As the restaurant industry slowly rebounds from COVID-19, operators are looking for new ways to diversify their business. One idea that many restaurant owners have capitalized on is catering.
When it reached its peak in 2019, the global catering market was valued at an impressive $64 billion, most of which went to restaurants that offered catering services. Despite two-thirds of operators suspending their catering business during the pandemic, many are bringing it back into the fold.
In other words, it’s time to dust off the catering menu and start cooking up some fresh food ideas. Whether you’ve done it before or you’re brand new to the game, catering menu ideas aren’t easy to come by. To take advantage of this opportunity, you need to get creative — luckily, that’s why we’re here.
Here, we’ll walk you through all there is to know about putting together the perfect catering menu.
What you need to know about catering menus
Before you start coming up with catering menu ideas, you need to take a step back and fully understand the concept. Let’s get down to basics.
What is a catering menu?
A catering menu shows the list of food and drink options that a restaurant offers and the prices for those items and overall catering service. Event catering refers to companies that prepare food for special occasions according to the needs of the customer and their specific event. Unsurprisingly, the catering menu is the most important aspect of any catering business. It’s the first thing potential customers ask for when evaluating their options, which means it’s a make-or-break selling point that needs to be carefully considered.
But don’t be fooled: a catering menu and a typical restaurant menu are not the same. Restaurant menus are generally far more complex and comprehensive than a catering menu and might slow down a busy kitchen. Small menus are essential to event catering because they’re faster and more efficient.
What’s also important to remember is that not every catering business operates the same way. Generally speaking, you can lump them into two categories:
- Catering service: A catering service is a company that exclusively caters special events. They don’t operate a brick-and-mortar food service operation.
- Restaurant catering: Not all restaurants are catering companies, but many restaurants do cater. Whether they cook primarily on-premises in their kitchen or off-premises at the venue, any brick-and-mortar restaurant can break into the catering business.
How does restaurant catering work?
Ultimately, you can execute your restaurant’s catering service any way you want. Traditionally, restaurants choose one of two paths:
- Full-service catering: You not only prepare the food but also provide service like you would at your restaurant. That means you supply the kitchen staff, bartenders and waitstaff for the event.
- Delivery and drop-off catering: Your kitchen simply prepares the food rather than serving it to your patrons. A customer might come to your restaurant and pick up the food, or you might arrange for delivery to the venue. Everything else is up to the customer to plan on their own.
Types of catering menus
The type of catering menu you create relies heavily on the type of events you want to cater. Most catering events fall under the following categories:
- Corporate catering: This may include small office meetings, corporate gatherings, training sessions and large regional events.
- Wedding catering: A wedding menu is highly variable. Whether it be a small bite during cocktail hour (like roasted tomato and fresh mozzarella) or a larger plate at dinner (like fresh herb grilled chicken), weddings tend to be more elegant and upscale.
- Social event catering: Menus tend to be more casual at social events and may cover a wide variety of options. We’re talking party food: fried chicken, BBQ, etc.
- Concession catering: Concession catering plays into the favorites that a majority of people will enjoy (i.e., comfort food). Hot dogs, hamburgers, fries and ice cream are the usual suspects.
Benefits of a catering menu
As a restaurant owner, you already have an established brand, name and menu. That’s a fantastic starting point for adding a catering service to your operation. Here’s how it can benefit your business:
- Diversifies your revenue: Before the pandemic, 90% of operators agreed that catering was important to their business. Why? Because it increases profitability. Research shows that the average check size at a catering event is $283.
- Supports your workforce: Catering offers an opportunity for staff to earn money outside your restaurant’s regular operating hours.
- Boosts your brand: Launching a catering business is just another way for people to experience your food and can drive customers to eat at your restaurant.
Still curious? Let’s keep it rolling.
Catering menu tips and best practices
Creating a catering menu is tricky business. Fortunately, we’ve put together a recipe for success.
Here are some tips you can use to get started.
Match your concept to your restaurant
Don’t reinvent the wheel. You already have a restaurant menu full of great food ideas. If diners ask you whether or not you cater, chances are they’re loving what you’re already cooking up in the kitchen.
Here’s an idea: take your top-selling items and use them to form the basis of your catering menu. Determine which ones can be made in bulk without sacrificing quality or flavor and which ones can travel well or quickly be prepared at the venue.
Another good idea is to keep your menu short and sweet. Offer enough options for an appetizer, dinner and dessert so that people of all dietary restrictions have something they can enjoy, but only so many that your kitchen can easily master them.
Determine your style
Decide how your food will be served at the event. Here are some standard options:
- Serving stations: Staff serve food at designated locations.
- Action stations: Food is cooked to order in front of guests to ensure freshness.
- Portion controlled buffet: Staff serve diners as they progress through a buffet.
- Self-serve buffet: Diners serve themselves.
- Plated: Waiters serve food like they would at a sit-down restaurant.
- Family style: Every table receives a large platter of food, from which guests serve themselves.
Consider your variables
Before you pick one recipe over another, it’s important to have your bases covered. Many variables may influence this decision, but these three are the most significant:
- Cost per serving: Consider how much each plate will cost your business. You may find that one item is simply too expensive to cook up in bulk and that the return doesn’t justify the cost.
- Ingredient availability: If you don’t want to make changes throughout the year, think about which ingredients are seasonally available compared to those that are easy to acquire at a moment’s notice. If a recipe calls for something especially exotic, you may need to order it far in advance. This is an added expense that may subtract from your total profits. To save money on ingredients for catering purposes, use ingredients that can easily be bought in bulk and are already being used in your regular menu items.
- Prep time: No two recipes are created equal; some take longer to cook than others. If one dish takes too much time to prepare, it can throw off other important tasks in the kitchen.
Price your menu wisely
Obviously, you need to make sure your catering business is worth the effort. Catering costs normally include the price of food, service and additional expenses that may arise. Here are some ways to price your menu:
- Fixed pricing: Every item on the catering menu has a fixed cost. For instance, a tray of finger food might cost $30 per order.
- Tiered pricing: This pricing strategy applies best to a buffet. The more guests at the event, the lower the cost per plate.
- Custom pricing: If you have a customizable menu, the price will be set according to the customer’s needs.
Make sure you also determine the markup for your menu. In other words, decide how much you’ll charge customers in addition to the cost of ingredients (i.e., the cost of preparing, serving and delivering the food).
Catering menu ideas you can try
One of the biggest challenges of event catering is knowing what to put on your menu. Every recipe matters, which is why it takes so much time to plan.
That’s why we’re helping you cut to the chase. Here are some catering menu ideas you can use at your next event.
Tiny tastes that pack a punch
Pro tip: don’t put all the pressure on your kitchen to cook everything up on the big day, especially if they’re preparing food at the venue. There are plenty of tasty dishes that can be pre-portioned in advance:
- Finger food: Mini sandwiches, charcuterie boards, pigs in a blanket — three fantastic choices that won’t let you down when they travel to the event.
- Fruit cups: Who doesn’t love fresh fruit? They’re an easy-to-make snack that are even easier on your budget.
- Soft pretzel bar: Spice up your buffet with the warm and savory bite of a pretzel that pairs nicely with dipping sauces.
Vegetarian and eco-friendly food options
Make sure your menu has something for everyone — no matter the dietary restrictions. That means sourcing food mindfully from local vendors who supply natural foods and seasonal ingredients.
- Caprese skewers: Fresh mozzarella, tomato, basil and a dash of balsamic vinegar — that’s it! It’s an incredibly simple vegetarian option that delivers a complex and unforgettable flavor.
- Grain bowls: Layer a bowl of grains like farro, quinoa or rice with plenty of locally sourced veggies. Guests can mix and match the bowl as they wish (and even add protein like grilled chicken or beef if they choose).
- Eggplant parmesan: It’s the incredible flavor of chicken parmesan minus the chicken. Not only is it a great vegetarian option, but it’s also one you can easily prepare in advance.
Fan favorites and crowd-pleasers
As previously mentioned, don’t stray too far from your restaurant menu. Using your menu as inspiration, think of the classic dishes that your diners can’t seem to get enough of.
- Seafood: People love a good seafood bar during cocktail hour or at a special event. Serve up a variety of shellfish like clams, oysters, shrimp or even lobster.
- Mini sliders: What better way to keep the crowd happy than with comfort food? Whether it’s hamburgers, mac and cheese or another tasty creation, sliders are always a safe bet.
- Skirt steak: If you’re appealing to an upscale crowd, steak might as well be a given. Skirt steak is an especially popular choice of protein that packs a bit of extra elegance.
New to catering? Grubhub is here to help
Whether you’re preparing for your first foray into the catering world or you’re an industry veteran, you need to be ready for what’s ahead. With Grubhub, you can rest assured you have a partner on your side every step of the way.
33+ million diners are looking for their next meal on Grubhub. But did you know that they’re also browsing for catering menus too? When you’re on Grubhub, you can easily add your catering menu to your listing. That means diners can quickly access your menu and place an order — all from the Grubhub website.
Better yet, we make it easy for you to manage catering orders online from the convenience of your Grubhub for Restaurants portal. You can receive orders through email, Grubhub Marketplace or even your Direct online ordering site.