Archive for April, 2012

Because we make it look easy…

After plating for 250

After plating for 250

Off-premise catering is hard work, especially weddings.  Please don’t misunderstand, I love my work.  I have done quite a few things in this life to bring me to the place where I work for myself, doing something I love; preparing beautiful food for life’s celebrations.  There is nothing in the world like working with a couple to perfectly match food and presentation to their cultural heritages, personal tastes and aspirations for this special day.  Often times, this means bringing the celebration to places where someone would not ordinarily go to enjoy a meal, which leads me to the point of this discussion.  We, as caterers, recreate an incredible dining experience for each and every client, and we make it look easy.

The wedding industry is a multi-million dollar machine today.  Just take a glance at all the glossy magazines, blogs and websites that provide inspiration to the newly engaged bride-to-be.  Catering is just on piece in the puzzle of planning and executing the “perfect” wedding celebration.  Some of the talented professionals that come together to create a wedding are wedding planners and coordinators, caterers, floral designers, musicians, artists, videographers, photographers, entertainers and bakers.  Today’s bride must budget for all of these services in order to match the dream weddings as portrayed in the media.  Each takes a slice of the pie both financially and emotionally.

Caterers are magicians and miracle workers at heart.  We often find our way to the business through being exceptional hosts; planning and executing parties of our own that make our guests feel loved and indulged, as if every element of the event was planned for them alone.  We must be creative, but intuitive, quietly figuring out exactly what would delight our guests and clients.  When we execute large and complex events, no one sees what goes on behind the scenes, before, after and during the party itself, to allow this magic to manifest.  We make it look easy.

One of my colleagues, Dine by Design, described what we do in a recent blog post ( detailing a day in the life of an off-premise caterer.  The underlying reality of this narrative is not only what we accomplish, but that we make it look easy.  And by making it look easy, we make our value proposition very hard to sell.  A floral designer can show photographs of intricate and exquisite décor, each component having specific, demonstrable value.  No one can go to Costco or Traders Joe’s and duplicate what they provide.  Anyone who has tried to take photographs with their phone cannot deny what a professional photographer is worth.  A good wedding coordinator knows every perfect venue, vendor and detail that is unique to their geography and speciality.  No one is going to find those things using Google on a Saturday afternoon.  Anyone who has gone to karaoke night knows the value of a professional musician and what that adds to their event.

Caterers, on the other hand, compete on a different playing field.  Food, quite often good food, is something many people enjoy on a daily basis.  They can prepare it at home, buy it to take out, enjoy it in a restaurant, or sample it at a party when prepared by family and friends.  On the surface, it seems like a pretty simple proposition.  I can’t say how many times, after presenting a menu that has taken hours to research and develop for a couple, I am confronted by the opinion that “…we could do this a lot cheaper ourselves.”  When we sell a proposal, we offer tastes of our food, many times at no charge (which is another topic altogether), photographs of our food, and testimonials from others who have enjoyed our food.  We neglect to sell our prospective clients on what is required in order to integrate this food into their wedding celebration.  Perhaps we need to show before and after photographs of the “back of the house” at their wedding site.  Or of the prep cooks scooping and forming the 800+ mini crab cakes their guests will enjoy from the service staff’s passing trays during cocktail hour.  Heaven forbid we show them photographs of the towering racks of dishes and glassware in the dishwashing station, sorted and rinsed to go back to the rental company, long after the last guest has departed.

Instead, we sell them on the beautiful photos and video (if we are lucky enough to get them during the event) of the finished product.  Perfectly garnished trays of passed appetizers, bountiful and inviting buffets, fun and exciting chef stations and exquisite plates dropped magically in front of each of their guests by a smiling server.  It is no wonder we have difficulty “justifying” the cost of our services.

I am not advocating that we take away the magic.  I am suggesting that we do a more complete job of telling the story of what we do.  The only picture a prospective bride gets of a caterer is that reflected in the wedding media.  Since we usually represent one of the largest pieces of the budget pie, a lot of column inches are devoted to getting the best value out of your caterer.  We as an industry must do our part to explain the complex package of products and services we provide.  Only in this way will our prospective clients really understand the value of what they are purchasing.  This also means resisting the temptation to give away what we do for free.  Whether it is setting a fee for tastings (usually applied to the total event cost if booked), refusing to provide a no-cost overage guarantee, avoiding adding in items and services as an incentive to book with us rather than our competition and truly assigning a value in our own minds for the magic we perform.  If we don’t believe we are worth the money, how can we convince our clients?

Let’s be proud of what we do.  A good magician is able to convey the complexity and difficulty of their performance without giving away their secrets.  Today, I plan to challenge myself to tell the story of what I do in such a way that the prospective client is intrigued, curious and a little bit awed.  To be sure, I will make it look amazing, fabulous and magical, but I will try not to make it look easy.


Post by Julia Conway on April 14th, 2012



The value of good service.


I have recently been put in the position of assessing value. Not necessarily dollar value, but the value of intangible benefits like service, honesty, loyalty, fairness, empathy and commitment. Is it any wonder that these attributes are often referred to as a person’s or a company’s values?

After over fifty years of life, if there is one thing I have learned. There is great value in being true to your values. I have seen mentors and colleagues, competitors and rivals come and go, but the sole constant has been those people who have embraced their values and remained aligned with them, no matter the cost in dollars. I have seen many exchange personal values for the value of a dollar, the value of celebrity, the value of “winning,” often with unanticipated longer term costs. Today, I choose not to alter our core values for the sake of today’s fashion.

When I chose to leave the security of a traditional job and found a company, the calculation of intangible social values was part of the business planning process. Call it idealistic, but I wanted to run a company that valued people over profit. Not to say that profit is not essential. We define the three E’s of sustainability as Environment, social Equity and Economics. Without all three being in balance, nothing is being sustained. The economy is the value “ceiling” I am bumping my head up against today. I have found that the personal and social values of my company compete with our economic value. Competition in our industry is harsh; the price tag for what we do is high. The emotional quotient of what we provide is often off the charts for many of our customers. Buying decisions are sometimes based on little or no information about the person with whom you will be doing business. Competitors will use every trick in the book to win the business, and I must ask myself if I want to let them define the rules of engagement. Am I satisfied with what business comes my way based on our company’s core values? Is the business economically sustainable if I continue to rank our core values higher than the need to compete? Do our customers and potential customer share our core values and are they important enough to them to be part of their buying decision? Tough questions without easy answers, and yet they must be addressed.

It is much easier to speak of our core values. The value of service; in our industry, it is essential. Yet who defines good service? We are traditionalists. If a customer barely notices our staff’s role in their successful event, then we have provided exceptional service. Exceptional service does not mean saying “yes” to everything. When we receive a gratuity for our service, we know we have delivered on our promise. Some competitors take the decision out of the customers’ hands and add a “service charge” to their proposal. We believe that it is essential that this feedback mechanism remain in the hands of the customer, and not be assumed as rightful compensation. Yet for those customers who do not share this value, our position is confusing at best and an opportunity to bypass an additional cost at worst. In spite of this, we value our staff and pay a wage that takes this into consideration, sometimes adding a gratuity for their efforts from our own pockets.

The value of honesty is intrinsically tied to the value of service. We are often placed in a position where we have to tell a customer “no,” sometimes when the customer does not want to hear that response. We will not directly or indirectly withhold the truth from a customer or potential customer in order to influence their buying decision. We bring up potential issues with a customer in the beginning of the process, knowing that if we do not, they will inevitably surface at a later time, rendering us unable to fulfill the customers’ expectations. We also do not subscribe to the industry-wide practice of soliciting testimonials. This is not to say we do not maintain or value references and praise from our happy customers. But we do not “encourage” them to publicly proclaim our virtue. The quality of our work must stand on its own right. This also often puts us at a disadvantage when our potential customers look to public forums for feedback on our work.

Loyalty is a value we hold high. When we commit to working with a customer, that customer is assured that they receive 100% of our time and attention while we are working on their event. Despite the temptation to book multiple events in a single weekend or even a single day, we remain true to our commitment to the customer who booked with us first. My grandmother used to say, “…dance with who you brung (sic)…” and this holds true. Each event we do is an ongoing relationship with that customer, and it is extremely important for that customer to trust that we are there for them, even when the going gets rough. This is a value we have found to be important to many of our customers, and it has paid us back time and time again. Our desire to exceed our customers’ expectations means we cannot allow ourselves to be spread too thin. Our customers’ expectation is that we are committed to their event, and only their event, and it is important to us to honor that commitment.

Fairness and commitment are also tied to loyalty. Decisions in our company are based on the principle of considering all stakeholders; be they customers, staff, colleagues or our family members. Most importantly, these decisions are also based on what is fair and equitable in terms of our own quality of life. If we chose to, we could be booked with multiple events over all fifty-two weekends of the calendar year. However, this is not the reason I abandoned the corporate catering business and founded our company here on the Mendocino Coast. After over twenty-five years in the business world, I choose to value my own time and quality of life. Do my customers understand and embrace this? Likely they do not, nor do I expect them to do so. However, if I am stressed, exhausted, frantic or otherwise out of balance in my personal life, I cannot deliver exceptional service to my customers, and in the end the business suffers. As a sole proprietor, like it or not, I am my businesses’ most valuable asset. It would be irresponsible to treat a key employee in this way; so why would it be acceptable to treat myself this way?

Commitment to our staff and our community are also important to us. Our team is not just hourly contract workers, but a valued asset of our company. We mentor them, educate and train them, invest in their knowledge and expertise. We donate our time and expertise to our greater community in a variety of ways, including mentoring new colleagues rather than considering them to be future competitors. Fairness, honesty, dignity and professionalism come first.

Of course, after all this discourse, we must return to the question of economic value. How do we monetize our core values, and communicate that to our customers? We are a boutique service provider that prides ourselves on a level of personal service and quality that is rapidly disappearing in our industry. Size matters in pure economic terms, and our commitment to remaining “right sized” does impact our ability to compete. Our competitors, in most cases do not share our values. Our industry colleagues often do not understand or appreciate our values. We do believe that money comes and goes, but reputation and values endure.

Post by Julia Conway on April 3rd, 2012