Only so many customers can come through the door of a restaurant—and even that remains a challenge. According to The NPD Group, a market research company in Port Washington, N.Y., traffic continues to be sluggish, with restaurant visits expected to increase by only 1 percent this year. That may be, at least in part, why so many restaurateurs have been expanding their businesses remotely via catering.
The most essential ingredient needed to take advantage of this growth opportunity, say chefs and restaurateurs, besides offering quality food, is having the proper equipment. We asked three operators to name their must-have gear. Through trial and error, these are the pieces they say have helped increase efficiency and boost off-site business.
A master of multitasking
Chef-restaurateur Jenn Louis of Lincoln Restaurant and Sunshine Tavern in Portland, Ore., finds that a mobile cooking station performs many prep and cooking functions in one compact unit. Basically a portable cart with a flat, circular cooktop and shelves, “this piece of equipment helps me stay as self-contained as possible,” says Louis, who does events for 200 people on average through her catering arm, Culinary Artistry. Her unit has countertop room for marinating meat; a steel cooking surface that adapts to grilling, sauteing and more; and easy-to-access storage.
“It cooks like a plancha, and I can do bread with it, meat, vegetables—it’s pretty versatile,” Louis says. It’s also safer to use, she says, because the cooking surface is heated underneath by inner and outer gas-tube burners, eliminating the risk of open flames.
An all-in-one mobile cooking station can wheel to indoor or outdoor events.
Lightening the load
The strain of lugging heavy, bulky containers to catering sites was a problem for Jill Dobias, who runs Joe & Misses Doe Restaurant and Event Catering in New York City with her husband. In place of the rigid cases many caterers rely on—which also are on the expensive side, she says—she switched to roomy insulated nylon catering bags.
“They are lighter-weight and less costly, yet perform the same [food-safety] function,” says Dobias. “The most important thing in catering is to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.” Dobias, who does events for 50 to 500 people, says the bags are available in sizes that can fit and stack half and full sheet pans.
Soft-sided insulated bags ease the burden of carrying food off-site.
Driving out-of-house business
The magic bullet for Minneapolis-based Famous Dave’s, which handles parties from 10 to 17,000, is a catering truck with refrigeration, holding and heating capabilities. Previously, the 200-unit Famous Dave’s transported all of its cooked food in refrigerated trucks and vans. The new vehicles are tricked out with convection holding ovens and a 110/115-volt oven, along with refrigeration and freezing units, all run on generator power. The multiple pieces work together to keep food safe—below 40 degrees and over 165 degrees.
The trucks also feature built-in shelving, alleviating the need for bulky hot boxes and storage units. “One truck can easily work an event for 800 to 1,000 people,” says Matthew Cardoza, national director of catering. “So it really increases efficiency and productivity for us.”
According to Famous Dave’s annual report, catering accounted for approximately 10 percent of net sales in 2014, compared to 9.4 percent in 2013. It is one of two growth areas for the chain (the other is takeout business, which grew marginally).
Each restaurant now is equipped with one of the trucks. The vehicle also holds up to six people in transport, guaranteeing that a full staff can come along with the food, says Cardoza.