Post-Pandemic Service in the Catering and Events Industry
Wedding season is once again upon us, bringing the usual challenges that everyone faces with regard to staffing and service. Depending on how you look at it, we are realistically either two years or one year past the pandemic, and still managing our way through the subsequent fall-out; as an off-premise caterer, I thought it might be a good time to look at where the industry stands in terms of attaining the levels of service we were at before 2020 pulled the rug out from under us. How much progress have we really made? Is it even realistic to expect that we will achieve those levels again?
Let’s start off by being honest about the service levels you were at before the pandemic. Did the pandemic cause your current challenges, or did it just exacerbate an existing problem that was already growing? Many of us that were trained, for example, in fine dining had to some degree already started to make minor (or major) concessions with regard to “proper” service. I remember worrying about the future of catering and dining long before the word “pandemic” became a staple of our daily vocabulary. Would future generations embrace the concepts of hospitality and customer service, or were those outdated notions?
Finding, training, and retaining qualified staff has been a problem for years now. The concept of having large in-house teams was arguably fading long before the industry came to a grinding halt. The current “gig” mentality provides employees with the flexibility to make last minute choices about when and where they want to work, with a quick pay day. Loyalty to any one individual or company seems to be an exception, where in many cases it used to feel like the norm. So if you want to improve your service levels, what do you do?
First, you need to establish what your “new” service levels and identity are, or should be. Being known previously for elaborate and intricate culinary presentations, synchronized table service, and/or “cooked to order”, interactive food stations may not mean that that’s what you should be known for now. While the pandemic had an innumerous number of downsides, one upside was that it gave us all a chance to reinvent our business models and approaches. If something no longer works, let it go. Change menus where needed, update service styles, and educate your sales teams, operations teams, and culinary teams so that everyone is on the same page. A meeting with all team members, where everyone is encouraged to speak freely, is a great way to get feedback and ideas; make sure you do have some parameters in place to keep the conversation on track and moving forward.
Once you’ve settled on your identity, and what makes sense for your team, take a look at any training manuals and new hire paperwork you might have sitting around the office or online. There’s a good chance that the language used may need to be updated, and company policies may well have changed as you adapted to an unstable and unpredictable work environment. When these items are updated as needed, make sure that all team members are aware of the “rules”, and that they are enforced consistently. Sure, when all of us were so short staffed (and possibly still are), did we let some uniform concerns slide? When you’re short multiple bodies on an event, the wrong pants, or sneakers in place of dress shoes, don’t seem like such a big deal, but they are. The mindset of “Well at least they showed up,” has to go away.
Payrates are also something to review if you haven’t already. Let’s face it, staff members talk to each other all the time, so there are no secrets with regard to which server or party chef is making what per hour. If you are building a team where flexibility is key, and you value an employee that is willing to help out wherever needed, that employee should not be penalized financially for working one position over another. Gig workers/temporary employees also get paid premium rates for some shifts – make sure your staff are also receiving the same premium rates, or you will lose them. They can easily quit and go to work for an outside agency as well.
Everyday, I see more and more stores and businesses that have changed their operational approaches (seeing an actual cashier or floor attendant in Center City Philadelphia has become a rare site indeed). Having no staff, or poorly trained staff, is just not an option when it comes to the catering and events industry; we need to adapt in order to consistently provide our customers with the experiences we’ve all been known for. Using the pandemic as an excuse or reason for poor service? Nope.
Doug Quattrini, CPCE, Director of Sales – Feastivities Events, Philadelphia PA