For many local caterers, there are only two seasons in Iowa: winter and wedding.
Wedding season typically begins with the start of spring and continues well into the autumn months.
“Beginning in early April, we are booked every weekend until the end of November,” said Ruth Dunlevy, event coordinator for A Touch of Class Catering in Cedar Rapids. About 75 percent those bookings are wedding-related, she said.
While wedding receptions are commonplace this time of year, caterers also are juggling company picnics, graduation parties, high school and family reunions and other events typically held during the summer. The result: several busy months.
“This time of year we are serving 1,000 to 1,300 meals every Saturday,” said Jeff Mumm, owner of Dostal Catering Service, which has served the Cedar Rapids area since 1924.
In addition to catering four to five events on any given Saturday during wedding season, Mumm is seeing his business grow on other days of the week.
“Friday and Sunday weddings are becoming a lot more popular,” he said, noting that many venues offer discounts for booking on off-peak days.
The successful execution of so many events over the long wedding season requires two primary ingredients.
“We rely on good quality food and great customer service,” Dunlevy said.
In the catering industry, great customer service means providing food the client enjoys, making provisions for any individual dietary needs and creating an ambience appropriate for the occasion, all while maintaining costs within the client’s budget.
“One trend we’re finding is that people are being very conscious of what they’re spending on catering,” said Tom Hauer, chief operating officer of JnLC Enterprises LLC, which operates two catering companies in Cedar Rapids, Julia-n-LeChef and Katering Kitchen.
JnLC acquired Katering Kitchen earlier this year and, according to Hauer, operates it as a separate, value-priced line to complement the higher-end and more exotic offerings of its original business.
“We give our clients the offerings they want and the value they want,” Hauer said.
One way catering companies strive to satisfy the palates and the pocketbooks of their clients is by offering a large menu of food and services that can be customized to meet each client’s budget, needs and desires. The options typically range from box lunches and deli trays to three-entrée dinners with meat-carving stations, china plates and linen table coverings.
One of the most frequently-requested menus during the Eastern Iowa wedding season is the two-entrée dinner served buffet style. The base price, which starts around $12 per person, generally includes a choice of two hot meat or vegetarian entrees, a starch, a vegetable, one or two salads, rolls, and disposable table service. Real plates, silverware and other formal dining options come at an additional per-person charge.
For those clients seeking to add some extra panache to their events, popular upgrades to the basic two-entrée menu include appetizers served before the meal or hand-carved meats.
“We do a sliced baron of beef that makes a nice presentation,” Mumm noted. “A person in a chef’s jacket carves it on site.”
When it comes to catered company picnics, graduation parties and outdoor events, clients frequently opt for more informal meals such as pulled pork or grilled meats. With base prices starting around $10 per person, which include on-site grilling, buns, condiments and limited side dish options, these picnic-style menus also are popular with the more budget-conscious wedding clients, Mumm said.
One thing caterers are not being asked to do is the formal sit-down dinner.
“It is an option, but it’s expensive,” Dunlevy said.
But as long as people are willing to pay for it, the sky is the limit as far as most caterers are concerned.
“We like to be inventive,” Hauer said. “If people want something that’s not on the menu, we enjoy working those kinds of events.”
While most client preferences still seem to lie with traditional meat and potatoes, local caterers report receiving more inquires about vegetarian, vegan, organic and gluten-free options. Because of the higher costs, however, especially with respect to organic foods, those inquiries do not always translate to sales.
To satisfy a growing interest in fresh, locally raised food without breaking the bank, A Touch of Class has added an organic garden at its southeast Cedar Rapids location to grow produce like tomatoes, herbs, cucumbers and peppers.
“Customers appreciate the fresh food,” Dunlevy said, noting that menu offerings such as caprese skewers and bruschetta are made with tomatoes and basil from the garden when in season.
Caterers say they recognize the key role they play in some of the most important events of their client’s lives. The desire to make those events a success is what keeps them motivated during the long season.
“It’s important to us to make them look good,” Dunlevy said.