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Caterers are adapting new business models to recoup holiday sales

With big corporate parties out, the catering industry is creating small solutions to bring in some revenue this season.

December is usually the most robust month of the year for Chicago’s Catering by Michaels, with bookings of two to three corporate holiday parties or social events a day and a couple of hundred team members on deck. But throughout the past 10 months, as weddings and other celebrations continued to be canceled, the company has had to cobble together new ways to keep the business going. The holiday season is no exception.

Like restaurants, the economic impact of the pandemic has hit caterers particularly hard. “Our staff has been decimated,” says Lisa Ware, director of business development for Catering by Michaels. “There are only 30 team members currently working here, out of 250 pre-COVID.” Ware calls these employees the “Swiss army knives” of the company, as each has been strategically kept on because of their ability to juggle many tasks outside their normal job descriptions.

Everyone pitches in with kitchen duties, and right now, it’s all about cooking up holiday meal packages for smaller gatherings. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinners feature more traditional menus, with roast turkey, beef or ham and all the trimmings. Prices start at $29.95 per person.

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But for New Year’s Eve, Catering by Michael’s is doing a less traditional themed dinner for two. “We take a couple through the phases of a theatrical show, with an appetizer, salad, plated entree [herb persillade with fingerling potatoes, rainbow baby carrots and grilled caulini], and hazelnut mousse cake for dessert,” says Ware. Included in the $179 celebratory meal for two is a bottle of prosecco. “We’re also offering a Kids’ Matinee New Year’s Eve menu with mac and cheese, chicken fingers and assorted treats for $60,” she adds.

Multi-tasking employees also take on delivery, transporting all the meals in the greater Chicago area.

Ware admits that New Year’s Eve is not usually a big day for caterers, but believes this year will be different with everyone celebrating at home. Shaun Roberts, vice president of sales for New York City caterer Great Performances, agrees.

Great Performances created a “party in a box,” designed to serve four. It includes an array of hors d'oeuvres and dips along with heartier food, such as coconut shrimp with apricot-mustard sauce and seared beef tenderloin.

“We’ve been partnering with Baldor [a specialty food distributor] to deliver all our meals since September,” says Roberts. It started with Rosh Hashanah, then moved on to Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas. Orders are placed on Baldor’s website and cooked up at Great Performances’ kitchens.

Great Performances saw a lot of action with its Thanksgiving menu, and is seeing strong numbers for Christmas, Roberts adds. That menu revolves around a pomegranate -glazed spatch-cooked chicken with several sides, including chestnut-pomegranate Brussels sprouts and a festive yule log for dessert ($274 for four diners.)

All the packages are designed to serve four, but customers can expand the order to feed more and add a la carte items to the base menu, says Roberts. Everything is packed with reheating instructions and comments from the chefs.

Reaching corporate clients

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While these direct-to-consumer packages are bringing in some revenue, a much larger chunk of caterers’ holiday sales typically come from corporate clients. “We’re operating at about 10% of our normal holiday business,” says Ware.

As large Christmas parties are off the schedule this year, catering companies are marketing holiday gift baskets and festive meals for employers to bestow on employees. One of Catering by Michaels’ corporate clients ordered up 1,000 individual dinners delivered directly to employees’ homes in lieu of a party, says Ware. “Throughout December, we’ve delivered from two to 50 meals for clients to their employees,” she adds.

Some of Great Performances’ clients purchased meal kits to show employee appreciation, complete with all the necessary ingredients and access to a video class to watch the chef demo the recipes. “We learned that we needed to have a lot of flexibility in our offerings and personalize the experience for each client,” says Roberts.

Both caterers are also marketing holiday gift boxes—one of the ways Ware is fulfilling her “Swiss army knife” role. She was in charge of curating five gift box options that were rolled out pre-Thanksgiving. The “Winter Wonderland,” packed with hot chocolate mix, housemade mint marshmallows and a selection of homemade Christmas sweets, is one of the most popular ($42.50). All can be ordered for local delivery or shipped to a destination.

Great Performances created a seasonal popcorn-and-chocolate snack patterned after Harry & David’s Moose Munch. Via UPS, the caterer was recently able to quickly fulfill an order for 2,000 gift boxes filled with the snack mix. “We’re finding that clients are using funds earmarked for holiday parties to provide the kits and gift boxes,” says Roberts, “but “everything is kind of last minute now, and you have to be nimble.”

Marketing takes a different spin

Baldor also had to drastically switch its business model during the pandemic, going from a foodservice distribution business to selling its restaurant-quality food to directly to consumers. “Within 48 hours, we changed our website to target consumers and repackage food in smaller quantities,” says merchandising manager Dianne Marques.

But the distributor wanted to help its struggling foodservice customers too, and soon partnered with restaurants, then caterers, to deliver their meals. This is now an active arm of the business.

Like Great Performances, some catering customers use Baldor for sales as well as a portion of their marketing efforts. “We have a banner on our website urging viewers—who are still buying groceries from us—to support our restaurant and catering partners,” says Marques. “And we send a weekly email to all our home customers highlighting a particular caterer and their holiday packages.”

Baldor is also promoting the packages on its Instagram feed, and both Great Performances and Catering by Michaels have their own digital media promotions going as well.

“I have taken over marketing along with one of our event producers,” says Ware. In addition to posting tempting photos on Instagram and Facebook, she sends out e-blasts every two weeks to the caterer's client base. Great Performances’ marketing team is similarly active on email and social media, says Roberts.

As the holiday season winds down, Baldor is already planning on Superbowl packages and spring picnic boxes for 2021. If nothing else, the past months have made consumers more receptive to new and different ideas, Ware believes.

“People are getting much more creative with events,” she says. “We catered a lot of outdoor micro-weddings when the weather was warmer and I believe small weddings are here to stay.”

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