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To Keep Costs Down, Caterers Try to Cut Staff—Not Food—Costs

Once it reaches an event space, Ridgewells' black cod cartoccio requires no labor. Photo: Courtesy of Ridgewells

Once it reaches an event space, Ridgewells' black cod cartoccio requires no labor.

Photo: Courtesy of Ridgewells

With so many planners needing to keep costs down, caterers are looking for ways to accommodate shrinking budgets—without sacrificing their own standards for taste and presentation. So instead of pushing cheaper foods, some firms are integrating menu items that require minimal effort to set up and serve, and thus keep labor costs low.

“We're playing around with tapas-style [foods],” such as heirloom tomato salad and spiced mixed olives, said Pamela Swisher, director of catering sales at Wolfgang Puck Catering in Chicago. “The tapas is typically served on white square serving platters. As soon as the buffet is set, the chef prepares his backup platter, so it's ready to go. This keeps the buffet replenished without [making guests] wait.” Swisher said that she has successfully served this kind of fare at events with more than 350 guests, using only two cooks and minimal front-of-house staff, who ”are basically clearing a plate and a fork,” she said. ”No knives are necessary.” Swisher recommends serving the tapas with colorful, biodegradable napkins—a festive touch that curbs linen costs.

To illustrate the relative inexpensiveness of serving a tapas-style meal, Swisher drafted two mock proposals. One presented the total for a hypothetical sit-down dinner for 150 guests—about $25,488—while a tapas-style meal for the same size crowd cost an estimated $18,891.

Susan Lacz, C.E.O. and principal of Washington's Ridgewells, hosted a spring tasting earlier this month. She said she focused on introducing economical—but still interesting—menu items, like the company's black cod cartoccio. Cooked in fata paper, a patent-pending material that resembles Saran wrap but can tolerate temperatures up to 440 degrees, the dish comprises a thick slice of cod dressed up with fennel, celery, and fresh herbs.

“We tie the cod in the paper with butcher twine, then send it to the job,” Lacz said. ”It requires literally no work on site,” which saves about $500 in labor costs for events with 50 or more guests. The cod-filled pouches cook on flat grills; guests can pluck the bags directly off the grills when the fish is done cooking and eat straight from the fata paper. “A server can sit near the grill with scissors to clip the bags, but guests may want to do that themselves,“ said Lacz. “The cod gives off a wonderful aroma when it's opened." 

For John Rossetti, founder of Miami's 2Taste Catering, “out-of-the-ordinary presentation is a must.” In an effort to be sensitive to the times, he said, ”we've found a few ways of cutting labor without cutting any quality or aesthetic beauty.” Recently, Rossetti has brought five-story acrylic towers to jobs. The structures, which he refers to as ”jewel boxes,” house five shelves. ”Each shelf can be stocked with tapas, hors d'oeuvres, or signature drinks and serve multiple guests while being manned by one server,” Rossetti said.

2Taste Catering fills the shelves with items such as saffron-infused paella and jerk-spiced chicken, and each tray can be removed from the box so that a server can carry it around to pass hors d'oeuvres. “This enables us to utilize the same servers in a number of capacities, with no additional cost to the client,” Rossetti said. On average, he said, using the jewel box helps cut labor costs by about 40 percent, as it only requires one server to dole out five dishes.


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