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A Course in Catering

By Shannon Wilder

These days, an increasing number of Georgia restaurateurs are adding catering to their menus as a way to bring in much-needed additional revenue.

As with any new business venture, there are challenges and concerns along the way. Fortunately, restaurant owners in the Peach state who are ready to make the leap can get expert advice from catering industry leaders such as Patrick Cuccaro, general manager of Affairs to Remember and past chair of the Georgia Restaurant Association (GRA).

Cuccaro and the Affairs to Remember team have hosted the GRA’s four-hour catering boot camp at the firm’s Atlanta location three times a year for the last four years. How great is the demand? According to Cuccaro, the boot camp has been sold out – with a wait list – each and every time it’s been offered. The four-hour sessions are offered free to GRA members.

Embrace the Changing Landscape

Catering in 2013, Cuccaro says, is a far cry from the white-clothed banquet tables and sterno-fueled chafing dishes of yesteryear. And keeping up with trends in entertaining is crucial to a new caterer’s success.

“Catering is like haute couture,” Cuccaro says. “What’s hot today is not tomorrow. If we become stale, it is at our peril. In off-premise catering, we’ve witnessed the transformation of catered events from merely “feeding people” to sophisticated entertainment and social interaction. As recently as a decade ago it was acceptable to roll out a few exciting new food ideas every year. Today, that just won’t fly. We create several hundred new dishes a year. We must continually reinvent the customer experience.”

Those restaurants that have already embraced the seasonal/locally grown movement will have a leg up when it comes to opening a catering operation. One of the biggest trends Cuccaro says he’s seen of late is a willingness of catering clients to embrace seasonal menu items – even if it means not knowing exactly what’s going to be on the menu until the very last minute.

To support that trend, Affairs to Remember has established its own garden. The effort not only provides outstanding raw product for the firm’s menu items, it also supports a greater commitment to sustainability. The food goes full circle, Cuccaro says, explaining that Affairs purchases uses its own organic material as compost in the garden.

Perfect the Food

The centerpiece of any catering operation is, of course, the food. And regardless of size, any catering operation has to have a grasp of how well food will travel.  Testing new dishes, like Cuccaro describes above, is only half the battle. A dish may work wonderfully well in the restaurant, where it only has to go from kitchen to table. The journey to the venue is often quite a different story.

“We call it road worthiness,” says Cuccaro. “Catering is an art and a science. Every single new food that you introduce must pass several litmus tests.”

Those include how the food survives the trip, and how well it stands up to sitting in limbo between the time it arrives and the time it reaches a plate.

“If a food hasn’t been tested properly,” he says, “the likelihood of failure is exponentially higher. We spend hours analyzing our roadworthiness, as must all successful caterers.”

Focus on the Basics

Newly minted caterers make mistakes on the operational front as well. What’s the worst from Cuccaro’s point of view? “Deciding to go into catering without enough skin in the game. Trial and error is not a business plan – it is a brand killer.”

Too often, restaurateurs risk their reputation on an ill-thought-out attempt to add a few dollars to the bottom line. “Imagine serving your restaurant’s signature steak to 150 guests at a private, hosted event, “ he says. “Just when the steaks are perfectly cooked, the best man unexpectedly launches into a round of toasts. That beautiful signature steak that was perfect a mere 15 minutes ago is now a gray hockey puck.

“Do you think these guests, who are eating your hockey puck for free, will become paying future customers? Doubtful. This happens all the time. Brand destruction for the sake of incremental catering revenue is not a pretty sight.”

At the other end of the spectrum, he says, the most common errors for caterers who’ve been in the business for a while include food safety infractions, unprofitable pricing and failure to grow the infrastructure to meet volume demands.

A Winning Strategy

With almost four decades under its belt, Affairs to Remember has borne witness to a sea change in the industry, says Cuccaro. Catering has shifted from merely serving food to providing a memorable experience from start to finish, and Affairs to Remember has risen to the challenge. As proof, the firm was awarded the 2013 Best-Caterer-in-the-South ACE Award at the recent Catersource Conference & Tradeshow in Las Vegas.

The ACE Award for the South Region is selected from entries from 12 states, including Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia.

Of winning the award, Cuccaro said it was a special honor, adding, “It’s a pleasure just to practice our art and craft. To be recognized for doing so is the icing on our cake.”

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