Four Keys to Catering Success

By | January 1st, 2008
Summing It Up

• Tastings are a huge opportunity to show off in person what your club has to offer.

• Customizing allows a catering manager or chef to share in the excitement of the affair. When done right, the client will trust the vision and expertise of the manager/chef to create an extraordinary event.

• Being creative, taking risks, and “making the impossible possible” will lead to more wedding and banquet business.

Building a great banquet and wedding business begins with a full commitment to customer service.    Effective event planning, tastings, and customized menus and themes can add flair to the foundation.

Building effective customer relations is one of those hidden, must-have qualities for any club chef or catering director. An open pipeline of communication and an underlying commitment to customer service will generate the most wedding and banquet business. The success of this “catering to your catering” hinges on a handful of critical areas.

Getting to “Yes”
Banquet customers are getting bolder about making it clear that “No” is simply not an option. Properties are finding, though, that the greater the risk, the greater the reward.

“In this day and age, ‘no’ should only come from the member,” says Don Smith, Executive Chef at St. Charles (Ill.) Country Club. “Show them what it will take, and the costs involved in their special requests, and let them to be the one to say no. If they say yes, then make it happen.”

Smith suggests maximizing relationships with major purveyors and suppliers, and also being resourceful to find what clients need.

“If [a client] wants a jazz quartet but doesn’t want to pay, go to the local high school—you can get a band that sounds professional for little or nothing,” he says. “Get creative—that’s what we do, isn’t it?”

Ask Glenn Crossman, Executive Director at Glenmore Country Club in Keswick, Va., to get creative, and you’ll start to see fireworks. Literally.

Glenmore CC is nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. With all of the historic charm of Charlottesville and the majestic backdrop of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate, this mild-mannered wedding destination will do just about anything its client requests. While its motto—and operational creed—is to offer the best quality, simple foods and wonderful service, the club has a reputation for going far beyond that, to make each client feel special.

First, Glenmore CC promises to never book more than one wedding a day. With this policy, it is better equipped to focus all energies on that day’s customer. “We are devoted to accommodating our client’s specific vision,” Crossman says.

From planning to catering, Crossman and his staff will take care of everything, achieving a level of excellence found in the most discerning establishments. What’s more, he’s garnered a reputation for “making the impossible possible.”

“We did a wedding once where the bride wanted fireworks to be set off, indoors, as the couple entered the room,” recalls Crossman. “I smiled and told her it wasn’t a problem, and that I would find a way to make it happen.”

His first thought was to make sure there wouldn’t be any legal issues involved with indoor pyrotechnics (there weren’t). His second was to contract a professional company to execute the request.

The event was held in the club’s Georgian-inspired ballroom, which was renovated in 1995 and boasts 48-foot ceilings—just high enough to not have to worry. The fireworks went off with a bang.

“Going the extra mile has helped our catering business in two important ways,” explains Crossman. “First, we get the reputation associated with our efforts. Second, we are able to upsell our service and subsequently pass the cost off to the client, reaping an even higher profit margin.”

The strategy is certainly working—Glenmore has couples booking events as many as two years in advance.

Open Call for Extras
It’s challenging enough to cater a charity golf event outside, in June, in South Carolina, for about 600 people. But what happens when the client requests prime rib, carved tableside?

“You find a way to make it work,” answers Executive Chef Peter Dixon of the Thornblade Club in Greer, S.C.
Dixon speaks from extensive experience. “At first, it sounded like an impossible request; but with a lot of planning, we were able to pull it off,” he reports. “We started planning in March. On the day of the event, we set up 10 mobile carving stations, with three to four people working each station.”
Not having enough manpower on his staff to execute the tasks at hand, Dixon tapped into his employee base, asking for friends or family who might want to help out in exchange for some free food and an extra $25.
Dixon was able to hire 120 “extras” to work for a mere 30 minutes.

“It was the fastest I’ve ever served 600 people,” he says. “And everyone—hired help included—had a great time!”
All the credit goes to the planning team, he says: “We had to constantly coordinate with each other to make sure we were all on the same page.”

Now in its 11th year at the club, the charity golf event with prime rib, carved tableside, has become something of a community tradition.

Matters of Taste
Proper attention to the sampling sessions that chefs, F&B Directors and Catering Managers must have with clients will not only determine the success of a specific event, but also hold the key to generating word-of-mouth referrals and repeat business.

“We offer complimentary tastings for all of our catered events,” says Linda Helm, Director of Catering for Heathrow (Fla.) Country Club. “Generally, it’s not common to do one for a regular banquet. We almost always do one, and sometimes two, for a wedding.”

Tastings are not only great opportunities to show off in person what a club has to offer, they also open the door for upselling higher-margin items. By letting clients see and taste the food in person, they are much more likely to add items to their menus.

“We are fortunate to have a chef who is willing to work with the client and be persuasive when developing a menu,” says Helm.

At one of Heathrow’s tastings, a couple can sample up to five dishes, plus a first course.
“A lot of times, the tasting adds interest for me,” notes Tommy Vitek, the club’s Executive Chef. “I get to push myself and my abilities outside of my comfort zone.”

Michael Garbin, Executive Chef at the Union League Club of Chicago, warns that it’s important to know your boundaries, though.

“If a couple requests something we aren’t familiar with, we do research, ask for help, and most importantly, do some trial dishes to make sure the product tastes and looks exactly as the customer expects,” Garbin says.

A tasting should be handled with systems and procedures similar to that of a small party. From the second customers walk in the door to the moment they leave, they should be treated as if it’s “the big day.”
“The client is going to pick up on the friendliness of the staff, the cleanliness of the club, and the overall feel,” says Heathrow’s Vitek. “The food can—and will—be fantastic, but you must not discount the importance of all of the other elements.” This includes having staff that is dressed professionally, and rooms that are decorated tastefully.
“Say you’re taking 20 of your friends out to a restaurant for dinner,” Vitek says. “You probably wouldn’t take them somewhere you’ve never been before, right? Well, that’s how we want to look at the tasting. We want them to fall in love with our club so that, as the event approaches, they can hype up the food to their guests. This will build the excitement for the event–and it’s the best kind of advertising for the club!”

At Glenmore CC, each tasting is a little bit different. Catering to clients’ individual needs and wants, Crossman will sit in during the tasting, to ensure everything is up to their standards.

“I tell my client to pick the menu items that sound the most interesting to them,” he says. “Being in Virginia, we have a number of local wineries we include on the menu, so we let the client try these wines as well.”

Once an event is booked, the tasting is complimentary for the bride and groom and two other guests. Each additional guest must pay $25 to attend.

“At the tasting, I want to make sure they are happy with everything they are trying,” Crossman says. “We get a lot of feedback from guests, especially with the type of food that Jason [Daniels, the club’s executive chef] provides—it’s a bit more innovative than is usually expected.”

Customized Menus
No client can be forced into using rigid banquet menus anymore. Whether they involve back-to-earth organic menus, truly ethnic dishes, fresh-faced social set-ups, or an innovative approach to a traditional feast, today’s wedding and banquet edibles are decadent, daring, and delicious.

Wedding and banquet foods don’t have to be formulaic; this proves especially true in clubs and resorts where chefs can bring a great deal of creative flair to the party.

“Today’s customers are much more food-savvy than previous generations, so they’re more demanding about menus,” says Helm. “They’ve taken cooking lessons or watched cooking shows on TV. They go out to dinner and they travel. They know there are plenty of ways to serve a boneless breast of chicken, and they expect a certain level of menu personalization.”
But developing custom menus around specific desires and preferences can be an expensive—and wasteful—process, if not managed correctly.

Having catered more than 400 weddings and banquets at Heathrow CC, Helm and Vitek are able to bring the proper measure of control to the menu-development process.

“We bring a great deal of credibility to the table,” says Helm. “Clients look to us to guide them when designing menus and receptions.”

Once a client has decided on a food presentation format, it’s time to talk turkey—or beef or fish. Catering directors like Crossman encourage clients to get personal. “Many couples become cautious when they should be assertive and show their personalities,” he says. He warns that a meal designed to appeal to everyone may end up being bland.
At Glenmore, Crossman and Executive Chef Daniels strive to help clients plan meals that will be as appetizing as they will be memorable.

Daniels sits down with clients and gets to know their likes and dislikes. He’ll explain his strengths and what he thinks might work best on a menu. “Being more of a wedding destination, we get a lot of ‘foodie’ clients,” Crossman notes. “So when Jason offers his opinions, the clients take him very seriously.”

Incorporating local wineries, seasonal foods, off-the-wall station concepts and even organic menus don’t faze chefs who are serious about real customer service.

“We’re seeing a lot of innovative station requests,” says Kelly Stefka, Catering Director at the Thornblade  Club. “One couple had a milkshake bar at their wedding. It was a complete mess, but the guests loved it!” Stefka knew that serving fresh-made milkshakes in “rocks” glasses had been a huge success after she received dozens of calls weeks after the event, complimenting the bar.

Customized menus can be huge revenue-drivers when managed correctly. The client needs to see the exact cost of what is being planned, and proceed accordingly.

“As long as they know the cost in advance, there will be no chance of ‘sticker shock,’ ” says Smith.
Customizing allows a catering manager or chef to share in the excitement of the affair. When done right, the client will trust the vision and expertise of the manager/chef to make an event extraordinary. This will not only lead to more immediate revenue, but also future business from word-of-mouth references.

Thinking Out of the Hotbox
At large parties, chefs typically have two ways to serve plated meals–—either “live,” or out of a hotbox or other piece of warming equipment. Both have their advantages and disadvantages.

With multiple banquet facilities on different floors of its downtown high-rise building, many of which are used at the same time, “live” service is almost impossible at The Union League Club of Chicago. The club compensates, says Garbin, by “making sure we are cooking and plating as close to the time of service, and also making sure food is not sitting in hot boxes for hours.”

“Be sure to look at the food to see if there is any bleeding of liquids or sauces,” he advises. “You want to maintain eye appeal.”

The Thornblade Club tries to serve as close to the time of service as possible, but also utilizes hotboxes for especially large events. “Make sure the hotbox stays hot,” says Dixon, who keeps his at around 180°F. “Make sure the plates are warm and the box is heated, but not too hot. You don’t want to further cook your food.”

At Heathrow, Vitek serves “live” more often than not. “When you’re at home and Mom’s cooking and you can smell the bacon, that’s when the bacon is done,” he notes. “There’s a very short window when food is at its best.”

Fortunately, Heathrow’s kitchen is designed for live action, with three steam wells in the middle and a large table for plating.

“When we have a huge event with a complicated dish, I take my black marker and write all over the table what component is to go where,” Vitek notes. “It’s like culinary connect-the-dots!”


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