Sunday, December 14, 2008

Outside the caterering box

Over at Blushing Hostess ,where I give the recipes and deal with the food in this hostessing adventure that is three meals a day and civilized breaks for snacks, tea, and cocktails, I have been keeping a diary of the cost of items served at the holiday party we held last weekend. The world being what it is today, I thought it most helpful to be transparent in the costing in order to help readers decide if they can manage parties on their own or it pays to enlist a caterer. Costing was a part of my professional life and has always interested me: The formulaic calculation of how one arrives at the cost to themselves, and where a business is concerned, the cost at which they must sell to cover and turn a profit.

In this exercise, I was most curious about what I saved myself in slugging through it myself. Don't get me wrong, I love this work, I would not have become the Hostess herein if not. But this is finger food and it can be tedious even for those who enjoy it most. It is intensely laborious, far beyond any other sort of service and this what drives the high cost of nibbles when made by caterers. Efficiency is gained by making more with less: Time, money, motion. Streamlining. Even more efficiency is gained when one limits their products to a very few things which they do over and over: They gain to ability to purchase raw goods in bulk, to refine a process and train a staff to an assembly line, and they don't have to teach themselves new tricks constantly (which is slow and costly).

But limits and efficiencies are not what I am interested in presenting to guests: They go to a lot of parties and see repetitive menus. Even if the food is familiar, I like to present it in a new way. I don't want anything to do with assembly line food or frozen hors d'oeuvres. The menu utilized for this past week is not one in rotation. With the exception of the two meats on the the buffet, they were all new items to serve though I had tested them before doing so. I like a challenge.

In the interest of comparison, I requested estimates on my menu from two of Westchester's respected caterers. I received similar responses from both: Go to their websites and select the items I want. They will forward estimates once they receive the list of their items for my event. In other words: No special requests. We do what we do and that is all we do.

I sighed both times.

Obviously, they have formulas which allow them to create efficiencies and they are unwilling to step outside them. There could be several reasons and I will choose not to assume.

I find it hard to respect this business model in the catering realm - as a customer, never mind a do-it-myself competitor of sorts. The caterer my Mother used for years was not a favorite of mine. I did not think she had the taste level to play the game in Westchester. But the night of my rehearsal dinner she stepped up her work and produced a fabulous dinner, inspired by all the Asian nations I travelled to in my work. She did it all way outside her comfort zone. After that, I may not have loved her style but I respected her work ethic and I appreciated that our business was important enough to her that she really wanted to please and excel for us. Sadly, she has retired and these inflexible mini-crabcake and satay makers have replaced her.

It seems as though there is only more need for the willingness and creativity of the blushing hostesses of this world now. That is, the Emily Post advocated three-in-one: hostess, caterer, bartender. All things to all guests. It is a lot to juggle and sometimes amounts to oversight of these services in hiring your own staff, but I believe that far better than having cookie cutter parties and menus. Once that threat is real and exercised, we may see more flexibility from some very comfy caterers.


An Aesthete's Lament said...

You are so right; I shudder at the thought of satays being passed around. Why not contract with a favourite restaurant, large or small? I wonder if its holiday schedule would allow such a commission. In any case, you are correct. Satays; how dismal.

Mrs. Blandings said...

I'm not against caterers, of course. The thing is, it just makes the whole thing feel different if you do the food yourself. It is so gracious. It changes the entire mood of the evening. (Which you might not enjoy because you are completely exhausted and undone, but still.)