By Kelsey Casselbury 2016-09-27 18:10:29
Improve your revenue stream, sense of professionalism and program reputation by starting (or growing) a department catering program. Imagine a school nutrition world where the meals you and your colleagues serve aren’t limited to 640 milligrams of sodium. Where you don’t have to calculate the cost of a meal to the fraction of a cent to make sure that it’s less than $3.16 per person. Where you get to plan tasty, inventive menus, without worrying about the impact on participation and whether customers will buy the meal. And still do all this in a school district setting. Amazingly, that world does exist, even in the land of school nutrition—it comes in the form of an inhouse catering program, which can be a boon to your operation’s finances, its reputation and the sense of professionalism enjoyed by all employees involved. Like so many other “non-essential” projects, establishing a catering presence as part of your operation (or improving one you already have) might be something you put on the backburner. It may seem impossible to fit even more prepping, cooking and serving into your team’s busy day—but it’s a worthwhile endeavor, particularly because a successful catering program can fund a host of other wish list projects, whether it’s a new piece of equipment, an exciting cafeteria promotion or an entire dining room makeover. School Nutrition spoke with a handful of directors who regularly book fruitful catering jobs, asking about the perks and pitfalls of their programs, to give you an insight into what’s required to either start or grow a catering division. Who’s the Client? When you’re musing about expanding your operation to take on catering jobs, the first consideration should be where those assignments will come from—within the district or from the community? If you’re just getting started, consider beginning with in-school requests, which could include: • PTA meetings • Sports banquets • Staff meetings • School fundraisers • School club breakfasts • Staff appreciation events • Special occasions, such as retirement parties • Reunions • Staff box lunches • Back-to-school/parent engagement nights • Classroom parties Lisa Kendall, department director, Thompson School District, Loveland, Colo., has the goal of catering every event that goes on in her district. You’d think she’d have a lock on that market already, but she currently competes with local businesses that offer to donate free food to schools. In addition, Kendall would like to transition school events that rely on potluck contributions to her catered offerings to provide professional attention to food safety. (This is certainly an area of concern you can use to your advantage when marketing your catering program!) Flash forward. Let’s suppose you have cornered the in-school market and you’re ready to take on the challenge—and the expanded income stream that goes along with it—of accepting catering jobs from outside the school community. These opportunities might include: • Holiday events • Receptions • Business meetings • Weddings • Personal parties, such as retirements or birthdays • Conferences • Church functions • Local government events Would an outside organization really turn to a school district for its catering needs? Certainly, especially if community size, location and lack of competition lent themselves to that option initially—and then the school catering department earned a positive reputation for quality, price and service. Bonnie Irish of Lewis-Palmer School District #38, Monument, Colo., which has had a catering program for more than a quarter-century, reports that not a week goes by that she doesn’t get a request for catering (for both in-district and outside events). “A couple of my favorite outside events are the Tri-Lakes Chamber of Commerce yearly kick-off and the USAFA/Taekwondo Christmas party,” she adds, noting that August and May tend to be the busiest months, due to kick-off and year-end events. What’s on the Menu? Not surprisingly, the food you prep for catering can be much different than what you’re used to serving for school breakfasts and lunches. Dominic Machi, SNS, director of student nutrition services for Davis (Calif.) Joint Unified School District, notes that you need to design a menu that appeals to adult tastes, rather than a child’s preference of plain pasta, hot dogs and pizza. Although you don’t have to meet nutrition regulations that are a must for student meals, Kendall reports that her team does try to keep the catering menu relatively healthy, which can be very important to adults. In addition, there’s a huge market for build-your-own or customizable meals, note both Machi and Kendall. “People love to be able to customize their food,” says Kendall. These build-your-own options could include a yogurt/parfait bar, baked potato bar, sandwich station (with high-quality spreads, breads and deli meats and cheeses), fajita bar or pasta bar. These make-your-own options come with a bonus, advises Sharon Gibson, director of food and nutrition services, Corvallis (Ore.) School District 509J—they allow school caterers to accommodate a wide range of dietary restrictions within a single menu. In the Lewis-Palmer School District, Irish varies her catering menu based on the season, reflecting customer preferences. For example, at the beginning of the school year, she says, when it’s still warm outside, a wide variety of salads are popular. When it comes to the later fall and winter months, heartier fare is ordered more often—so soups, root veggies and hearty lasagnas are among the items she promotes. To get ideas for your catering operation, browse the menus of other school districts, which are easily found with a quick Google search for “School District Catering.” You’ll come across a lot of traditional dishes, including the classic Chicken Caesar Salad, Roast Beef and Cheddar Wraps and Chicken Cordon Bleu. Nonetheless, a number of school nutrition departments have taken the opportunity to be a little more creative, considering there aren’t any meal patterns to follow. Check out some of these intriguing dishes offered to catering clients: • Garlic-Focaccia Crusted Chicken Breast, Baldwin-Whitehall School District, Pittsburgh, Pa. • Green Chile and Red Pork Tamales With Rice and Beans, Boulder Valley (Colo.) School District • Shrimp Taco Bites, Riverside (Calif.) Unified School District • Sushi (California, Spicy Crab, Spicy Tuna, Eel, Veggie), Colonial School District, Plymouth Meeting, Pa. • Roasted Pork Loin with Chipotle Cream Sauce, Mansfield (Texas) Independent School District • Chicken or Vegetable Curry With Rice, Burlington (Vt.) School Food Project What About the Money? Given that you’re already in charge of (or are intimately involved in) a foodservice operation, you know more than most about how to turn a profit—and a catering program is one area where you’re very likely to do just that! “Because catering has a higher profit margin, it allows us to financially gain more per meal than the child nutrition programs,” Machi claims. If your operation struggles to stay in the black despite good management practices and efforts to improve participation, launching a catering program can be a practical approach to give you the financial cushion you need. If you’re already managing a financially strong operation, use this extra dough for the special projects that don’t always seem to get priority—say, a new combi oven or fresh paint (even a mural!) for the lunchroom. Of course, to make money, you have to approach pricing with care and consideration. You’re not trying to break even, you’re trying to come out ahead. “Cost it out,” suggests Anna Fisher, director of food and nutrition services, Mt. Diablo Unified School District, Concord, Calif. “Gather menus from local caterers, and see what they charge. Be sure that you set your pricing competitively, but high enough to cover your costs.” She also recommends passing on a catering job if you suspect you can’t do it well or cost-effectively. In the beginning, it might seem risky to turn away business, but if you find that you’re getting in over your head financially or with operational aspects, then you won’t be able to deliver quality service at the profit margin to make the endeavor worth your time. How Does the Program Grow? Start small. Make sure you have your processes, menu, labor and policies in order, so you’re doing it right. Once you feel comfortable and have a few successful jobs under your belt, you’ll know it’s time to expand either the scope of your menu or your potential client base—or both. The first step is to ensure teachers, staff and the administration all know that you offer a catering service. Distribute flyers, get on the agenda of committee/staff meetings, post something on staff web pages and use social media channels. It’s likely that they’ll want to support the school nutrition department, rather than an outside business, but you may have to prove to them that your culinary capabilities go beyond kid favorites. Consider offering an incentive, such as a first-timer’s discount. Then, of course, you have to keep their business once you have it, notes Fisher, of the most reliable marketing strategy: word of mouth. “We have grown by reputation.” You earn that reputation by paying close attention to the quality of the product, the variety you offer and the price you charge. To account for ongoing turnover in various staff positions, you’ll need to repeat Step #1—“Did you know we offer catering services?”—over and over. “Many times I get comments from customers who are surprised how wonderful the food and presentation is,” reports Irish. “I have to remind them that we’ve had a full catering department for years, and we’re always looking for new customers and new events.” Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback, especially to learn where you need to improve. Fisher’s staff developed a catering program survey recently to garner some constructive criticism, so they could continue to meet customer needs. Although the catering team reliably got verbal feedback or perhaps an email, “We thought about doing something with a little more structure,” she explains. The survey asked very basic questions, including “Did [the meal] meet expectations?” and “What could we have done differently?” And, of course, there’s nothing like a menu refresh to boost business. When Machi and his team at Davis Joint USD developed the Box Lunch Program (a variety of sandwich options, each paired with a side salad, fruit and cookie for $8.95), “Our catering sales doubled!” he exclaims. “The program fit into the needs of teachers’ and administrators’ busy working lunch schedules.” Of course, if you change the menu, circulate those details throughout the district and the community, so your potential customers know what’s available if they book a job. Are There Any Challenges? Well, it wouldn’t be a school nutrition operation if there weren’t any challenges! A few of the obstacles you might encounter are detailed below. Be sure to take them into account before starting or expanding your catering services. Staff skill set and availability. Who will manage the program? Will this vary if you offer in-school services? For example, will you expect your site managers and their teams to handle requests specific to their location? Or will all catering jobs funnel through one particular kitchen, regardless of whether they are in-school or community events? If you have a separate catering kitchen, will it need dedicated staff? For how many hours a day? During the school day or school meal prep time or afterward? What is the scope of service that you will offer? Are you providing the food only? Or do you intend to make servers and onsite clean-up available, as well? The answers to these questions will depend, in part, upon the current labor environment. How many of your employees have other part-time jobs, making them unavailable? Are they parents of youngsters and need to be home when the bus arrives? Or are they eager for every extra hour they can pick up? Don’t forget about your sub list, too, Irish suggests. “They are already fully trained and are also looking for some extra money,” she adds. Staying creative. It’s a challenge, Gibson concedes, to keep the menu fresh while building the catering program. “We don’t want [clients] to get burned out on the same fare,” she explains. Fortunately, staff isn’t handcuffed to meet the nutrition standards required for reimbursable meals. Time. “Some people ask us to cater at the last minute,” Fisher recounts. “We used to try to jump through hoops to make it happen. It was costly and created a lot of stress on my staff. Now, if we really can’t do it, we don’t.” Don’t be afraid to say “no” to a catering request that simply isn’t feasible. Kendall echoes this philosophy, noting that catering services are only provided when they don’t interfere with the operation’s main focus: feeding the kids. To Cater and Serve The potential barriers may be daunting, so let’s end on a positive note by reflecting on one more significant benefit to offering catered meals and snacks: Positive publicity for your culinary professionalism! You can change the perception of your team as more than “just the lunch ladies” in the cafeteria. And when community members see your team in a new light, they are likely to see your school meals with fresh eyes, too. “Catering demonstrates our capabilities as a foodservice department,” Machi explains. “Already, 65% to 75% of all [reimbursable meal] entrées are made from scratch in our central kitchen and at school sites.” So, when there's no meal pattern to follow? When there’s a demand for service you can meet? And the price is right, for the client and your budget? Then, Machi says, “The sky’s the limit!” Honey Chipotle Baked Beans 2 #10 cans Vegetarian baked beans, reduced-sodium 8 ozs. Shallots, peeled and diced 6 Chipotle peppers in adobo marinade, minced 4 ozs. Honey 4 Tbsps. Worcestershire sauce 4 ozs. Apple cider vinegar To taste Salt and pepper SERVINGS 66 (½ cup each) 1) Preheat a convection oven to 350°F. 2) Place the baked beans into a 4-in. steamtable pan. Add remaining ingredients and stir to combine. 3) Cover the pan with foil. Bake for 30 minutes covered and then an 30 additional minutes uncovered. Hold hot for service. Recipe and Photo: Bush’s Best, www.bushbeansfoodservice.com French Quarter Muffaletta 24 slices Extra-lean smoked ham 48 slices Hard salami 2 ½ ozs. Pimiento-stuffed green olives, salad-style, drained ¾ oz. Black olive tapenade 1 ¾ ozs. Roasted red peppers, drained, chopped 2 ozs. Red wine vinaigrette ¼ tsp. Crushed red pepper flakes 12 each Ciabatta rolls, split, toasted 6 ozs. Light mayonnaise 24 slices Fresh tomatoes (½ oz. each) 12 slices Pepper Jack cheese (½ oz. each) SERVINGS 12 (1 sandwich) 1) Thin-slice the salami (four slices per 1 ⅓ ozs.); cover completely and hold in the cooler between 32° and 36°F. 2) Combine the green olives, black olive tapenade, roasted red peppers, red wine vinaigrette and crushed red pepper flakes. Stir to blend. Transfer to another container; cover and hold at or below 40°F. 3) To assemble each sandwich, place one ciabatta roll on a flat work surface, toasted side up. Spread 1 Tbsp. of the light mayonnaise on the bottom half of the ciabatta roll. 4) Top with 2 slices (1 ½ ozs.) smoked ham, 2 slices tomato, 1 slice cheese, 4 slices hard salami and 1 Tbsp. olive-pepper spread. Close with the top half of the ciabatta roll. *Notes: Tyson Deli Slices Deli Meats Smoked Ham WA Favorites and Wilson Foodservice Hard Salami Slicing Log can be used in this recipe. Recipe and Photo: Tyson Food Service, www.tysonfoodservice.com Island-Style Mango and Shrimp Skewers 1 ½ cups Olive oil 1 ½ cups Prepared mango chutney 1 ½ cups Teriyaki sauce, bottled 6 Tbsps. Balsamic vinegar 2 ¼ lbs. Boneless, skinless chicken breast 1 lb. Shrimp, 41/50 count, shelled and deveined 3 Medium yellow onions 3 Medium red onions 6 Fresh mangos, peeled, pitted, cubed 3 Large green bell peppers, seeded and chopped 48 12-in. bamboo skewers, soaked Ginger Mango Sauce 3 Fresh mangos, peeled, pitted and chopped ¾ cup Frozen orange juice concentrate ½ cup Water 2 Tbsps. Fresh ginger SERVINGS 48 (1 skewer, 2 Tbsps. Ginger Mango Sauce) 1) To make the Ginger Mango Sauce: Combine chopped mango with orange juice, water and ginger in a blender. Purée until smooth. Set aside until service. 2) Combine the oil, chutney, teriyaki sauce and vinegar to create a marinade. Set aside half of the marinade to use for basting. 3) Cut chicken into 1 ½- to 2-in. cubes. Place chicken and shrimp in a shallow, non-reactive plan. Cover with remaining marinade and refrigerate at least three hours or overnight. 4) Peel onions and trim off ends. Cut each onion into six wedges, approximately ½-in. wide. Separate the wedges into double layers. 5) To assemble the kabobs: Alternate marinated chicken and shrimp pieces with onions, mango cubes and chopped green pepper pieces onto soaked skewers. Lightly oil the grill or grill-top. 6) Place the skewers over a medium grill for 15 to 20 minutes. Brush often with remaining marinade and turn the skewers until the meats are cooked through. Serve with Ginger Mango Sauce. Recipe and Photo: National Mango Board, www.mango.org Creamy Pesto Pasta Salad 3 ¾ cups Greek nonfat plain yogurt* 2 ¼ cups Prepared pesto 30 cups Farfalle pasta, cooked 4 ½ cups Cherry tomatoes, halved 3 cups Parmesan cheese, shredded 1 ½ cups Basil, fresh, chopped SERVINGS 30 (1 cup) 1) Combine the yogurt with the prepared pesto in a bowl. Set aside. 2) Place the cooked pasta in a large bowl. Pour the pesto sauce over the pasta. 3) Fold in the cherry tomato halves, shredded cheese and chopped basil. Serve immediately. *Note: Upstate Farms Greek Nonfat Plain Yogurt can be used in this recipe. Recipe and Photo: Upstate Farms Foodservice, www.upstatefarmsfs.com Apple Carnitas Breakfast Burrito 5 ½ lbs. Pork carnitas 3 cups Prepared salsa 1 2⁄3 cups Fresh cilantro, chopped 15 ozs. Sharp cheddar cheese, shredded 3 lbs., 12 ozs. Diced apples 3 lbs., 12 ozs. Liquid eggs, scrambled 30 Burrito-style flour tortillas, 12-in.* SERVINGS 30 (1 burrito) 1) If preparing the pork carnitas from scratch instead of using a prepared product, be sure to remove excess fat and shred. 2) Combine the prepared carnitas, along with salsa and cilantro, in a large skillet. Cook until ingredients are heated through, continually stirring. 3) Scramble the liquid eggs. 4) To prepare the burritos, evenly divide the carnitas mixture, cheese, apples and scrambled eggs among the tortillas. Fold in the sides and roll up. Heat briefly in an oven or microwave, if desired. 5) Cut in half and serve with additional salsa. *Notes: DOLE Chef-Ready Cuts Diced Apples can be used in this recipe. According to the recipe source, for a vegetarian version, substitute pork carnitas with soyrizo. You can also substitute gluten-free tortillas for flour tortillas. Recipe and Photo: DOLE, www.dolefoodservice.com No-Bake Pear Cheesecake 9 cups Gingersnap cookies, crushed 2 ¼ cups Unsalted butter, melted 4 lbs., 8 ozs. Cream cheese, room temperature 2 cups Sour cream* 4 ½ cups Confectioners’ sugar 3 cups Heavy cream 6 each Large Starkrimson pears, medium chopped 1 ½ cups Water 3 cups Dark brown sugar, packed 6 each Cinnamon sticks, optional SERVINGS: 24 1) Pulse gingersnap cookies in a food processor until ground. Combine with melted butter until moistened. Divide evenly among 24 12.5-oz. serving containers and press cookie crumbs to the bottom of each to form the crust. Set aside. 2) In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat cream cheese until smooth. Add sour cream and mix until incorporated. Scrape down bowl as needed to ensure thorough mixing. Add confectioners’ sugar and heavy cream. Mix on low speed until batter is smooth. 3) Divide cheesecake batter among prepared serving containers. Use a mini offset spatula, or the back of a spoon, to level the top of the cheesecake batter. Cover and store in fridge for at least 30 minutes, up to overnight. 4) Just prior to service, place chopped pears in a heavy-bottomed sauce pot. Add water, brown sugar and optional cinnamon stick. Set over medium heat and cook until sugar has melted. Stir often to ensure sugar does not burn at the bottom of the pot. Once sugar has melted, remove from heat. 5) Spoon pears and syrup over chilled cheesecakes. Serve immediately. *Note: The sour cream can be substituted with crème fraiche. Recipe and Photo: USA Pears, www.usapears.org When Something Can Go Wrong, It Will! There are always amusing mishap stories when it comes to foodservice, and catering is no exception. Many of the operators who contributed to this story generously admitted to a few of the memories they might prefer to forget! Bonnie Irish, LewisPalmer School District #38, in Colorado, has a list: “There were 500 different box lunches—and I forgot to mark which was which. There were the 400 cookies I burned. And there were two times that I’ve delivered to the wrong place!” For Anna Fisher in California’s Mt. Diablo Unified School District the story was last year’s first “Stuff the Bus” barbecue, a school fundraiser. The staff expected around 100, maybe 200 guests. They planned for 300—just in case. In the end, there were 600 patrons! “Remarkably, we were able to find food to serve everyone,” she recalls. “I joked that we threw anything that wasn’t nailed down on that barbecue. We just pulled food that was intended for lunch that coming week and cooked it!” Lisa Kendall of Colorado’s Thompson School District remembers, “There was one time a few years ago that we didn’t even know about [the job] because the customer sent the request to the wrong person. When the food didn’t show up, they called. We had to get a breakfast together in a matter of minutes!” Her team grabbed yogurt, fresh fruit and baked goods from a school with greater production capacity. Several people jumped in to get everything set up in record time. “Whenever a problem occurs, I always love it when it gets fixed without most people even realizing there ever was a problem. If the customer is happy, then it’s a good day.” BONUS WEB CONTENT Food Focus An easy way to start with a catering business is to offer treats for classroom birthday parties and similar celebrations. Find out more as part of this month’s online extras, where you can also access a recipe for House-Made Chicken Apple Sausages that are a hit at Davis (Calif.) Joint Unified School District’s Parent Engagement Night. Visit www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonus to access. Recipes published in School Nutrition have not been tested by the magazine or SNA in a school foodservice setting, except for certain “Kitchen Wisdom” selections, which are evaluated by a volunteer pool of operators. When available, nutrient analyses are provided by the recipe source. Required ingredients, preparation steps and nutrient content make some recipes more appropriate for catering applications or adult meals. Readers are encouraged to test recipes and calculate their own nutrition analyses, meal patterns and HACCP steps. Kelsey Casselbury is a contributing editor for School Nutrition and a former managing editor of this publication. She is based in Odenton, Md.
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