Cover Story

The Main Ingredients

Drive, Imagination Help Answer Catering Challenges
The Main IngredientMocktails for teenage guests. Organic meat stations. Chilean ingredients prepared in Lebanese fashion. Such catering requests are fast becoming the norm, not the exception, and caterers and event planners in Western Mass. are responding accordingly. Handling new and ever-more-demanding client needs is challenging, but those in this industry say it stirs their creative juices, while fueling their entrepreneurial fires.

Caterer Michael Sakey was reminded recently of just how much his industry has changed when a client made this request for her event:

“I want everything flat.”

“Flat?” Sakey said, still questioning the directive long after the event had passed. “I didn’t know what she meant, but she didn’t give me much more than that … just flat.”

Sakey, general manager of Spoleto Catering in Northampton, filled the request successfully by providing large platters for hors d’oeuvres, set side by side instead of tiered. He placed large pieces of slate in the centers of tables, scattered rosebuds in place of floral arrangements, and used stemless glassware for wine and champagne. The client loved it, he said, but the job was not without some anxiety.

“That’s a great example of what caterers face today,” he said. “We’ve seen a huge step back from all things traditional, and people are getting much more creative, if not eccentric. But they also have different expectations in terms of our level of service and expertise.”

Sakey said the new, more rugged demands on caterers are a relatively recent phenomenon – one that comes with its share of challenges, but also with a few perks.

“It’s funny how things change so quickly, because it wasn’t like this five years ago,” he noted, explaining that until recently, most clients played it safe, requesting foods or themes they’d enjoyed elsewhere. “Now, people want us to create an atmosphere that their guests have never experienced before, so more and more problems fall to the caterer. But at the same time, we’re having a ball with it, because this market is ready for creativity.”

Causing a Stir

A number of factors seem to be spurring this new trend in the catering business, among them a proliferation of food and event-planning television shows, magazines, and books that are introducing more-sophisticated themes to a larger audience and blurring the line between creative food preparation and full-on event management.

Kristen Rowell, event manager for the Garden House at Look Park in Northampton, said the only constant she’s seeing in terms of recent catering requests at her facility is a steady stream of clients with big ideas. Each request, however, is vastly different from the one before it.

“People want their events to be personalized,” she said, “to reflect who they are. Because of that, we’re seeing a lot of themed events – but those range from Hawaiian luaus to refined cocktail parties with signature martinis.”

Rowell said specific age groups are also influencing event-planning trends – the younger, 20-something set, for instance, tends to cut costs with a do-it-yourself approach – creating their own music mixes via computer programs, for instance, or having a friend with a good eye – and a great digital camera – take photos. But those money-saving tactics are aiding the catering boom, she explained, rather than taking away business.

“I’ve had a huge influx of events where the clients virtually put every cent they have into the food,”she said.

Similarly, Baby Boomers are also putting some new demands on caterers, looking for sophisticated, unique themes for their parties, although Rowell said this set, many of them celebrating a new found freedom of both time and money as children grow up and move out, are less likely to skimp on the other aspects of a party. Instead, she said, they’re going all out, requesting full-service cooking stations where guests can sample the food, but also learn how to cook it; they’re asking for specific cuisine such as Russian or Brazilian, or for fusion dishes, such as Mediterranean food with a Latin flair.

In short, Rowell said everyone is asking for parties that are absolutely fabulous.

“Clients know what they want and how to get it,” said Rowell, “but when it comes to the food and the presentation, they would still rather have a professional handling it, and that’s at all ages.

“I never expected to cater a prom, but we did recently, for the Pioneer Valley School of Performing Arts,” she continued. “They said, ‘we know you think we’re just kids, but this is what we want.’ And they had a laundry list of requests, which we answered.”

Meat of the Matter

The trend of specific, personalized service has not eluded the corporate set, Sakey added. Rather, corporate events represent some of the most uniquely catered events of late. When Fathers and Sons of West Springfield, for instance, held a launch party for the new Porsche Cayman S, Sakey was called upon to provide food that mirrored the car – European, but with bit of a hot, spicy touch. ‘Caymantinis’ were also concocted at the bar.

“But at the same time,” Sakey said, “corporate events are based around convenience for the client, and that means often, I never even meet my client face-to-face until the day of the event. Sometimes, all I get is a four-line E-mail and an AmEx number. But there’s always an expectation that the food will be of a certain quality. Essentially, they’re paying for me to take on that responsibility.”

Tabitha Mahoney, event manager for the MassMutual Center in Springfield, echoed his comments regarding an increasingly in-the-know public, and the effect that’s having on the catering sector.

“Customers are increasingly savvy,” she said. “They’re creative and well-versed in what is available, and they’re not afraid to ask for new things. More and more, we’re being asked to execute some very unique spreads, and it seems as though this is happening everywhere.”

Indeed, these trends are being seen not only across the region, but across the country as well. Diane Welland, a registered dietitian with the U.S. Food Service, listed several ‘hot trends’ in catering that have emerged in the last decade. Among them unusual starches (farro, quinoa, risotto, black rice, couscous), fusion buffets, homestyle desserts, and soufflés – once seen as passé, she said. Each illustrate the diversity of requests as people strive to create a ‘dining experience’ for their guests.

“In an effort to appease clients, menus have gotten bigger, better, and more sophisticated than ever before,” she said. “Variety and excitement are buzzwords in the industry and creative chef-manned stations and buffets specifically tailored for each event are the norm rather than the exception.

“To attract and keep customers, caterers must not only follow the latest ‘in’ foods in restaurants,” added Welland. “they must also create their own trends.”

Sakey agreed, noting that as demand increases, his job becomes more complex as well. Caterers are also being charged with other tasks that once fell far out of their realm, such as designing banquet space, or not only creating menus, but devising recipes as well.

“One major shift in this industry is that caterers are being asked much more often to be event planners as well,” Sakey said. “Once, I worried only about the food; now I’m worrying about tent rentals, lighting, and disc jockeys. I’ve even been asked to help coordinate wedding processions.”

And along with developing confidence about food choices, clients are also getting more comfortable with non-traditional event spaces as well. Sakey harkened back to an event he catered recently at a venue that began as an empty barn.

“The request was to create a beautiful New York-style cocktail lounge … but in a barn,” he explained, noting that instead of visiting gourmet food-sellers in search of ingredients, on this particular occasion Sakey spent more time at Home Depot than anywhere else. “I have a background in theater that literally saved me. We did some extensive lighting treatments, used contemporary tables and set the stage for the event, and it was beautiful, but it shows how much the media influences people. I know the clients saw something like this on T.V., thought it was great, and decided to execute it.”

Food for Thought

Sakey still marvels at the turn his industry has taken, but repeated that with these new, varied requests has come a new day for caterers and event planners that allows them to flex their creative muscle.

“Everything is breaking away from tradition,” he said. “Maybe it’s a reflection of what the world is like in general right now – people are becoming more worldly, and they’re trying their best to enjoy themselves in new ways.”

And sometimes, that means creating a world that is flat.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]