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CATERING TO CHANGING TASTES Savvy party menu makers cope in the scaled-back '90s

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In the '90s, what's a caterer to do? Soirees are out, down-home entertaining is in. Nobody has any money. And everybody wants a bargain.

Such is the conundrum facing caterers today. Stung by a sluggish economy, a pared-down social scene and increased competition, they are finding it takes more than good food to stay in business these days, even during the fete-filled holidays.

The scrappy ones have turned into savvy marketers, rethinking their menus, expanding their services and listening to clients more than ever -- even if that means putting Swedish meatballs on the menu.

"It's spring training out there all the time now," says Charles Levine, a caterer in Owings Mills. "I wouldn't have thought a few years ago that I'd have a helium tank and be blowing up balloons. But there's less work on the corporate and social side and more people going for a piece of the pie."

In the good old days (read the '80s), the shrimp was piled high, the vegetables were itsy bitsy and the reception lasted for hours. Now the first question prospective party-givers often ask is: How much is it all going to cost?

"Everyone calls up wanting to know how to do things less expensively," says Sascha Wolhandler, owner of Sascha's Gourmet in Mount Vernon. "People are looking more toward chicken entrees or a paella dinner. I'm not seeing as much tenderloin or salmon. And even if you have the money, you don't want things to look pretentious now."

Clever caterers are coming up with solutions -- from fancified brown-bag lunches to self-serve parties to discount coupons for devoted clients.

Ms. Wolhandler was a pioneer of the scaled-down lunch, introducing her Silver Sacs -- a bag lunch including a sandwich, homemade potato chips, dessert and a fresh flower -- eight years ago.

VTC The sacs have proved a happy compromise for business lunches, since they're more sophisticated than the tired deli tray yet less fussy than a multi-course meal. They've also been so lucrative for Ms. Wolhandler that several years ago she began serving dinner sacs as well.

"I think I've earned my silver arches," she says with a laugh. "I have over 100,000 sold."

Even the mightiest caterers in town are reflecting the new times. Classic Catering People -- which landed some of the most sought-after parties this year including the All-Star Gala and the Preakness -- has seen business in its Classic To Go gourmet foods quadruple in the last 18 months.

The line -- which features dishes such as Asian-glazed salmon, roasted capon breast with black bean relish and Caesar chicken salad -- has been particularly strong because clients can save as much as 50 percent by serving the meal themselves and eliminating the rental of china, glasses and silver.

"People have scaled back," says Edward Dopkin, president of Classic Catering People in Owings Mills. "They'll use scallops instead of shrimp, crab fondue vs. crab cakes. And we see a lot of those heavy-grade disposable (plates) vs. china."

One of the secrets to Classic's success was a merger 2 1/2 years ago between Gail and Lenny Kaplan's Classic Catering and the Dopkin family's Catering People.

Individually, they were considered among the strongest in the local industry, but they often found themselves bidding against each other or feeling too small to be serious contenders for big parties. By merging, they expanded their client base, streamlined their overhead and made themselves the virtual leader in town.

On any given weekend, Classic may handle a dozen events around Baltimore. But even the company that has catered for 2,400 of baseball's finest (the All-Star Gala) hesitates to turn down a dinner party for 12.

"After you've done the Preakness, how do you get excited about doing a bar mitzvah?" says Mr. Dopkin. "We've made our business in house parties. We could never give up that part of our business. . . . You never know when times are rough. You don't want to burn any bridges."

What's also contributing to this new era of scaled-back party-giving is a smarter consumer.

"You can't get away with hot dogs in a blanket and mini egg rolls anymore," says Diane Feffer Neas, who has her own food and beverage consulting firm in Kingsville. "People read food magazines and dine out more now. They know how to make the things they're seeing at catered events."

In the courting stages, companies now often go to extremes to impress.

To win some larger parties, Classic has held elaborate tastings, hired entertainment and even decorated the office and walkway leading into its building.

Such an intense environment has its downside. Some area caterers say the dog-eat-dog world has forced price-cutting that has smaller businesses promising things that they simply can't deliver. Others say there's more of a play-it-safe environment today where creative caterers are stifled by the bottom line. And some caterers have had bargain shoppers bring contract proposals around town to see which caterer can better the previous offer.

"The biggest competition right now is from caterers who are not busy," says Jerry Edwards, president of Chef's Expressions in Timonium. "There's a really big price-cutting war. I was bidding on a cocktail party for a law firm a month ago. The raw cost per person was $12. Another caterer sold it for $10. The customer called back afterward to say it was understaffed and they ran out of food. . . . My biggest concern is that industry standards will fall."

What also raises the ire of licensed caterers is the number of cottage caterers who work without proper training or credentials. In a shaky economy, many home cooks have tried to make extra money by preparing party food out of their homes.

To keep up with the competition, Mr. Edwards recently opened the Casual Chef, a catering business that offers a less-expensive line of picnic and barbecue menus.

The venture allows him to meet the needs of cost-conscious clients without compromising the identity he's created for Chef's Expressions.

On the menu of the Casual Chef: pit beef, potato salad and meatballs. On the menu of Chef's Expressions: Portabella torta, potato and onion timbale and venison carpaccio.

In the last two years, Mr. Edwards has kept in touch with his clients through a seasonal newsletter filled with recipes, wedding-reception tips and discounts.

He says the public-relations benefits outweigh the cost of the publication.

"You get 80 percent of your business from 20 percent of your customers," he says. "I want to keep in touch with them."

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