3 experts share their best tips for catering events

Taste catering
Butler's Pantry in St. Louis estimates that 30 percent to 40 percent of brides and grooms now want to do something other than a traditional wedding cake.

Catering represents a $10 billion business in the United States and, according to new survey by the International Caterers Association, 80 percent of members surveyed reported their sales grew last year. And 92 percent expect their business to increase in 2016.

As the US economy improves, these are high times again for the catering industry, fueled by corporate events (which 43 percent of ICA members cited as their top growth area), weddings and social occasions.

The typical catering operation does between $1 million and $2.5 million in annual gross sales, according to industry statistics, but that doesn’t mean bakeries and bakery cafes can’t play an important role in the growth of this sector.

The following industry insiders will tell you that the key to making it big (or at the very least, profitable) in catering is to be prepared to deliver a unique experience that wows the customer beyond their expectations. 

And take note of this vital trend, provided by insight from Andrew Freeman & Co., which celebrates its 10th anniversary as one of the country’s leading boutique hospitality and restaurant consulting firms: “In 2016, chefs, restaurateurs and hoteliers will have to flex their creative muscles even more than in years past in order to satisfy many audiences – hence, taking on “multiple personalities” to please multiple types of people at multiple times. The pressure is on like never before to pull out all the stops, think outside the box, and stand out from the crowd. From top to bottom, everyone in the hospitality world will need to get inventive and identify coping mechanisms to keep the sanity, while still being profitable, in the coming year.”

The following article examines three points of view: one from a leading caterer and event planner in San Francisco, one from a 50-year St. Louis catering business that include a leading pastry shop as part of its family, and one from an extraordinary cake designer who caters for weddings and corporate events.

“You really have to cater to the making both the experience and presentation unique,” says Rick Griggs, executive pastry chef at Taste Catering & Event Planning in San Francisco. “We have a lot of themed parties. We just did a tasting for Dolce & Gabbana. It keeps me on my toes.”

Taste Catering

Griggs finds inspiration from San Francisco’s diverse cultures for his artistry in both the kitchen and the canvas. Griggs doubles as an abstract artist who sells his work to private and corporate collections. His artwork enhances the walls of Abacus and Jasper's Restaurants and many prominent collectors such as Queen Latifah.


Taste Catering in San Francisco puts a modern twist on carrot cake.

In 2015, in addition to making plated desserts and pastries for stations at an annual Meals on Wheels charity event, he created and donated a piece of artwork to raise funds for Meals on Wheels of San Francisco at the annual Star Chefs and Vintners Gala, titled “No Dietary Restrictions.”

For the Meals on Wheels event, he created a signature menu of desserts, including the following:

  • Rose Hipster: Rose hip jam macron with candied rose petals
  • The Cloud: Passion fruit diplomat with coconut shortbread and meringue
  • IMacIntosh: Rosemary almond financier with calvados cream and sour green apple pate de fruits
  • Hot Mess: A baby Oreo with Nutella brownie and pretzel

In pastry, Griggs explains that his San Francisco influence is based on existing iconic local sweets. One is Taste Catering’s version of the “It’s It” Ice Cream Sandwich, which he transforms into the mini “Rick’s Its.” Further, the caterer plays on the locally famous Coffee Crunch Cake; Taste Catering makes it with Valrhona Dulcey Chocolate/Mousse with Coffee, layered in coffee soaked vanilla sponge cake and then topped with the Coffee Crunch.

“My whole thing is very abstract,” Griggs says. “A lot of artists don’t realize there is a cool crossover between the techniques in art and painting and the techniques in pastry.”

His pastry creations for Taste Catering draw inspiration from San Francisco’s abundance of fresh and local produce, the coffee, the diverse neighborhoods and the local favorite Fernet, a liquor made from bitters and herbs. According to one industry source, 70 percent of all Fernet consumed in the United States is drunk in San Francisco.

One dessert called the Fernet Branca & Dirty Girl Strawberry Meringata is made with Fernet Branca soaked sponge cake with cardamom buttercream and roasted Strawberries with burnt Italian meringue.

Joining the ranks of Taste Catering pastry alums including Yigit Pura, Michael Recchiuti and Laci Sandoval, Griggs came to the Bay Area a year ago after extraordinary success as executive pastry chef at Abacus Restaurant in Dallas and at Mobil 5 Star The Mansion on Turtle Creek.

His artwork is now inspired by the California sunshine and the overall sense of liberation (a stark contrast from his past home in Texas). The graffiti and street art have also influenced Griggs’ visual journey and own sense of liberation. Pastry and art are his passion.

“I see a lot of trends with spice mixtures,” Griggs says. “I tend to use a lot of citrus, Yuzu, kumquat. I make Chai donuts with apricot chutney in the center. I try to think outside the box.”

Butler’s Pantry

St. Louis-based Butler’s Pantry, a second-generation business founded in 1966, provides innovative and creative catering services for corporate functions, social events, NFP galas and weddings of all sizes. Located in Lafayette Square, Palladium Saint Louis is Butler’s Pantry’s premier event venue, accommodating up to 400 seated or 700 standing.

A new addition in 2015, Joule, is Butler’s Pantry’s intimate event venue that is located on the same campus as Palladium Saint Louis.


Butler's Pantry is seeing a rise in requests for petite sweets.

Richard Nix. Jr., president of Butler’s Pantry, says that all sectors are growing and clients want unique products. Over the past three years, Butler’s Pantry has experienced substantial growth of about 15 percent per year, he adds.

“Cookies, brownies and pick-up pastries will not cut it anymore,” Nix says. “Clients want wow-pop-visual, especially with the end of the meal. In 2016, petite sweets continue to be a popular wedding request, as brides and grooms request a variety of sweets as an alternative to the wedding cake.”

The bottom line? “Be open to listening, exploring and creating what your client wants,” the Butler’s Pantry president says.

They still see modern twists on classics in high demand, according to Butler’s Pantry, and this is evident in the restaurant scene where fried chicken places are popping up, gastropubs are thriving and burger and milkshake joints are popular.

Nix points out one unique trend in catering is what he calls “ala minute” baking. “Over the holidays, we provided several in-home experiences where our bakery team made dessert to order from mixing, rolling out, cutting and baking gingerbread people and allowing guests to decorate them right out of the oven…to churning ice cream in home … or to flambé/Brule custards and meringue.”

Patrons are finding all kinds of interesting ways to entertain, he says, but no matter what type of meal service they plan they want it to be stimulating. At Butler’s Pantry, Nix says they have noticed a trend in stationed events over the last couple of years and expect to see that trend continue in 2016.

“Stationed dining allows a couple to showcase a wide variety of menu options to tell their story,” he says. “From hometown favorites and cultural dishes, guests are treated to menu items that are unique to the couple. Social and corporate events can also benefit from stationed dining because they can offer food that pleases everyone – from vegetarian to cultural dishes. We also see plenty of plated dinners but with unique twists like synchronized service.”

Vegetarian and gluten-free are the top dietary recommendations made by caterers surveyed in the 2015 report by the International Caterers Association.

According to Nix, dietary restrictions are an important development that the catering industry must watch and respond. “We pride ourselves on satisfying any dietary need. Twenty years ago, we might serve a dinner for 500 and provide 5 vegetarian meals. Today, that same 500-person meal could be served 7 different ways to accommodate dietary requests.”

Gluten-free is still the most requested specialty meal at Butler’s Pantry, he says, closely followed by dairy free and nut allergies. “At Butler’s Pantry we always treat special requests as if there are medical food-allergies involved, even if it is a personal dietary request, we take our guests requests to heart. We work with clients to prepare alternative options that are very similar to the meals that are being served to guests with zero food-allergies. We have found that this is satisfying for all because no one feels left out due to personal dietary choices or food-allergies. And, the alternative options are just as delicious.”

Butler’s Pantry has created vegetarian tasting menus that are available for catering because Nix believes that those will continue to be a healthy option that is requested in 2016.

As for weddings, Nix says his best guess that 30 percent to 40 percent of brides and grooms now want to do something in place of or in conjunction with their traditional wedding cake. “The wedding dessert buffet has gone from assorted candies to cupcakes to pies to Italian pastry to donuts.”

Another unique way that couples are incorporating desserts into their wedding is to provide a to-go bag for guests. As guests leave the wedding, they receive a bag full of cookies, a slice of cake, brownies or cheesecake.

“I think you get the point,” Nix says. “The sky is the limit when it comes to finishing a meal and making a final impression.”

Shannon Bond Cake Design

Cake decorator extraordinaire Shannon Bond runs Shannon Bond Cake Design, a licensed and home-based cake studio located in Olathe, Kansas.

For the past three years, she has developed quite a following in the cake community through a variety of accomplishments, including cover shots on prominent magazines and award-winning designs. “If you would have told me several years ago that I would have 21,000 likes on my page, I never would have believed it,” she says.

Bond sees a number of trends ahead in the cake sector for weddings and corporate events, including warm metallic colors and rustic, yet modern designs.

“I think metallic is going to be around for a long time,” Bond says. “Brides this year are requesting a lot of copper, bronze and rose gold, warm metallic colors. Nearly naked cakes with a little bit of buttercream continue to be popular. For weddings, I always ask, ‘Why not have cake and dessert that is as personalized as every other aspect of your wedding?’”

For corporate events, Bond shares recent examples of her work that include a rain cloud cake (that appears to be suspended in air), which she created for a Depression Awareness event. “I love cakes that offer a message,” she says.

Her inspirations come from many places, but not from other cakes, Bond points out. “I never look at other cakes for inspiration. I love architecture, fabric manipulation, ballet poses. There are 10 failures for every success, but you have got to try to push yourself to try new things.”

Banquet & Event Trends

According to hospitality consultant Andrew Freeman & Co., 2016 brings a new meaning to the definition of events. “Even the word banquets is passe, as the focus shifts to events. While set menus have an operational purpose, people want experiences that they’ve become accustomed to in restaurants. They don’t want to compromise quality for being in a group and want their food to feel made to order.

Events are getting even more experiential, the consulting firm reports, with caterers either giving flexibility and personality to existing spaces or seeking additional venues like subway stations, art studios, breweries and even private residences.

The desire to explore and choose your own adventure is extending to events as well, Andrew Freeman reports. “Everything is customizable, interactive, fresh and delicious with street foods, mason jar salads, noodle bars, make-your-own sandwiches, and build-your-own desserts. Interesting grazing stations for long meetings to keep people engaged.”