How to Cater A Box Lunch Event
All Just A Matter of Proper Planning
Catering, though many people think they can cater an event, is not as easy as it seems. There are so many factors that can cause you great failure and embarrassment not to mention make people sick. I often chuckle when people blurt out how they too cater on occasion. Cooking at your church or your large family reunion doesn't make you a caterer. I will say, however, it’s a good start to possibly understand how you can, with practice and study become a professional caterer.
Taking into account that you've obtained your ServeSafe certification (www.servsafe.com), you have a commercial kitchen to use, have the proper liability insurance, and of course, are operating a legitimate business, I will explain how to prepare a box lunch event.
Before you attempt to bag a large event of 100+ requested box lunches, I suggest you practice on a group of 40 or less. I learned very early, the hard way, that timing is all so important. If you aren't sure how long it will take you to make sandwiches, you could find yourself faced with a late delivery to your new client.
Let's look closely at providing box lunches for a group of 40 attending a meeting at a corporation about 35 minutes from your commercial kitchen. You, a sole proprietor, will be fulfilling the contract for service alone - no other help. The contact at the corporation didn't pay for foodservice until 3 days before delivery (example: paid Monday, delivery Thursday). Hopefully, you have a merchant account or Paypal to accept credit card payments. Otherwise, you'll be footing the bill until the client's money is in your hands. My first merchant account was through Quickbooks www.quickbooks.com. Click the tab "payment solutions" for more information.
The Client Order
Your client purchased a simple box lunch menu: smoke turkey on multi-grain, tuna salad on croissant and sliced chicken breast on sub rolls with an Italian pasta salad, cookies and canned sodas. Your client specified the lunches be boxed. Use stackable boxes for easy delivery,
Essentially, you are shopping your first day then prepping on your second and third days. Your third day should have enough available time to repair any errors in your supplies or food prep. You must leave yourself plenty of time to fix errors.
- Step 1 Day 1: Gather your paper supplies - boxes, 8 ounce plastic containers with lids for pasta salad, tissue paper, utensil packs (napkins, fork, knife, salt/pepper), cellophane bags for cookies, twisty ties for cookies, 10-12 ounces cups for soda, blank labels and stickers or tape.
- Step 2 Day 1: Shop for food supplies
- Step 3 Day 2: Make your pasta salad store in containers and bake your cookies
- Step 4 Day 3: Make your sandwiches, bag your cookies then fill your boxes, refrigerate (each box: sandwich, container of pasta, cookie bag, utensil pack, 1 pc of Hellman's and 1 pc of Gulden's - for the sliced chicken put in two pc's of each condiment because these are meaty and personally I don't like a dry sandwich.)
- Step 5 Day 4: Delivery
Be a wise caterer, plan out every event in this fashion. Become a great caterer and have your vendors DELIVER your supplies to you!
Tips and Tricks
The trick with catering is hosting the same menu at two different events either on the same day or only a couple of days apart. This allows for purchasing in larger quantities shared between two events ultimately saving your event budgets resulting in more profit. To determine how much to prepare for your group of 40, try this method:
Three (3) types of sandwiches with a total of 40 = 13 smoke turkey, 13 tuna and 14 chicken
- 1 pack of fresh jumbo chicken breasts from Sam's Club (sprinkle chicken with dried basil, add a little chicken broth in the pan then bake. Cool and slice lengthwise. Don't guess if the chicken breasts are done - slice one open!)
- 1 large can tuna from Sam's Club (dice 1/2 red pepper to add with Hellman's Mayonnaise - don't cheat your customers with cheap mayo)
- 3 slices of smoke turkey per sandwich
- 1 pack/2 loaves multi-grain bread from Sam's Club (makes 13 sandwiches)
- 1 pack of freshly baked sandwich croissants from Sam's Club (makes 12 sandwiches)
- 2 packs/6 long rolls each Hoagie/Sub rolls from Sam's (cut off rounded ends and then cut in half. You'll need extra sandwiches of chicken because of possible shortage).
- 1 pack of roma tomatoes from Sam's Club (my preference to use romas rather than other tomatoes which can get soggy)
- 1 pack Baby Swiss Cheese from Sam's Club (about 40 slices)
- 1 large bag field greens from Sam's Club (my preference rather than green leaf)
- 1 box portion control Hellman's Mayonnaise and 1 box portion control Gulden's Spicy Brown Mustard (Portion control or "PC" is just another name for those little squeeze packs of condiments. I don't skimp on flavor hence the Hellman's and Gulden's. I purchase at the Restaurant Depot)
Create Your Own Logo & Sandwich Label
Use a simple desk top publishing software like Microsoft Publisher to make custom labels listing the contents of each box lunch. Just create your labels in any size or shape, type in the contents of the box on the label, print, cut out and stick on the top of the box to help seal. This is a much cheaper alternative to custom printed labels.
Preparation: Pasta Salad and Cookies
When you've exhausted all your ideas for new pasta salads, turn to your favorite commercial dressings as an alternative. Seriously, these companies spend thousands of dollars in research and development to wow us with flavor. Don't serve a mediocre dressing just so you can say you made it from scratch! I must recommend Ken's Dressings (www.kensfoods.com) as some of the best on the market! Don't forget to visit the corporate sites of these products because often the sites are loaded with good recipes. My basic pasta salad at its best the next day:
- Italian brand Penne, cook and chill before mixing
- Shaved Parmesan Cheese
- Medium pitted black olives
- Red, yellow and orange peppers, cut into sticks
- Marinated artichokes, chopped
- Ken's Lite Caesar dressing
Although stuffing cookies in cello bags then using twisty ties to seal is an extra step, I've noticed how my clients save the cookies or take the cookies home to a child. Wrapping them nicely allows me to charge a little extra. See the resources section below about cookies.
Store your pasta salad containers and cookies in the refrigerator. For extra temporary refrigeration, try Rent-A-Center (www.rentacenter.com). Be certain to add the cost somewhere in your client's bill.
Preparation and Refrigeration: Sandwiches
There's no special trick to making a decent sandwich. Always, it's the ingredients that count. If you are planning on catering box lunches all the time, come up with your own sandwich recipes that are unique to you. Start with your favorite sandwiches then deconstruct them only to remake them in a new way - your way!
Remember to work fast with foods that are unrefrigerated. Choose one sandwich to make laying out ALL the bread for the number you need. Preparing each group of sandwiches in this manner ensures even distribution of the field greens, tomato, Swiss cheese and meat. Your sandwiches must appear equal in contents. Once you have completed one group of sandwiches, just wrap with food-safe tissue and refrigerate. For three different types of sandwiches consider using three different colors of food-safe wrapping tissue.
Sodas, Ice & Delivery Day
I rarely chill soft drinks prior to delivery. Unless you have a refrigerated truck, it may be difficult to keep can soft drinks cold. Regarding ice service, I charge 1.00 per person. Repeat customers sometimes get at least one bag complimetary.
On delivery day, your only task is to load your box lunches in your vehicle in a manner for food-safe delivery. If you don't own a refrigerated truck use large thermos ice chests with ice packs to keep the boxes cold.
Lastly, if the event is 35 minutes from your kitchen, add in an extra hour for packing your vehicle plus another 30 minutes for unloading and setting up. Never forget to ask the client specifics about parking and unloading.
Best of luck to you and have fun catering!
For standard boxes for lunch visit: http://www.mrtakeoutbags.com. This is an excellent source and will have practically everything you need. Heck, Wolfgang Puck (http://www.wolfgangpuck.com) shops there!. Also visit www.nashvillewraps.com. Nashville Wraps is restricted to the wholesale trade so have your sales tax ID ready. Nashville has fancy papers, wraps and ribbons that would be fabulous for upscale boxed lunches.
Tissue paper must be food-safe. Try www.restaurantdepot.com as another option for "sandwich wrap" paper. You really need a membership so take your sales tax ID number.
If you can't get into the Restaurant Depot, try Sam's Club www.samsclub.com for your "picnic paks" - forks, knives, napkins, salt/pepper all packaged together. You want to keep your eating utensils as sanitized as possible. I don't recommend uncovered eating utensils.
Clear cello bags with twisty ties are perfect for your cookies. Nashville wraps have nice cello bags and twisty ties www.nashvillewraps.com Only bag two large cookies per guest. At Sam's Club, you can purchase the same delicious cookies they sell in the bakery area in FROZEN PUCKS. Ask someone in the bakery for a case of cookies. For 40 people you'll need 80 cookies. A case, I believe has 100-120 frozen cookie pucks you can bake fresh in your commercial oven!
Get your cups from Sam's or the Restaurant Depot. It is more cost-effective for you not to pay for cups at retail prices. Also secure clear plastic wrap for the purpose of wrapping your 40 cups to be delivered with the lunch. Remember, sanitation is extremely important.
The best ice packs are by Cryopak. They offer a flexible Ice Blanket. Once cold, I put them inside heavy duty plastic bags then layer them on the bottom and between boxes. If you can't find the ice blankets, visit Roshgo (under Commercial Gel Ice Packs) to view (www.roshgo.com) but do your research for a better price.