Why we don’t have menus.
As Peachtree approaches its twenty-third year of business, I find myself looking back at where we’ve been and what we’ve done. I’ve been looking back through old photos of events we’ve been a part of, of people we’ve met, and of the food we’ve prepared. So much has changed throughout our twenty-three years, but our one core principal has remained the same. We Cater.
I often forget that the majority of our clients have never worked in the food industry, let alone in catering. Few people know that when you’re dealing with a caterer you are for a much different experience than you are at a restaurant.
The technical definition of “Cater” is “to provide food or drink, typically at social events and in a professional capacity.” But, if you remove food or drink from the situation, the definition still reads “to provide what is needed or required.”
As we have evolved, we have always tried to keep this definition at the heart of every business decision and operation. When a client comes to us, whether new or long-standing, they have a goal in mind. This goal may be to celebrate a loved one’s birthday, anniversary, or wedding, or maybe the goal is to facilitate a successful continuing education conference. No matter the goal, every client wants us to provide what is needed or required. If we do not take an integral role in the success of their event, we are not catering we are hindering.
It is this fact, that is the cause of unending amounts of stress for caterers across the globe. If someone goes to a restaurant and has a bad experience, they just don’t go back. If someone has an event and has a bad experience, we ruin a life moment. We can’t phone-in a wedding reception. We can’t invite a guest back for a second 50th anniversary. Each and every event is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and it is essential that we treat it as such.There are many parts of our business that revolve around this stressful reality, but our more recent favorite is the removal of set menus.
I came to the realization a little over a year ago that we have absolutely no reason to have a menu. As always, I played the devil’s advocate. “If you don’t have a menu, how will people decide what they want to eat?” Isn’t that MY job??? “How will people know how much it will cost to have an event?” This, was the most informative question I could’ve asked myself, and it led me to look at our business in an entirely different way.
We have always considered ourselves the “Economical” choice in catering in Columbia and its surrounding area. We built our business model in a way that doesn’t take advantage of the traditional nickel-and-diming costs that many other caterers have. We don’t charge our customers massive amounts of money for a room; our room charge is $600. We don’t charge our customers for microphones, or screens, or projectors; that is ALL included in our room charge. We don’t charge our customers to cut their cake; that’s just a part of the event (plus...I can’t bear to watch someone butcher a beautiful wedding cake). I’m sure you’re starting to get the point, but it was so clear when I used this same principal in regards to a menu. Why would we give our clients only a set list of food and correlating prices? Why would we make every client choose from a list of food that every other client has chosen from? Why would I make a Bride choose from a list of food that every other Bride has chosen from? We all know that it’s every Bride’s dream to be exactly like every other Bride, right? Wrong. With set menus, we were basically telling our customers that This, is all that we can do. That’s when we decided to do something differently than most caterers.
When new or long-standing clients come to Peachtree, we have a conversation. Stay with me, I know this is crazy, but we actually ask them what they want and what they’d like to spend...ground breaking, I know. In all seriousness though, this is not common practice in the catering world. Most clients are told what it will cost, and what they can have. Not only is this unnecessary, it’s hard. There are few experiences harder to bear than watching the look in someone’s eye when they realize they just can’t afford to have the event that they’d always dreamt of. If you’ve ever been present for this type of experience, you know exactly what I mean. However, there is absolutely no other feeling like watching the joy come over someone’s entire being when they realize that not only are they going to get everything they’ve ever wanted, but they won’t be putting themselves in insurmountable debt because of it. I remember my first experience with this vividly...Sarah and Mike, I know you remember it too.
But, back to “the conversation.” The very first time we meet with a client, we tell them to temporarily forget about money, and to tell us what their ideal event would look like. We talk about function, and flow, and all of the other details that are involved in the facilitation of an event. And then, we talk menu. Sometimes this is an easy conversation, and sometimes it’s like pulling teeth...so they say, I’ve never actually pulled a tooth...maybe it’s actually really easy. Either way, we get the food conversation started. Sometimes it starts with a favorite restaurant. “Murry’s is our favorite restaurant. We just LOVE the Chicken Poblano.” This may just seem like commentary, but to us it is menu generating GOLD. From that simple statement, I now know that these clients love approachable high-quality food. I know that they have a tolerance for spice, and I know that chicken is definitely in the discussion. Sometimes, it’s “my Mom makes the BEST hash brown casserole.” My first response is “does she have a recipe, and would she mind sharing it?” I have countless family recipes in notebooks in my office from so many of our client’s family members. I love looking back and remembering each of the recipes and the people I met because of them, and I love being able to incorporate such a personal aspect of our client’s lives into their special event.
We end this part of the discussion with a cost estimate. Every part of the event planning process with Peachtree ends with a cost estimate. We want our clients to know at all times what their budget is and what to expect. There is nothing more off-putting than surprising a client with an extra $600 that they hadn’t planned for. Somehow “oh...well, it’s sales tax, you have to pay Uncle Sam..” doesn’t quite ease their pain.
Regardless of where the conversation starts, it always ends with at least an outline of what our client truly wants. I then take this information and develop a rough-draft menu. I like to leave it open to discussion and suggestion. If we have discussed a 2-Entree buffet, for example, I will narrow it down to 4 or 5 possible Entrees. It’s always fun to push the client’s boundaries where food is concerned.
We then schedule a Tasting. This is our chance to take the initial conversation and put culinary pen to paper..pan to fire might be a better analogy. We host the client and their close family in our kitchen so that they can see exactly where their food is being prepared; I’ve found it to be very stress-relieving for our clients to see our standards of organization and cleanliness in a behind-the-scenes experience. We taste the 4 or 5 Entrees and the rest of the menu ideas that we have come up with, discussing likes and dislikes throughout. We talk about the expected differences between the food preparation for 4 people versus the actual preparation for 200 people, and what differences they can expect. And, we discuss how my rendition of Mom’s hash brown casserole matches up. Trust me, there’s nothing quite like watching Mom diagnose her own dish. It’s like being back in culinary school again. We take notes throughout and discuss any changes that need to be made, but most importantly we solidify the menu. We decide on a menu of THEIR OWN choosing, and that they have now tasted. Not only do they now know exactly what to expect, they have taken an integral role in customizing their event, bringing them even closer to the experience they’ve always dreamt of.
While we’ve yet to have a complaint at our lack of menus, we do have the occasional confused looks. I realize that this process is not the average experience when dealing with caterers, but that is the real point of this little memo. When people realize that they have an event that needs to be catered, they often think of what style food they would like, and then choose a caterer who’s menu reflects best what they like. It is our goal, to educate those that don’t live their day-to-day lives inside an event center. We want them to know that in stead they should realize they have an event that needs to be catered and that Peachtree will take the most integral role in the success of their event. We aren’t in business to take advantage of our clients, we are caterers. We, are in the business of providing what is needed, required, and most importantly dreamt of.