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Courting Catering

We restaurant managers are often too busy attending to daily challenges to think of new ways to bring in revenue. Profitable opportunities, however, are right in front of our eyes. One of the easiest and least expensive avenues is using our restaurant space for banquet functions during the dormant hours or, if the price is right, during normal serving hours by selling the whole restaurant to one group. By the way, I dislike the term “banquets”; it calls up visions of rubber chicken and long rows of tables. I prefer the terms “private dining,” “catering” or “function dining” for this part of my business. Before jumping in head first into catering, here is some advice that may lead to success.


Design private dining events to be profitable. All private functions should have a check average that is higher than your restaurant check average for that meal period. When you plan a function outside of your normal service hours, make sure that you have plenty of margin built into your prices. When creating menus, your least expensive menu should have the highest percentage margin; this tactic protects you from the bottom feeders.


Create distinctive menus that reflect your restaurant’s style and quality standards.
The catering business is highly competitive; to attract your share of the traffic, you must craft menus that seperate you from your rivals. Often group functions, particularly corporate affairs, seek some type of themed function. By the word “themed” I am not talking about something tacky, such as a themed beach party. Consisder the style of your restaurant and build and appropriate concept around that that. For example, at California Grill, we create our menus around a wine country theme. Also, our open kitchen lends itself to parties staged in the kitchen. Guests can stand next to the chef while he prepares their meals “to order,” and those who are interested can acquire cooking tips while attending the function. There is no pat formula for creative menus or functions; you must determine what fits your business and space, then make the menu and event special.


To maximize returns, mesh your catering menus with your regular service menus. Bringing in a completely different set of food products simply for your catering business is economically unsound. The more you can pull from existing menus and products, the more profitable you wil be.


Utilize your staff efficiently and create an quality dining experience. For bottomline success, staffing for catered events must be highly organized. You should view each function as a set battle piece:you know the menu and the number you are serving ahead of time, so you can staff leaner and meaner than regular dining seating, which is full of uncertainities. Kitchen staffing is often easier, too; when plating a large function, the smart operator uses any staff member who can be spared, from the head chef to the dishwasher.
Front-of-the-house staffing is a little more complicated. In today’s restaurant scene, the cool, aloof banquet server and corresponding serving style no longer works. Look at the constraints of your room  and build a service that is as close to your dining room style as possible. At California Grill, I have a small core of catering servers, augmented with some of my dining room staff. We teach our catering servers to read and interact with their guests as they would in the dining room. Very often this approach results in higher tips for the servers, just as it would in a regular dining room. Management must make high-quality service a priority, or it will not happen. Your goal should be to never allow your staff to slide into “banquet mentality.”


Promote your services aggressively, starting with your best customers. I have always found that word of mouth is best; every client interaction presents a chance to promote your service. Look first to your regular guests, especially those who own or run companies and those who need meeting facilities that match up to the times that your space is not being used. It helps to get loyal guests or new patrons involved in menu making. An easy way to do this is to invite them to your menu tastings. If you have a tourist clientele that visits your area, reach them through your local tourist board or other marketing organizations.


Builiding a successful catering business requires additional planning, energy and motivation from you and your staff, but the extra effort will complement and stimulate your restaurant dining program, making your enterprise stronger and more profitable.


George Miliotes is director of beverage and hospitality for Darden’s Restaurants Seasons 52 and The Capitol Grill. A Master Sommelier who has crafted award-winning wine lists at such top establishments as Disney World’s California Grill, he has received numerous professionals awards.

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