Restaurant versus Caterer?

The question I wished more of my clients would ask before making a decision - Restaurant or Caterer?  Of course, it depends on your occasion and venue, but 9 times out of 10, I'd answer Caterer.  Then, I would recommend one, or several that I can confidently stand beside. 

 Full disclosure – I want to share how difficult it was to write this post.  I love dining out at a good restaurant, and hate to limit or generalize their abilities within a blog post!  At the same time, 5 years of my life has been spent working for a caterer, and I know what a well-run offsite machine looks like. The perspective shared here is my own and I offer it as advice, but not as rule.  If there are restaurants who are looking to improve their catering service after reading, I would be happy to have a consultation with you!

Seated Dinner at Private Residence Florals by A Private Affair, Furniture from Classic Party Rentals

Seated Dinner at Private Residence
Florals by A Private Affair, Furniture from Classic Party Rentals

Restaurants specialize in hospitality and service within their four walls.  From the layout of the kitchen, to the color of their napkins, they invoke an experience, and an atmosphere for their guests.  The best restauranteurs take great care that their dining room transports you to Tuscany, Bourbon Street, or the most exclusive modern haven imaginable.  A common mistake is to think “I’ll hire the restaurant, it’ll be just like we are there…” it won’t be – unless you have the budget to build it.

Caterers specialize in serving great food – outside of a restaurant.  Sometimes, people ask “why is a caterer more expensive than eating at a restaurant?” – it’s because they are bringing that restaurant to you – building a kitchen in a matter of hours, in a space that will return to it’s original condition as if that magic never happened.  Truly, magic.

The Kitchen

Being a Chef requires talent, but it’s a special skill to, for lack of a better term, roll with the punches.  My favorite caterers, I’ve nicknamed “Guerilla Warriors” – they take on the battle in unfamiliar territory and win!  To have a client that loves Grilled Cheese so much that there are 3 varieties on the menu, but you’re asking us to work in a space that either doesn’t allow for a griddle, or has little ventilation?  Solution: Hot Box, sheet pan, and sterno.  Some of you might not know what any of those things are – but its those Chef MacGuyver skills that execute a French Onion Gruyere, Blueberry Brie, and the Classic Cheddar Grilled Cheese to 120 guests, who are none the wiser.  Not all Chefs can do that.

Catering Chefs are regularly tasked with creativity.  Being outside of a restaurant means there is no set menu.  Multiple events in a week usually also means a different theme, with varying client tastes, number of guests, and occasion.  One day, it’s a barbecue, the next a soba noodle bar, and the next a high-end cocktail reception with caviar and blinis.  Ever-changing – and they need to stay on their toes for the next trend.

One of the most common mistakes a restaurant makes when “catering” – is not adjusting portions or cooking style, for their new environment.  Your favorite Italian place might make a great meatball – you know the one – as big as your fist, with the tastiest marinara sauce in the land...?  Well, when they make that same meatball, and serve it as an appetizer for your wedding cocktail hour – how do you think that’s going to work?

Giant meatball + Marinara Sauce + Wedding Dress = Disaster.
Giant Meatball + Marinara + Wedding Dress = Disaster

Giant Meatball + Marinara + Wedding Dress = Disaster

Similarly, a restaurant might assume they can execute the perfect salmon dish, x50, out of your Kitchen…  with a standard oven, and 4 burners – good luck!  Your cat will be going nuts when the smell is taunting them for a week afterwards.  A caterer knows how to prepare it offsite, finish it in your kitchen, and it comes to you – a la Mrs Doubtfire, perfect.  ;)  And afterwards, not a sniff that it ever happened.

The Dining Room

Service also differs between a restaurant and catering.  Front of House Staffing at a restaurant has a hierarchy – Host, Waiter, Food Runner, Busser.  In catering, every member of the floor staff must be able to do all of those things – they maintain finesse and composure to interact with guests, yet still be willing to bus a table without ego – because it needs to be done.  They move with intention and urgency – passing appetizers, refilling a wine glass, or managing a guest’s dietary restriction.  This is how a team of just 25 floor staff can manage 500 guests at a premiere.

'Forest Foraged' Station at 2017 Grammy Celebration Catering by Patina Catering Photo courtesy of John Brice Event Photography

'Forest Foraged' Station at 2017 Grammy Celebration
Catering by Patina Catering
Photo courtesy of John Brice Event Photography

Most restaurants, I’m sorry to say, are stuck in the 80s when it comes to Food Stations, or a “Buffet”.  Chafers, while sometimes necessary, are not the only way to display hot food, and using more than 2 on a given station is just not attractive.  Hotels fall into this pitfall too. To my dismay, I recently worked an event featuring a Taco Station which had every item – tortillas, rice, beans, carnitas, chicken, beef, enchiladas – each served from a silver chafer, 7 of them, lined up down the table.  A Taco Station should be vibrant, with terracotta, painted pottery and wood bowls!  We have CB2, WestElm, William Sonoma, and so many other outlets that showcase how beautiful hosting can be.  Wood boards, colored dutch ovens, paella pans, woks - PLEASE insist on using something other than a silver chafing dish!  PLEASE!

Caterers that I’ve worked with, thrive within the challenge of a new space.  The best of them love the opportunity to have their food be a seamless, beautiful and memorable part of the event.  

To summarize, why I hire Caterers:

  1. Guerilla Warrior Skills

  2. Menu Creativity

  3. Appropriate portions for the client

  4. Adjusted cooking for the environment

  5. Staff & Hospitality

  6. Food Station Styling

I'd love to hear your thoughts!  My services go beyond coordination for event clients - If you're a restaurant, looking to branch out into catering, or a caterer who is interested in stepping up your game - give me a call!