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The pandemic has changed the way we produce and plan events. From event safety protocols and new approaches to how we gather, it’s safe to say we are in “new normal.” Northwest Event Show and Northwest Event Guide are committed to helping event professionals navigate events, and today we are covering how catering is evolving. We asked several of the top Seattle area’s event caterers about the challenges and changes they have recently faced. Our expert panel weighed in with advice and tips on how to navigate events today. To set the tone, let’s take a look at what Amy Hatcher, Co-Owner of Cafe Pacific Catering, had to say. 

“Standard lines of thought will not answer current issues. This has been a challenge for those in business for three-plus decades–Unprecedented. Norms are off the table.”

Amy Hatcher, Co-Owner of Cafe Pacific Catering  

covid safety - event catering

Source: Foodz Catering courtesy of Greenhouse Photo + Co

The Biggest Event Catering Challenges Moving Into 2022

Three main challenges surfaced when surveying our panel: staffing, the global supply chain issues, and safety protocols. Let’s hear what the experts had to say. 

Staffing Shortages

Staffing shortages were at the top of nearly every event caterer’s list. When the pandemic started in the spring of 2020, many event professionals found themselves furloughed or unemployed. This led to a mass exodus from our live event industry as they migrated to other professions during this time. On top of that, we are experiencing nationwide labor shortages. With the workforce shifting, people looking for a better work-life balance and higher wages, we predict this shortage will continue for quite a while. But how exactly does it affect event catering? Aaron Shook, CPCE, General Manager of Ocean5 / Table 47 Catering weighs in: 

“We have a fraction of the staff we need, and we have to pay wages that are 20% to 30% higher for some positions. Additionally, the team we can hire is mostly green with little knowledge or training. So, to break that down, we are paying significantly more for a team that is underskilled for the position, and we have significantly less crew than we need.” 

Aaron Shook, CPCE, General Manager at Ocean5

Aaron acknowledges the need for higher wages, but the sudden jump in wages creates issues for the bottom line. “We absolutely support paying our teams a fantastic wage, and these increases in our industry should have come long ago. The challenge is that this sharp cost increase is impossible to pass along to consumers at the same pace, so we are struggling to keep hold of any thin margin we may have managed to maintain through Covid.” 

While your event catering costs may not have been impacted yet, they will be soon. Consumers can expect catering costs to rise significantly in 2022, allowing companies to cover staffing costs.

The Global Supply Chain Problems

Across the board, caterers are feeling the impacts of the global supply chain issues. As a result, product procurement due to supply chain disruption has become a significant challenge caterers are facing. However, caterers have adjusted to these shortages by finalizing menus on a much shorter timeline than they used to. Reed Haggerty, COO at DSquared  / Tuxedos and Tennis Shoes Catering explains: 

“We completely wiped out past details from previous menus, and we’ve tried to not finalize any elements until closer to the event date, like a month out as opposed to two or three months out.” 

Reed Haggerty, Chief Operating Officer at DSquared / Tuxedos and Tennis Shoes Catering 

Safety and Covid Protocols 

Many caterers are getting questions about vaccination policies and other COVID protocols, including what happens if there is a cancellation. Unanimously, our expert panel suggested clearly communicating cancellation policies, so there were no misunderstandings. 

Though cancellations are a possibility, we believe events can safely gather in person with a layered safety approach. Event caterers everywhere are learning to adapt and working hard to increase safety measures to keep guests safe. Amy Hatcher, shares how her team is keeping guests safe: “We follow WA State mandates for masking and social distancing. In addition, we recommend our clients send out a “Know Before You Go” to attendees regarding COVID safety practices.”

plated dinner - event catering

Source: Foodz Catering courtesy of Barbie Hull Photography

How Catering at Events Is Changing 

A large portion of safety comes down to how food is served. Event caterers are getting creative and finding new ways to serve their clients. Below are some of the methods are experts are providing safe service. 

Serving In-Person 

It’s unlikely you will see a self-serve buffet at events anytime soon. Caterers are finding new and creative ways to serve attendees with unique safety needs in mind. Masks and gloves are the new normal, and caterers encourage plated meals or cafeteria-style serving where a chef will portion out servings at buffets to minimize contact. 

Shelby Sewell, Owner at Foodz Catering has revamped how food is served using unique covered service to ensure guest safety. 

“We have embraced “covered service” for passed hors d’oeuvres or using modified shadow boxes that allow the food to be covered until served to that specific guest.”

Shelby Sewell, Owner at Foodz Catering

covered service - event catering

Source: Foodz Catering courtesy of Barbie Hull Photography

In the photo below DSquared shares an example of an outdoor event with adequate distancing and enhanced safety protocols. They seated guests at connected farmhouse tables outdoors with room to social distance. In addition, Dsquared served plated courses instead of a buffet and required staff to wear masks.

masked waitress - event catering

Source: DSquared Courtesy of Carol Harrold Photography

Delivery Challenges 

Delivery is not exempt from the changes the industry is facing. Amy Hatcher notes that her delivery staff is masked and gloved, unlike any pre-COVID events. Our drop-off and carry-out caterings are safety sealed.” Her company delivers exceptional customer service, ensuring they meet clients’ comfort levels by asking clients if they would prefer them to deliver at the door or bring the catering into the building.

Lead Time Has Changed 

Staffing is one of the hardest parts of event catering right now. Because of this clients will need to book their caterer well in advance of their event. We realize this can be hard with the unknowns the pandemic brings, but it is the best way to ensure your vendor is available. However, once you have booked, choosing your menu will be much closer to your event date, unlike in years past. This is due to supply chain issues and food shortages. Reed Haggerty from DSquared shares how their timeline has changed:

“With the pricing fluctuations COVID has brought on our industry (especially with food prices), we have shortened the window of time we finalize logistics. We completely wiped out past details from previous menus and we’ve tried to not finalize any elements until closer to the event date, like a month out as opposed to two or three months out.” 

Reed Haggerty, Chief Operating Officer at DSquared 

Increased Need for Flexibility 

There are many challenges event catering will face in the foreseeable future. The best thing you can do is be flexible when working with your caterers. There is a good chance that an item you have chosen for your menu will not be available for your event. Work with your caterer to find a suitable alternative and be adaptable to change. A great event caterer is your partner. They will work with you to make the best of the situation.

“Being understanding and okay with the idea that things will change, whether it’s guest count, floor plans,  or menus, and knowing that we have your best interest at heart and will work to provide the best event day experience for you, even if it’s your plan B, or C, or D. It might not be your plan A, but by the time it’s happening it will feel like it’s plan A!”

Kimball Gainor, Lead Event & Venue Manager, The Hall at Fauntleroy & Melrose Market Studios

That’s a Wrap: Event Caterers Weigh In On 2022

There you have it! We applaud our caterers for taking part in this conversation and sharing their experiences in the current event catering landscape! Though there are challenges for the foreseeable future, remember to be flexible and ready to adapt. When you use a trusted partner, you will count on them to help navigate through it all, which will lead to a successful event!