony & Alba’s founded by her parents; her brother now runs the other two.
The catering menu includes pizza, pasta and other entreés — including veal Parmesan, prime rib and more — plus salads, appetizers and desserts. With years of catering experience, Vallorz says getting various dishes ready to go out the door simultaneously is “the easy part.”
“We time everything,” she says. “We make salads ahead and put them in the refrigerator. We prepare entrees last. Then we bag it all up and get it out. That’s not the hard part.”
So what is? Vallorz’s response comes quickly. “Finding good drivers,” she says.
Drivers must pay attention to details, she explains, to make sure all dishes and supplies get into the delivery vehicle. It’s easy to forget items that are out of sight, such as salads in the refrigerator. “If I’m busy in the restaurant,” she says, “I may not be able to check if the driver has everything. Also, drivers must have a good personality. They’re representing the company.”
Jeff Sayers, co-owner with Mark Negro of Mangia Pizza in Austin, Texas, agrees that delivery personnel are key to catering success. “They check the packaging,” Sayers says, “and put the final blessing on the order.”
Mangia caters from four of its five locations. At each restaurant, managers act as overseers to get orders prepared and packaged for delivery. “If it’s an event for 100 or more,” Sayers says, “a manager or owner goes out with the order to be sure everything gets set up properly.”
Proper equipment is also critical for successful delivery. “We have large Igloo coolers,” Sayers says, “and big Cambro insulated boxes on wheels that roll right into the vehicle and then into the event.”
One of Mangia’s catering vehicles is a custom truck with two compartments for food. It’s half warming oven, half refrigeration unit. “We use that for bigger events,” Sayers says. “We can pull up somewhere with 50 pizzas and keep them warm.”
Catering demands careful planning and coordination, Sayers says, from the moment of taking the order through delivery and cleanup. “You can’t take catering lightly,” he says. “If you have a problem at the event, it’s not like you just messed up a four-top. You could make yourself look bad in front of hundreds of people. Catering is an extension of your restaurant and your reputation.”
Equipment and timing are critical elements in flawless catering delivery, says Paul Dzubnar, CEO of Green Mill Restaurants, Inc. in St. Paul, Minnesota. Green Mill, which caters from 28 restaurants in Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Kansas, began its centralized catering operation in fall 2009. It’s centralized in the sense that the St. Paul headquarters handles sales, marketing and store-level support.
“Some say you need to have the business before you outlay much capital to buy catering equipment,” Dzubnar says. “My thought was we needed the right equipment before we could execute catering events properly. We wanted all the tools in the toolbox. We bought a catering van and got it logo-ed up. We got Cambros and other equipment to transfer food, and we bought dinnerware, silverware and so on.”
Green Mill now has four catering delivery vans. Dzubnar says it’s fairly easy to gauge when to add another. “We get bookings well in advance,” he says. “These aren’t overnight pop-ups. We can see when the schedule is filling up and it’s time to buy another van.” Bookings are mostly for corporate events and weddings.
As for timing, “Once you’ve done a certain type of catered event,” Dzubnar says, “it seems to repeat itself.” Green Mill keeps a log for each event, which helps future event planning. All new catering sites get an advance survey to assess logistics and equipment needs, and to check drive time.
Based on the first year, Green Mill projects $500,000 in catering sales for 2011. “With the economy in decline, you need sales,” Dzubnar says. “When sales don’t come to you, you have to go out to get them. Catering is a way to do that.”
Hot on the Spot
Georgia-based Blue Moon Pizza has added a new twist to its catering delivery in the Atlanta area. It’s a 1961 fire truck, painted (what else?) blue and outfitted with a pizza oven, refrigeration and running water. The truck goes to private functions such as movie sets and weddings.
“We drive up and start making pizzas on the spot,” says Kelvin Slater, Blue Moon’s co-owner.
Besides bringing in added revenues, the pizza truck allows Blue Moon to “get our product out there,” Slater says. “People who don’t normally come to our restaurant can get a taste. That’s a pretty good bonus.”
Dianne Molvig is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wisconsin.