Going from deli platters to sit-down dinners for 400 may be a big jump, but McCaffrey's Markets sees its catering business as just that: catering to customers' needs.
It all started with requests from customers. The beginning was low-key. One person who had become hooked on McCaffrey's prepared foods asked if the Langhorne, Pa.-based company could cater a family party. Then a community organization asked if the company could provide the food for a fund-raising dinner. That was eight years ago.
Now, a separate catering division orchestrates black-tie dinners and lavish weddings with such menu items as pheasant-veal pate, parsley-pistachio rack of lamb, and Sicilian grilled rabbit with capers and olives. Off-site catering sales alone have passed the half-million-dollar mark.
"We're not going to get rich off it, but it can stand on its own financially," Jim McCaffrey, owner of the four-unit, upscale supermarket company, said of the catering division.
SN talked to McCaffrey and other company officials about some of the benefits -- and pitfalls -- of a supermarket taking on such a job.
McCaffrey, who seems as reluctant to take credit as a modest parent of a gifted child might be, emphasizes that his company's success in catering has been an evolving production.
"We had all the key ingredients in place -- the talent, the equipment, the customers -- because our prepared-foods business was growing. It's a great extension of the supermarket business, and it has been gradual. It started with our getting into prepared foods. In fact, we hired our first chef in 1990, and began with four feet of deli case for prepared foods. That graduated to eight feet, and now it's 24 feet. For the last three years, the sales have grown 50% annually," said McCaffrey.
Indeed, the blossoming sales of prepared foods necessitated building a central commissary that's been expanded twice -- the last time, to include a separate kosher kitchen.
Now it turns out 25,000 pounds of prepared foods a week to supply the four stores and a full catering schedule that includes events like the annual Bucks County Red Cross fund-raising dinner for more than 400 guests.
The entry into the big time may have been gradual, but it wasn't easy as illustrated by incidents described by McCaffrey's executive chef Debra Caucci and assistant executive chef Frank Arment.
A refrigerated truck loaded up with $3,000 worth of fresh seafood once broke down just after it pulled away from the central kitchen. Another truck owned by McCaffrey's was engaged elsewhere. Caucci made a quick and lucky call to a rental company, and within 20 minutes, the process of transferring foods to a rented truck had begun. Just in time.
At another event, a tray of chicken marsala tipped as it was being removed from the oven at the party site. Most of the sauce spilled out. That required a quick fix with more chicken stock and seasonings at hand. A thinner sauce resulted but the guests loved it, Caucci said.
Dramatizing the importance of attention to details, Jim McCaffrey told the story of one of his early catering jobs, when he owned just one supermarket and a deli-type restaurant. He had been asked by the local Woman's Club to cater a dinner with lasagna, premium cold cuts and the like, and he was catering it himself. With plenty of planning time, he was confident he had everything in place.
"Preparation went fine. The food looked great, and we were there in plenty of time. Then, when it was time to serve, I saw that the rolls weren't sliced and I didn't have a knife with me. So I ran down the street to another deli and bought a knife. I think I paid $35 for it."
McCaffrey's Vice President Mark Eckhouse pointed out that catering off-site is particularly risky because so many things can go wrong.
"Remember, the event might be a once-in-a-lifetime thing for the customer," he said.
"So if the least little thing goes wrong, if you're 15 minutes late because of unusual traffic, they may feel you've ruined everything."
So many risks and so many hidden costs make a sufficient markup mandatory, and the markup for McCaffrey's is 80%. That's about the same as at an upscale restaurant, McCaffrey said.
The formula is this: 80% markup on food cost, plus the cost of any rentals, plus the approximate service cost equals the price to the customer.
The net profit's not bad, but with all the potential problems, why would any retailer want to do it?
Well, even more important than profit is image-building, McCaffrey's officials said. Indeed, Eckhouse sees the catering division as an excellent marketing tool for McCaffrey's entire business.
"We want to be a category killer. When people think of toys, they think of Toys R Us. When they think of food -- in any form -- we want them to think of us."
But for a supermarket that caters, there's a particularly high hurdle to clear.
When people are thinking of having an event catered, they're more apt to grab the Yellow Pages than consider their grocery store.
McCaffrey, however, said his crew by now has successfully sent the message that McCaffrey's is not only a legitimate caterer of events, but THE one in this affluent marketing area.
Both Caucci and Arment, with extensive culinary training, came to McCaffrey's from the restaurant industry, and they lead a team of several chefs.
At on-site, sit-down events, they set up a production line akin to what you'd see in the back room of any fine-dining restaurant.
"That's the part I love," Arment said.
"We have holding cabinets that can hold 30 sheet pans. So after grilling 300 filet mignons, we'll hold them in there, and then form a double line and begin to plate them up. I feel like I'm back in the restaurant business."
It's not all plated-up beef tenderloin, accouterments, and caviar though. The catering team, for example, often suggests to customers a buffet with several points of activity provided by the servers.
That gives the customer an interesting alternative and nets a better profit for McCaffrey's. Stations -- carving, salad, seafood, pasta -- are a case in point.
In fact, McCaffrey told SN a pasta station, featuring different pastas and an intriguing menu of chef-made sauces, is one of the most profitable as well as most popular.
Caucci said she particularly likes to build events around such stations.
"They're my favorite thing," she said. "You can do so much with them, and I think they're exciting.
"We've had a cascading seafood station and a charcuterie, even a 'fountain' of chilled soups. Customers love dessert bars, too," she said.
And Caucci, who favors cooking right in front of the customer, said grilling stations have a lot going for them. They're efficient and they add drama.
At a McCaffrey's-produced, safari-theme birthday party for a local businessman, costumed servers turned venison kabobs and flipped ostrich and buffalo burgers at the grill.
The 250 guests had a great time, and probably are still talking about it, Caucci said.
Such exposure at community and charitable events is invaluable, and has definitely helped grow his supermarket business, McCaffrey said.
Not only that, but the company has barely scratched the surface when it comes to selling its catering skills. McCaffrey sees a large, untapped market in the local corporate community.
"We haven't even touched corporate catering, and that's big," McCaffrey said.
"I don't think limits on it exist. Not here in the Princeton corridor.
"Up and down Route 1, there's one big corporation after another," he said. "Johnson & Johnson, Merrill Lynch -- all of them are here."