Catering is a numbers game. Unfortunately, so is COVID-19. And the two do not make a great partnership. The first onslaught of the virus in autumn 2020 was hard for many Australian caterers. For some, however, they have found a light at the end of the tunnel – one that is not an oncoming train. Green shoots are springing up. We spoke to some caterers that are forging a new path to bring not only their food, but their experience to catering in this time of corona.
In Australia, corporate catering is worth $4.2 billion a year. Overall, the industry saw a drop in revenue by 63% at the peak of the national COVID-19 outbreak in April. Since then, demand for catering orders has been steadily picking up with growth in drop-style catering and staff meals. Feeding staff in office towers has been one way employers have been able to normalise the return to work and decrease the demand for staff to leave the office and use crowded lifts to dine at crowded food courts. Markus Albert, Order-In managing director, recently said in an interview, “We have seen that many companies were searching for new ways to safely feed their staff and the industry has been quickly evolving to offer new services.” He noted that demand for buffets and grazing-style menus was lower, but other formats were picking up.
QLD State Chairman for Restaurant and Catering Association, Chris Edwards, is owner and CEO of family-owned and Brisbane-based Australian Catering Services. His company caters everything from small corporate functions to funerals to large conventions. “We are seeing some signs of recovery as corporates are considering events again,” he says. “What they are coming to us for is not just a discussion about food and beverage but advice on holding a COVID-19 safe event,” he says. “And that is where we have the skill and experience.” His team has developed COVID-19 Safe Packs, attractive craft-coloured recyclable boxes offering a selection of wraps, rice paper rolls, fruit and muffins. “People are still eating healthy,” adds Chris. “People are still health-conscious.”
When it comes to canapés, he is using the classic American-style takeaway box as a yum cha box with a selection of three canapés, as well as bamboo plates. “With guests seated, the canapés, even if they are on a plate, are sent straight to the guest and no longer circulated. It is safer for the diner and better for the eating experience.”
He says that help-yourself buffets are in the past. “Staffed buffets are a great opportunity to add value to the diner’s experience,” says Chris confidently. He says that well-trained staff, manning a buffet and plating up the meal, is a chance for eye contact, a warm greeting and perhaps an opportunity to suggest the special. “You also get better portion control and less wastage,” he says.
Reports from the US concur with Chris’ observations. There, caterers are also developing ingenious ways of delivering engaging and interesting finger food with an eye on safety. Covered bento boxes are being used to offer a range of canapés while micro pizzas, served in tiny recyclable boxes, are popular, as are mini burger buns wrapped in ‘branded’ wax paper. Social distancing is treated with a respectable sense of humour that sees canapés offered at the end of a small pizza paddle. There is a move towards food stations within an event where there could be a jamón carver serving jamón directly onto a patron’s plate. The patron then moves to a cheese station and is offered a cheese flight and then to a shellfish station, and then takes their seat. Social distancing and shielding can be maintained with these stations without losing a sense of theatre and interaction with the staff.
Social distancing and health and safety have seen changes in the way that Cairns-based caterer Graeme Moore, from Experience Co., feeds passengers on the company’s famous Great Barrier Reef cruises. Graeme looks after the group’s catering which pre-coronavirus saw a busy schedule including looking after inbound visitors from China and India. “We were cooking a lot of pescatarian and vegetarian food each day,” says the well-travelled chef. “Now, we are focusing on the domestic market. We have also moved the self-serve buffet to a buffet manned by staff placing food on the passengers’ plates.” He says while this was done for safety, it has had the unintended consequence of speeding up service as staff are more efficient. “We have also had to change things like the sliced fruit buffet to a diced tropical fruit buffet – for ease of service,” he says. “At the end of the day, guests always respond to good food served well.”