The face of catering is changing -- and supermarkets are nicely positioned to fit the profile.
There is still a market for the traditional catered event, whether it's an elegant sit-down dinner at a metropolitan art museum or a wedding reception at the grange hall.
But another type of catering opportunity is becoming more popular and is more suited to the style and service levels of supermarket prepared-food programs, said deli executives.
It's catered casual. For occasions such as a graduation-day barbecue at the park or even an intimate at-home dinner, consumers are looking at the catering option in their search for meal solutions that are no big deal. More and more catered meal functions are becoming casual, smaller affairs, and are being held throughout the year.
In response, some retailers are sprucing up their party trays and otherwise applying their existing prepared-foods and deli operations to catering with renewed zeal.
Others, having been burned earlier in attempts to break into catering at the full-service end, are finding the casual event is a better fit.
Byerly's, Edina, Minn., is one operator that has been into catering of all types for years. These days, however, the chain is watching the at-home segment more closely.
"The most recent growth has been in full complete meals," explained Mary Lou Long, director of deli operations for Byerly's. "People like to cook less and prepare less, yet entertain well. Customers want more than a tray of cold meat or vegetables. They want help with their busy life. They are getting more and more complete ready-to-eat or oven-ready items.
"Historically trays have had the most attention, but now we are seeing customers selecting our pork roast, swordfish or vegetable stuffed turkey meatloaf for their dinner."
Byerly's upscale, high-service reputation would make catering a logical fit in any case, and the chain offers full-service catering with delivery. "Catering has always been an intricate part of our business," Long said. "We do business events, party trays and special events."
But for other operators, the opportunity is ripe for catering events that are not so special, or not so full-service that they involve delivery. For both those operators and their customers, the meaning of catering is broadening to include instances of what used to be just plain eating.
"We are in the catering business 365 days a year," said Ron Hirt, director of appetizing, Inserra ShopRite, Mahwah, N.J. "Catering is no longer spring weddings and Christmas parties. Our customers are seeking more prepared-food items that can be picked up and reheated in the home for a variety of occasions, even in-home entertaining.
"We are getting further into catering the prepared foods that our customers are looking for.
They are looking for more spectacular, and still convenient, items to serve guests in their homes."
He said Inserra ShopRite has just added chicken cordon bleu, chicken stuffed with wild rice or broccoli, plus whole rotisserie chickens and chicken parts to its department offerings. These complement the Buffalo-style chicken wings, fried chicken, ribs, macaroni and cheese, lasagna, stuffed shells and ziti as a standard part of the deli department's party options. Additionally, custom orders are accepted.
"These are regular hot food items that most people like, and that our customers can feel good about offering to their guests," said Hirt.
A food-service executive at an upper Midwestern chain said he is also seeing the lines blur between concepts such as "catering" and "grab-and-go" eating.
Sales of ready-to-heat dinners -- previously only sold over Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter holiday seasons -- have opened up to include minor holidays and dinner parties, retailers said.
Inserra ShopRite, for example, is aggressively using turkey and ham dinners in a box to capture more deli sales, according to Hirt. "We are going about capturing catering dollars that are going to small delis and small caterers," he said. "We are working at getting the message across that customers can get hot entrees and ready-to-heat items from our stores."
Clemens Markets, Kulpsville, Pa., has expanded its offerings to include an upscale picnic box suitable for small group entertaining, according to Al Kober, deli buyer. "It is a little bit nicer than just a ham alone. We have given it a real added touch."
The box includes Clemens' own preglazed "Flame Glazed Spiral Sliced Honey Ham" with two pounds of potato salad and two pounds of cole slaw. The ham is sold for $5.99 per pound, with most hams averaging in the six-pound range. Clemen's includes the salads for free, so the average retail price for the upscale picnic box is $30.
The use of complete-dinner menus is rooted in the notion that customers now have little time to sit and plan everything with the catering personnel, said Long of Byerly's.
Dorothy Lane Markets moves up to 400 box lunches per day, according to Fox. The basic box lunch includes a sandwich, a side salad and the operator's signature Killer Brownie for $6.95.
Retailers also reported that these complete meal boxes are a useful catering option for corporate events -- and that's a lucrative niche for supermarkets to pursue. "Corporate catering is our bread-and-butter," said the Midwestern chain executive.
"Corporations are downsizing their catering from affairs with servers to more self-service," said Fox. "They don't want to appear extravagant in today's business environment and they don't want to send mixed messages to their employees."
Jungle Jim, Fairfield, Ohio, also has had tremendous success with box lunches, moving up to 50 units a day. Party trays are also a good item for corporate accounts.
"Our party tray business never slows down," said Bev McKinney, catering director at Jungle Jim.
"Self-service party trays help our customers out," said Fox. "Today, budgets are a big issue and party trays can be the answer. People today want to spend money on the food, not the staff."
Inserra ShopRite offers traditional meat, cheese, vegetable and fruit platters; each designed to have accompaniments or condiments with them. Additionally, other big sellers are seafood platters of smoked fish, shrimp or sushi.
Supermarkets are looking at party trays as a good self-service option because they are also looking at catering bottom lines closely.
"In our catering operations, we want to make sure we maintain cost controls and that we don't try to be a restaurant," said the Midwestern executive. "Profitability is key. Labor cannot exceed gross margins. We have to use good business practices."
In fact, in the interest of profits, a number of operators told SN, they scaled back their catering operations because of labor and liability issues. Many have backed out of full service at the event site.
"In addition to the food, you have to worry about the liquor liability, plus the theft and damages that can occur when you enter someone's home," complained one Eastern retailer.
Among the deli executives' horror stories were the accidental destruction of family heirlooms; a delivery truck breaking down in a customer's driveway just prior to an event, with no tow truck available for six hours; a truck dumping the contents of its oil pan onto a customer's driveway; and countless ruined lawns and rugs.
"We prefer our customers come to the store, describe their needs and then come and pick it up," said the prepared-foods executive at one supermarket chain, which used to have a full-service catering operation.
Some operators, still wanting to offer delivery and staffing solutions to their customers, have turned to outsourcing the services.
Delivery is part of the program at both Byerly's and Dorothy Lane Markets, Dayton, Ohio, for example, but the two operators meet the equipment and staffing needs for their catering customers by using outside parties.
"We have done meals for over 1,000," said Long of Byerly's. "We do deliver, using our Party Line refrigerated vans. And our service staff can hook customers up with referrals to equipment rentals and staffing specialists."
Dorothy Lane Markets, meanwhile, uses a local supplier of rentals and staff, and marks up the charges for these services.
"Its easy and profitable," said Abby Fox, director of catering operations for the independent retailer. Fox added that her catering customers are made aware that Dorothy Lane Markets is using outside vendors for these services.
But if full-service is not a good fit, retailers agreed that one-stop catering is still possible at the supermarket. The deli executives said that by bringing the customer physically into the store, they are able to take full advantage of the expertise and specialty products offered by other departments.
Culinary specialists staff Byerly's units to help customers plan parties and menus -- and they also help coordinate their customers' needs storewide with departments such as Byerly's Chef Market meats, the cafe and paper goods.
Inserra ShopRite also uses a holistic approach. "We try not to treat each department as an island, but each department of the store as one," said Hirt. "Our customers work with the appetizing-department manager to place their order across all departments, whether it is meat, seafood, appetizing, bakery or paper goods."
The message at Harris Teeter, Charlotte, N.C., is that catering is a one-stop experience, according to Ruth Kinzey, director of communications. "No matter what department the item comes from, be it the deli for a party tray or a signature salad, the meat or seafood department for a ready-to-grill, center-of-the-plate item, or even beverages and classic paper goods, it is all part of our customer's experience," she said.
A retailer's given style of operation in prepared foods also bears on how it approaches catering. Those with central kitchens and chefs on duty may be more fully equipped to provide broader catering services than those operators using vendor-supplied prepared foods.
"Because of our kitchen, we may have an advantage over those who outsource product," said Kober of Clemens Markets.
"The facility is open and we certainly have prepared-food capabilities." Clemens also takes advantage of its existing Shop For You delivery service to deliver catering orders, he said.
The deli executive at the upper Midwestern chain said he also runs catering out of the central kitchen, which is staffed with chefs. Orders can be delivered in the chain's vans. Because of its central kitchen's food expertise, including strict HACCP systems, the chain has also extended its services to include staffing at events.