The Restaurant Associates catering team at the Hearst headquarters in NYC earns plaudits in CaterSource competition.
When you cater events for clients like the Hearst Corp. in its Manhattan headquarters, you can’t just roll out the cookie platters and pigs-in-a-blanket. Hearst is one of the largest diversified media companies in the world, which means RA has to deliver innovation in its catering services that matches the client’s reputation while remaining flexible enough to handle events for a wide variety of customer profiles, themes and budgets.
Their success at meeting these rigorous requirements is a core reason RA at Hearst was named the organization’s Non-Commercial Caterer of the Year in a special presentation during the recent CaterSource 2010 tradeshow. The award was co-sponsored by CaterSource, Food Management magazine, Basic American Foods and Allen’s Canning, Inc.
How flexible is RA at Hearst? Some examples… For “30 Days of Fashion,” a fashion-themed event hosted by Hearst’s Harper’s Bazaar magazine, RA developed a menu customized to the primarily female attendee list that emphasized lighter but luxurious items with high aesthetic appeal. Among the choices: Mini Lobster Éclair, Hamachi Tartar, Jalapeno, Yuzu & Yucca chip, Peekytoe Crab & Corn Fritter, Avocado Aioli, Truffled Macaroni and Mascarpone, Crispy Spinach and Sheep’s Milk, Ricotta Gnudi, Tomato Jam, Roasted Peach, d’Affinoise Cheese and Lemon Herb Honey.
By contrast, for the Breakthrough Awards hosted by Popular Mechanics—another Hearst publication that has an audience vastly different than for the Harper’s Bazaar reception—RA constructed a technology-themed event (the awards celebrate the year’s most significant advances in technology) for the 140 guests, who were mostly male. There, the menu featured more meat and more classic and simple comfort foods: Franks in Puff Pastry with Mustard Sauce, Jumbo Lump Crab Cake with Grain Mustard, Grilled Filet of Beef, Chimichurri and Roasted Peppers.
Marketing is Key
Being based in New York City means Hearst properties have plenty of first-rate catering options, and the RA operation has to work the in-house market hard to make sure it is not only in the conversation, but at top-of-mind.
Each year, the department lays out a comprehensive marketing plan that provides concrete guidelines, including a timeline and marketing budget for seasonal menu changes, catering showcase events, focus group meetings (more on these and the showcase events below), new concepts/ ideas, new business development strategies and holiday plans.
To make the ordering process as easy and convenient as possible, RA uses an online service called CaterTrax. The program also permits better record keeping, so as to facilitate the process for repeat customers, and interactivity, so that RA can communicate seasonal changes and other upgrades through e-mail.
To spur interest, build client relations and raise awareness, RA holds catering showcases and focus group meetings onsite. The showcases give potential customers a visual and gustatory preview of the department’s capabilities and new offerings, while providing excellent forums for networking and feedback. Recent focus group meetings resulted in adding a la carte entrees to the catering menu in addition to the existing packages, for example. Also, RA chefs participate in a culinary series where they teach groups from the client population about fun preparations, an initiative that is very effective at connecting the culinary staff with potential catering customers.
Other marketing initiatives include promotions in Hearst’s Café 57, run by RA, where samples from the catering offerings are made available.
And as a further, tangible incentive, RA has developed an plan that works like a loyalty program to encourage repeat business. It gives customers Event Reward Points (one point for every dollar spent) that they can use to discount future catering services. Two thousand points give a customer a 10-percent discount, 5,000 points a 15- percent discount, 8,000 points a 20-percent discount and 10,000 points a 25-percent discount.
Managing in Tough Times
Naturally, the last few years have not brought the most catering-friendly environment, even to a client like Hearst. Budgets have been cut there as at many other B&I sites, and the building population has seen a significant reduction.
Yet, RA has managed the challenge with a series of initiatives designed to appeal to newly budget-conscious clients. For instance, a new line of Party Platters were introduced as a value-added service, giving customers something they can use to host groups at home or other off -site venues. Also, more Back to Basics options at lower price points were added to the menu along with a la carte choices (individual pizza slices, etc.) for those who prefer to forego sides, desserts and even beverages. Chef to Go dinner meals were introduced to augment the revenue line through a modified Home Meal Replacement strategy of providing packaged dinners to associates who have to work late.
Working with event planners helped produce creative but economic menus such as simple rock candy, popcorn and mini cupcakes for Movie Premier, or mini grilled cheese sandwiches and Campbell’s tomato soup (complete with beautiful stationary display) for an Andy Warhol exhibit opening, echoing Warhol’s famous tomato soup can works.
Celebrities are frequent visitors to Hearst headquarters, and these visits challenge the Restaurant Associates catering staff to come up with creative and appropriate fare to match the visitor.
For example, when superstar pop singer Beyonce Knowles showed up for one event, drawing a guest list composed mostly of younger girls, RA went with stationary buffets serving pink mini cupcakes, popcorn and miniature candy. Meanwhile, the high-top tables had vibrant displays of colored sugar and rock candy to add to the “sweet” theme. It was all paired with champagne (for the adults) and a custom mocktail of cranberry juice, lime soda, soda water and crushed ice.
On a more mature level, a gala for the Whitney Museum of American Art featured a full premium bar with bar snacks like basil sea salt sticks, cheddar rice fritters with sundried tomato aioli and chipped reggiano parmigiano and butlered hors d’ouerves like caviar egg salad wit vodka gelee on blini and baby lamb chops with pistachio mint pesto.