NEW YORK -- Watch out, professional caterers. Supermarkets are jumping into the competitive world of corporate and private off-premises catering with a vengeance, using their huge customer base and lower-cost ingredients to snatch business from unwary conventional providers.
"We can turn a 50-cent head of romaine lettuce into five Caesar salads at $6 apiece," said Chris Gogos, catering manager for Morton Williams Associated Supermarkets here. "That's a lot of profit."
"We are able to offer the customer better prices because we buy volume and can do catering 35 percent cheaper than regular restaurants," Gogos added. "Most catering companies quote businesses who want coffee for 200 a price of around $3.25 a person. We can go as low as $1.95 a person and make money."
The former hotel executive chef joined the family-owned, 10-store chain a year ago to target off-premises catering. In that year, the chain has developed 36 regular corporate accounts, the big jobs keep rolling in and a central kitchen will be built in a year.
A recent joint promotion with one of its accounts, American Express, featuring full-page ads in the New York Times, didn't hurt business any. But Gogos reported most of the first year's skyrocketing business came by word-of-mouth.
All this, and the first menu is not yet back from the printer. Gogos and other chefs in the supermarket catering business agree, however, that catering is not just a price business. Customers do not pay big money just to guarantee supermarkets big profits. They expect quality, attention to detail, value and timeliness.
Douglas Dick, once director of catering for the Four Seasons Hotel chain, joined Rice Epicurean Markets as vice president of food-service operations three years ago. Although he was hired to oversee the deli and bakery operations, he quickly began to expand catering services from the usual party tray to something more sophisticated.
"Six months into the job I hired a category sales manager and had her set up an actual catering business within Rice Epicurean Markets," said Dick. "She 'blitzed' the corporations within a 2-mile radius of the stores and turned the requests for box lunches or executive breakfasts over to the chef in the appropriate store."
The clients list quickly swelled from a handful to 600 corporate accounts well beyond the initially targeted radius. In January the stores introduced a separate logo for the Epicurean Catering Co. In 1999, Dick will hire a second category manager and the chain will build a central kitchen for catering and for the deli, bakery and other departments.
"We're advertising now, but before it was all by word-of-mouth," said Dick. "It's a nice plus in revenue during the store's 'soft' months, and we're very busy in the busy months."
The catering business is so good, in fact, the chain is purchasing catering trucks and linens and dishes to rent to customers.
"We keep changing and expanding our brochure. We offer an extensive menu, but we also offer things like grocery service for corporate kitchens," said Dick. The category accounts for around 10 percent of deli revenues so far in 1998, and that figure is expected to rise to 15 percent in 1999.
"It quadrupled in one year," said Dick.
All successful supermarket caterers agree that one of the bonuses of full, off-premises catering is the opportunity to sell items like flowers and wine, from other store departments.
Many stores expanded into catering as an outgrowth of their Home Meal Replacement efforts, but others began catering before the concept of HMR was even envisioned.
Quillin's, based in La Crosse, Wis., with nine stores in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, was catering for years before Nancy Rand became director of catering five years ago. Her staff takes on all jobs, big and small.
"The biggest job we did was a buffet for 2,000 people," said Rand. "We do bus trips, box lunches, brunches, weddings, reunions, house parties, company picnics....We're competitive. We'll bid against any caterer."
The stores range in size from superettes to superstores, but each is capable of catering on some level. "If the job is too big, they refer it to us and we decide who does it," Rand explained.
Rand works out of Quillin's LaCrosse store, which handles the big jobs, such as the 2,000-person buffet. There is staff on-call for most functions and an event planner brainstorms with Rand, especially for unusual customer requests.
"One customer wanted a Caribbean theme and we came up with 'Jamaican Me Crazy' with jerk chicken, rice and beans, and key lime pie," said Rand. "We use the Culinary Institute of America's textbook, every day.
"We've never turned down anything," said Rand. "We follow up after our big jobs. Our customers know we're open-minded and we want to hear their opinions. It helps us."
Nearly two years ago, the catering business was busy, but stagnant. Quillin's catering staff decided to take a retro step and stop offering premade items.
"We didn't have any drop-off in business, but we were doing what everyone else was doing; kind of the same old thing," said Rand. "We wanted to experience growth, so we brought back our own recipes and invented some new ones.
"We do about 70 percent from scratch and 30 percent purchased. The things we buy are usually the nitpicky hors d'oeuvres, and there are so many good ones available out there. I can't say exactly what the increase in business is, but since we've made the change, it's definitely increased a lot."
Catering staff even tackles preparation of prime rib for hundreds off-premises now. At a recent event the prime ribs were rolling out of the ovens at the perfect time -- 15 to 20 minutes before carving. "Tons of people came back to tell us it was fabulous. They tell other people and we get more business."
Rand warns fledgling caterers to "be smart in what you're doing, like prime rib. It's touchy. Be careful." She credits Quillin's success to quality products, unusual recipes that set them apart and the flexibility to meet any customer request.
Chef Greg Wozniak, at Prescott's in West Bend, Wis., has temporarily slowed up on catering while he completes an HMR system. When it's done, Wozniak said he will take it on the road immediately -- right to customers' homes.
"I do in-home catering now for small parties. I go into their kitchen and cook whatever they want from casseroles to a chef-carved whole tenderloin," said Wozniak.
Many food requests are HMR items customers tried at the store, such as Wozniak's burgundy pepper steak. Wozniak, last year's Milwaukee-area Chef of the Year and winner of the area's culinary federation President's Medal, joined Prescott's in February 1997 after many years as an insurance company executive chef; he had he spotted an ad for an HMR chef in the paper.
"I thought, 'Why not? Give it a try,"' said Wozniak. He now deals one-on-one with customers, answering questions, conducting in-store cooking classes, appearing regularly on radio and TV, and even giving out his home phone number to fledgling home cooks.
Carol Moore, retail food-service manager for the Mustard Seed Market & Cafe in Akron, Ohio, said the store can't keep up with the "tremendous growth in catering. So many homemakers call us because of time constraints. We cater elegant meals, casual -- whatever they want."
Although the store specializes in natural and organic foods, only part of the catering clientele chooses it for that reason. "Our food standards attract customers for the quality. It's beautiful food and good food because we don't use a lot of components from industry to save time. We make everything here."
Some of the original recipes include mussels marinated in Pernod, Parmesan tuille (a French lace-style cookie made with cheese) and potato croquettes with orange-rosemary mayonnaise. At a recent dinner, Moore offered poached salmon with tarragon mayonnaise, surrounded by purple potatoes and garnished with baby petite pois and sugar snap peas.
"We can compete with the finest catering firms in the area -- not necessarily with other supermarkets -- and we do," Moore said. Like most stores, Mustard Seed's party planner rents linens and other items from outside vendors when there's a bash for a traveling rock group or the Cleveland Orchestra.
A recent sit-down bat mitzvah for 300 featured several kinds of meals, including kosher, vegetarian and vegan, all prepared from scratch on-site. It's not surprising the store has plans to expand.
The labor-intensive catering business means the store has extra help on call, including chefs and cooks. To insure profit, everything is billed on a hourly rate to the customer -- $35.25 for chefs, $20 for the party planner and $16 for servers; an 18 percent gratuity on the total food cost is included. Mustard Seed's corporate catering has grow mostly by word-of-mouth, from one client to nearly too many to count and still climbing.
Another single store, V. Richards Market in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield, Wis., began offering catering services almost immediately after opening 12 years ago. Catering accounts for just under 10 percent of the specialty store's sales.
"We have no minimums....We'll do dinner for two," said president and co-owner Liz Little. "Our bread-and-butter is corporate deliveries, which has steadily grown and is growing. We don't promote it, but we're nearly always completely booked." The store plans to expand to an off-premises kitchen.