Catering Trends

Small plates. Last-minute bookings. New twists on classic comfort food. Using the Internet for everything from the proposal to monitoring staff at an event. None of these is new, but they are all trends for the catering business in 2012. Trends in catering don't suddenly happen. They're slow expansions of ideas from one end of the country — or the world — to the other. As one part of the country or level of caterer is deciding that mashed potato bars are getting boring, customers in another area, or at a different price point, have just discovered them and can't wait to treat their guests to this "new" idea.

Catersource asked a few caterers to share the trends they are working with, some ideas for adding excitement to 2012 and ways to add dollars to the bottom line – and they came up with the lucky 13.

Small plates — although some of them getting a little bigger — are as popular as ever.

During the recession, a number of struggling caterers dropped out of the business, meaning that there was less competition when customers started coming back. But the return to "normal" depends on where your company is, and "normal" doesn't mean you'll be doing the same kind of business you did in 2007.

Customers are smarter than ever — about everything except pricing. They are more likely to know what kind of menus and décor they want, but they still don't understand just how much it costs to have it turn out the way they want (that's the part they don't show on The Food Network).

Food trucks are not going away anytime soon.

Local menus are more popular than ethnic cuisine in many areas, but customers want high-end local. This is not so much an environmental thing as simply celebrating the cuisine and style of a particular geographic area.

The sit-down, plated dinner is not endangered, but alternatives are becoming more popular, from entire meals served on small plates, butlered or from stations, todessert-only or hors d'oeuvre-only events.

Guests want to be entertained by the catering. That can be as simple as a chef who chats up the guests while serving or as complex as a menu item that foams, sizzles or bursts in some amazing way.

Not many people really know what "artisanal" means, but it sure sounds good. Just five years ago, you virtually never heard anything described as artisanal, but today's discerning catering customers demand it — even if they couldn't tell you what it is (as used today, it means handcrafted, usually in smaller amounts and probably but not necessarily with better ingredients). Everyone wants artisanal beer, artisanal cheese, artisanal bread, even artisanal pickles.

Wedding couples are busy and want as many services as you can possibly provide. If they don't have to, most don't want the hassle of trying to find the florist, the cake maker, the décor, even the photographer. If you can give them a package of servicesalong with great food, you can make the sale.

High-tech, low-glitz décor is a trend on the rise. This doesn't work everywhere, but increasing numbers of high-end clients are asking for very modern, technological kinds of events done at venues like urban warehouses or even commercial settings.

Molecular gastronomy is no longer something only high-end caterers do. It was an experiment for caterers a few years ago, but guests who watch The Food Network want to see a few pearls and foams, at least.

Sweet is savory and savory is sweet. Ice cream with bacon in it. Sliders that are actually a fruit dessert. The ideas are endless. Combining sweet and savory (salted caramel toppings, for example) has become almost commonplace. Now creative chefs are finding ways to actually turn menu concepts upside down (like pancakes that are savory, rather than sweet).

Food and drink pairings are growing in popularity. Sure, you know to have the right wine for each menu item, but do you have the right water? The right fruit juice? The right beer? Offering drinks that complement the food — even mini beverages with hors d'oeuvre — fits with today's particular consumer, and gives you an upsell opportunity.

Source: Catersource Annual Trends Survey, January 2012