Sustainable shrimp cocktail? Check. Local tomatoes stuffed with free-range chicken? Check. Compostable plates? Check. Leftover food going to a food bank? Check.
If this checklist sounds familiar to you, you're likely already tapping into one of the hottest current catering trends — sustainable catering.
If not, it might be wise to prepare for the day when a bride or a university president comes to you asking to reduce the carbon footprint of their event.
Six in ten consumers say they are concerned about the social and environmental sustainability of the foods they eat, according to a recent nutrition attitudes survey by the United Soybean Board.
And that trend is widely seen these days when catering clients and potential clients talk about food: where it comes from, what's involved with its production and whether it'll be composted if it's left on the plate.
Successfully turning a catering operation green is not just achieved with good intentions. Rather, it's an ever-evolving collection of strategies and factors to consider: practicality, pricing, menu planning know-how, flexibility and creativity.
The smart green caterer nurtures contacts with local farms and artisans, purveyors of responsibly fished seafood, manufacturers of eco-friendly dinnerware and compost facilities, to name a few. Marketing know-how also enters the mix: how to best take advantage of the fact that your catering operation is better for the earth and doing creative things with that local stuffed pepper.
As catering clients start to pick up on the green trend, more opporutnities and challenges will arise.
“Word is spreading about the sustainable options we have available, and we expect the percentage of our clients' green requests to greatly increase,” says Mike Buck, catering director, University of Delaware, Newark, DE.
His catering operation, which serves mostly morning breaks and lunches for meetings, first delved into green catering practices in 2008. By 2010, it had introduced a “green service”package that includes recyclable/compostable plastic and paper products.
“We're starting to see a real shift in corporations wanting to become greener, which in turn allows us to use sustainable produce and more green products,” says Anthony Lorie, CEC, CHE, executive chef, Juleps Catering, Sullivan University, Louisville, KY. Juleps caters mainly corporate lunches and seminars.
It's becoming apparent that there are many gray areas encountered when creating a green menu. Such as: Would it be better to get a tomato that's not organic, but is from just down the road, or a tomato that's organically grown, but from across the country? Or what about choosing seafood that's harvested responsibly, but must be flown halfway around the world?
“Sometimes these factors are in direct conflict,” says Carl Sacks, director of consulting services, Catersource.
How to sort through the many (often conflicting) options?
The short answer is: “You need to pay attention and get educated,” says Chazz Alberti, national director of culinary standards for Sodexo, Recreation and Leisure (R&L) division, alluding to the many variables that can be considered when planning what to serve. “That way, you're not just reacting to what people are asking for,” he says. “You're also guiding choices and educating the community.”
Much depends on the venue, and the client, and the client's mission. At the Baltimore Aquarium, being in tune with aquaculture and using fish that are not being overfished is de riguer, says Kerrie Van Horn, senior marketing manager, special events, Sodexo's R&L division.
In Oregon, sustainability is practically woven into the fabric of everyday life, and the catering operation at Oregon State University fits right in.
“There is a real market for it here,” says Chris Anderson banquet manager, OSU Catering. “It's inherent in the community's values.”
Requests for all-local, all-organic, vegetarian and vegan menus are popular already and are clearly on the rise, he says. OSU Catering composts 100 percent of post-consumer waste, uses an electric vehicle for short-range deliveries and partners with local food producers for produce, dairy and seafood. The operation recycles its used cooking oil, which is then processed to make bio-diesel fuel.
Having a huge local food movement right at his doorstep helps immensely, Anderson says, adding that the City of Portland has been very helpful in partnering with the university to create new levels of composting (meat and cheese can now be composted, something not available everywhere).
OSU Catering partners with a local food bank, but it's important to note that only leftovers that were untouched (an extra hotel pan of rice or casserole that didn't make it out to a buffet) and have been safely held at the right temperature are good to donate, Anderson says. “When dealing with food banks, quality of food and safe handling practices are our biggest concerns,” Buck adds.
Another challenge is mapping out the menu in harmony with the calendar.
“Seasonality is definitely a challenge when you are writing a catering menu,” Van Horn says. “The catering menu is out there for people to see. Once you write a menu, people will expect to be able to buy that.”
Obviously, fresh corn on the cob does not belong on a seasonal menu on the east coast in January. But it's also important to remember that you're in the people business, and someone may want that corn.
It doesn't have to be a zero-sum game, says Anderson. He has done 50 percent local events, and that has served as a good compromise, he says.
Successful green catering operations not only offer menus with eco-friendly choices, but play up that factor. Farmer's buffets, all-local or all-organic menus, and thoughtfully executed vegetarian and vegan menu items are all buzzwords that can be very good for growing business. “We definitely foresee an increased demand for farm-to-plate menu concepts,” says Buck of the University of Delaware.
This is one case where it's definitely appropriate to toot your own horn — in an authentic, transparent way, of course.
The client who organizes the event may know you are using tomatoes from well within a 250-mile radius, but it's important that the guest just walking in will see, through signage, “Wow, this is from the farm right down the street,” Van Horn says. “And then they're delighted.”
“The ingredients and food allow us to tell a story, and we tell the story at every opportunity; put that message into the marketing,” Van Horn adds, emphasizing what a big deal it is to many organizations who are looking to book cocktail hours and, in many cases, pay more for knowing that cocktail hour will be green, from start to finish.
The perception has been that it's potentially cost-prohibitive to be green, and while sometimes that's definitely the case, not always.
“For example, compostable cutlery is significantly more affordable than it used to be,” Anderson says, “and we're only going to be seeing more things like that.”
Real china and silverware are a greener choice than compostable dinnerware, Anderson says, but the increased labor involved in washing the dishes often leads to a prohibitive cost for the client.
Sometimes, a strawberry from a local farm can cost more than a strawberry from across the country, Sacks says, a factor foodservice caterers with little wiggle room in their budgets must consider. One solution is “making the sale to your clients that the additional cost is worth it,” Sacks advises.
It also helps to be attuned to what's plentiful in your area and when. If you want to use local asparagus, but it's only available for two months where you are, then plan ahead for that.
“Unlike a restaurant, who can find some great radishes and incorporate them into a special tomorrow, caterers have to look far ahead down the road,” Sacks says.
Getting educated on which products are out there and actively look for the best deals can help you cope with tight-budget blues.
“We worked with our commissary manager to find products that fit our price point as well as our clients' needs,” Lorie says. “To keep the costs down, we work a lot with our purveyors in getting the best prices on green products.”
With a proliferation of local microbreweries across the country, serving the favorite local beer at a catering event is a good bet. Using local fruit to jazz up filtered (not bottled) water is another idea, says Van Horn. Why not create a signature cocktail for an event using local cucumbers or mint? According to a trend study by The Food Channel (www.foodchannel.com), beverages with a ‘health halo’ continue to win fans of all ages.
Where is it all headed? Sacks of Catersource says he's seeing commercial caterers growing their own produce. While your catering operation may never make the jump into actual agriculture, there definitely seems to be good indication that going green isn't going to get old fast.
“As green catering awareness increases in popularity, I believe we will reach a point where green catering is just seamlessly integrated into every facet of our operation,” says Buck of the University of Delaware.
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