Hop Aboard the Experiential Catering Train
In today’s modern world of catering, it’s a mad race to find the one (or two or three) original approaches that will put you ahead of the pack. In this age of constant change, it is less about the food and drink that you serve and more about latching onto the latest trends or – better yet – predicting what the next great trend will be. With that in mind, you should be keeping an eye on the steady rise of the experiential catering trend. Because, in addition to serving your guests the finest culinary options, you now have to incorporate them into an overall experience that will leave a lasting impression on everyone present.
The Experience is Everything
Driven by a sense of exploration, or perhaps a dire fear of missing out, Americans today are always on the lookout for new experiences. Restaurants are offering novel, fun and memorable meals through pop-up venues and entertainment-themed locales. At the same time, while restaurants are offering unique experiences through their food and beverage options, venues that typically place experience over food and drink, such as sporting events and music festivals, are upgrading their menus to complement the experience. In other words, the experiential dining trend is on the rise and caterers have to join the fray or be left behind.
Pop-up restaurants are a form of experiential dining that allows guests to enjoy a restaurant that is here today but may be gone tomorrow. Because of the possible transience of this type of establishment, it gives guests a sense of exclusivity and a feeling of urgency – no one wants to miss out on something that may not last more than another 24 hours. When it comes to experiential catering, caterers should be looking to instill that same type of excitement and engagement in their guests. A catered affair can thus become akin to dinner theater – entertainment and food rolled into one great experience – but with a trendy, 2018 twist.
What is Experiential Catering?
The food industry – restaurants and catering – is fiercely competitive, and for years the emphasis has been on creative and original food ideas as the center of everyone’s attention. But now there is a shift away from the actual food to the total experience of a catered event, taking into account that guests want to actually do more than just eat — they expect to experience something in addition. This is more than a matter of just providing fabulous décor and presentation; in 2018 a catered event will have to be an experience that combines education, social interaction, escapism, and a form of active entertainment. It requires the successful caterer to understand what the customer is looking for – and to be able to provide the whole show. Today’s caterers have no choice but to pull all the stops to ensure that guests remember their visit for more than just the great eats.
This is where experiential catering comes in. Experiential catering – or dining – can take many forms; but in all the options, the eating experience becomes immersive and interactive, where being actively involved in the dining experience is essential to its enjoyment. Food preparation, for instance, is no longer relegated strictly to the kitchen and hidden behind the scenes. Rather, the food stations become a form of theater, where chefs perform their art before an avid (and hungry) audience. The diners are no longer passive participants in the meal, whose only choice is whether to take meat or fish, or which dressing to put on a salad. Instead, diners get to watch the cooking process and experience it, sometimes from beginning to end – from raw ingredients to edible results.
Why Is Experiential Catering Hot Now?
In today’s world of instant publicity through social media outlets, a caterer has to be prepared to have his or her events broadcast in living color, in real time. Millennials like to post their experiential highlights through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and SnapChat. For the savvy caterer, it is the ultimate marketing opportunity. The Facebook generation thus becomes part of the event rather than mere observers or bystanders, through selfies and video clips that are then sent far and wide. They crave the immersive experience and that’s where experiential hospitality and catering comes in.
Another way of looking at it is that, as a result of the digital age, people’s need for a social experience – genuinely social, with interaction with real people – has become much more important. Experiential diners are craving connection to their food, the chef, and each other. Most experiential diners say they go to pop-up food events because they enjoy the communal aspect, and the interaction with other people. The social element of experiential catering cannot be understated. Today’s diners not only want to connect with their friends, but also enjoy the spontaneity of making new friends around a shared experience. Interaction with chefs – and seeing the creators of meals along with the raw ingredients – is also a way to fulfill the experiential diners’ desire to form a personal connection to their food, and go deeper than what can be gleaned from just grabbing a few dishes from a buffet table. Caterers have to understand this and use experiential events to draw in customers that seek this type of food/entertainment experience.
Possibilities for Experiential Catering
Food stations can be one of the keys to experiential catering. Take a pasta station, for instance. Where once it was a chance for guests to perhaps try your best sauces in a serve-yourself format, now, it’s an opportunity for diners to watch as chefs take pasta in its initial form (as a semolina mix), run it through a pasta machine, cook the pasta in a pot of boiling water, and then toss it in a cheese bowl or with a simmering sauce before serving to the patiently waiting guests.
Another possibility – and the options are endless – is a pizza station, in which guests can choose their own toppings before watching them transform in a hot wood-burning oven. Offer a selection of toppings such as cheese, of course, and corn, anchovies, mushrooms, and more. In fact, the process can start with the chef throwing the risen dough into the air and rolling it out, giving guests the ultimate pizza experience.
Through experiential catering, diners become part of an audience, and your goal is to immerse them in the cooking process. They can become engaged by creating their own sliders, for example, and choosing from any number of fillings: from pulled beef, lamb, chicken, mushroom or grilled vegetable sliders, and adding a range of toppings and sauces.
When trying to create the perfect experience for your customers and their guests, a themed event could be the right solution. Instead of food stations with different themes, choose one over-arching motif that can then become the experience’s backdrop – that can be as complete as a night out with friends at an ethnic restaurant.
The Rise of Experiential Catering
These days, to find a foothold in the competitive catering industry, caterers must create a comprehensive sensory experience that combines food and entertainment and that leaves a lasting impression. Going beyond good food and beautiful décor, caterers must pull out all the stops to provide a unique and interactive experience. Customers are looking to be engaged and involved in the dining experience: the location, the theme, and the theatrics. The rise of experiential hospitality is challenging caterers to up their game, and produce some of the most innovative and exciting food and drink experiences around. Differentiate yourself from others by creating a buzz in a new and exciting way: create a unique, catered experience!