As foodservice operators struggling with the sluggish economy look for ways to expand business and help differentiate their concept from the competition, an increasing number are turning to catering.

And, with catering menus continuing to grow in sophistication and execution, many are finding that turkey provides a healthful and versatile option that can also lend a touch of elegance to an event.

The catering component of the foodservice business — both for in-store and social events — is becoming more attractive to operators, says Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the National Restaurant Association's Research and Knowledge Group. “Savvy restaurant operators look for areas of growth and one obviously is a greater focus on catering,” he says.

According to NRA research, food and drink sales for the entire industry are projected to rise 3.6 percent in 2014, from $659.30 billion in 2013 to $683.36 billion. By comparison, social caterers' food and drink sales are expected to increase 5 percent in 2014, from $8.26 billion to $8.82 billion.

“Catering provides a good opportunity over the next decade for operators to expand their sales,” Riehle says.

One of the trends driving the expansion of catering is that a wider spectrum of culinary options are available. “Not only is the transportation aspect better controlled and managed, but also the product formulation has become more sophisticated,” he says.

Meanwhile, the growing focus on more health-oriented menu alternatives is carrying over into the catering sector, which makes turkey a good candidate for operators looking to diversify their protein offerings. “If you look at the variety of turkey options [across the industry], there has been a substantial increase,” Riehle says. “Turkey has been pretty successful in breaking out of its seasonality. And when consumers are considering their options, it's logical that turkey be front and center.”

Nor must turkey make an appearance on catering menus simply as a quotidian sandwich filler or routine Thanksgiving-style dinner package. Operators are increasingly showcasing turkey in more upmarket and sophisticated ways.

Turkey potpie, one of the best-selling dishes served at the historic City Tavern in Philadelphia, is rooted in Colonial times. Walter Staib, who has been the proprietor of the landmark restaurant for the past two decades, says the dish is not only the No. 1 selling item at lunch, but also is extremely popular at private parties and banquets catered by the 240-year-old restaurant.

About 40 percent of City Tavern's business derives from private parties that run from about 20 to 140 guests.

Staib says the City Tavern kitchen roasts more than 100 lbs. of fresh turkey breasts “on a slow week” for the preparation, which dates back to the 18th century and has been on the Tavern menu since he took it over. “I can't take it off,” he says. “Outside of the catered events, we sell between 30 and 40 orders a day.”

The recipe calls for chunks of roasted turkey, carrots, onion, celery, mushrooms and fresh peas to be baked with a sherry-spiked sauce in a pewter casserole dish topped with puff pastry. The dish is served Pennsylvania Dutch style with homemade egg noodles, Staib says.

However, Staib does not restrict his influences to the culinary past. On his new PBS television show, “Superfoods with Chef Walter Staib,” he focuses on contemporary preparations, explaining that turkey is not only one of the leanest meat protein sources, but it also is rich in such nutrients as niacin, selenium, vitamins B6 and B12 and zinc.

One recipe Staib demonstrates on the show is Lemongrass Ginger Turkey Kebobs. The preparation calls for pieces of turkey breast to be marinated in a mixture of lime juice, lemongrass and ginger for at least four hours. They are then placed on bamboo skewers alternating with onions and bell peppers, and grilled over a low heat until they're cooked.

Hotel chefs catering weddings and other social events are also giving turkey a more contemporary treatment. As a wedding menu option, the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee offers roasted turkey breast with orange cranberry mayonnaise served from a carving station. At the Eventi, a Kimpton Hotel in New York, turkey meatballs with cranberry relish and Parmesan polenta are offered as passed hors d'oeuvres.

The Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix offers wedding planners the option of a slider station that includes a mini turkey burger with green apple slaw and cranberry bread. And at the Trump Soho in New York, apple spiced turkey breast is served from the carving station with tarragon gravy and a cranberry walnut roll.

To help give the Thanksgiving holiday event a novel twist, chef Jarrett Appell of Patina Restaurant Group's Stella 34 Trattoria in the New York City Macy's offers a classic Turducken for the day, according to Patina's director of public relations and marketing, Tanja Yokum. The turducken roulade is a foie gras torchon rolled inside chicken breasts, rolled in duck breasts and then encased in butterflied turkey breast. It is served with Abruzzo black truffle gravy.

Given turkey's more neutral flavor profile, experts say, it has the ability to pair with a multitude of other ingredients — making it a natural “go-to” protein option for operators looking to boost the catering side of their business.

Many establishments these days have a greater capability of offering a fairly robust catering package, observes the NRA's Riehle. “It really is a good opportunity to expand sales over the next decade.”

And, he continues, with turkey's expanded presence on restaurant menus … it will only continue to grow in catering in the future.”