Caterers dish how to create budget-friendly bill of fare

For some, it would be their worst nightmare to have to coordinate a dinner for 100 people. But for caterers,...

By Lance Henderson

For some, it would be their worst nightmare to have to coordinate a dinner for 100 people. But for caterers, event coordinators and special project managers, it’s just another day at the office.

Putting together an office party can be stressful. There are so many things to consider: location, food, entertainment, dietary preferences. But the employees have been working hard all year and they deserve a proper celebration to let them know that their work does not go unnoticed.

Sarah Brand, special projects manager at Saturna Capital, coordinates and plans most of the company’s staff events, which can vary in attendance between 80 and 120 people.

Brand said the size of the event and its budget depend on the time of year, location and whether it is only employees or their families as well.

“For larger family events, we have a different budget in mind than for a smaller celebration,” Brand said. “We are usually trying make it between $20 and $30 a head.”

The biggest challenge to party planning at Saturna, Brand said, is finding a caterer who will work with her to create a menu that is suitable for the company’s staff.

“We have a very diverse group of employees who have a diverse range of dietary needs,” she said.

However, she said, the process can also be quite rewarding.

“I think the most rewarding part is for the employees to get together in a social situation and get all the families together, because we are a family company.”

‘The days of white tablecloth service are over’

For the past two summers, Brand said Saturna has worked with Burlington-based Double Barrel BBQ, a Southern-style pit barbecue caterer serving most of western Washington.

“They have done a great job,” Brand said. “The food is good. They are on time and the bill is what they say it is going to be.”Catering breakout

Jim Lee, owner of Double Barrel BBQ, said with the economy languishing and companies tightening their party budgets, it’s a great time to be in the value segment of catering. Lee offers menus that begin at $10 a person.

“We’ve always been an affordable caterer that is able to provide unique and value-oriented events where people walk away appreciating the quality and the service,” Lee said.

Lee said he sees businesses shying away from lavish feasts for more cost-effective fare.

“The days of white tablecloth service are over,” Lee said. “I am sure they will be back, but there is always a place for saving money. Value is kind of our niche and we have actually experienced growth in this time.”

While times are tight, Lee said businesses need to remember the value of having a celebration to begin with: to show employees that the company cares.

“The best way to show that is to get together and have a meal with them,” Lee said. “Breaking bread changes the nature of the relationship. It’s an unspoken thank you.”

A collaborative effort

Tom Kilpatrick, co-owner of Hilltop Restaurant & Catering, has also seen businesses become more frugal lately.

Kilpatrick, who recently coupled his catering business with a banquet facility on Squalicum Harbor called Windows on the Bay, said clients are looking for opportunities to save money, such as providing their own drinks or service ware.

“They are shopping pretty hard and wondering what is included,” Kilpatrick said. “They want to know if we can work more cooperatively, because they can’t afford a full turnkey.”

Kilpatrick said Hilltop has always been open to customizing a menu to save the client money.

“We need to meet health standards and we want to meet the goals of your get-together. But sometimes there are ways to reach that goal in a less expensive way,” he said.

While the client won’t see much savings by simply providing paper plates, Kilpatrick said, dollars can be saved with a little menu innovation. For example, if the client would like to serve prime rib but has expressed a desire to save money, Kilpatrick said, he might suggest a top sirloin roast sliced into London broil, which gives the desired effect for less money.

“We have developed more than 40 different menus for our social and business customers,” he said. “We ask our clients to describe their budget to us and our goal is to give them the biggest bang within the budget.”

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