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Cashing in on Catering
With diners staying home to save money, catering has become a cheaper option for entertaining.
Catering feeds large groups at an affordable price.

While much of the food industry continues to see traffic slow, Aaron Owens Sr. says this has been one of the best years for his 6-year-old catering company.

"I keep telling people I thank God we haven't experienced any recession," he says. His business, Hilda's Fine Foods and Baked Goods, located in Brooklyn's historical Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, provides Southern-inspired cuisine and desserts for special occasions like parties and weddings. Though statistics show more people are eating-in, Owens says consumers still seek out help when it's time to feed groups.

"Some people just don't have the time or the resources to prepare for large parties," Owens says.

The end-result means big business for Owens, proving a down economy can push profits up for a lucky few.

But his experience is not unusual. Research shows, unlike the revenue drop-offs suffered by many restaurants, caterers nationwide are enjoying a sales surge. As more people choose to privately entertain at home, forgoing potentially costly nights out, they're looking to catering companies to bring the dining experience to them. The same can be said for corporations, where casually catered office meals are taking the place of the pricey power lunch.

Owens says Hilda's has even seen an increase in servicing funerals.

"There was a time when friends would bring a dish over if someone passed away, or was ill, but we find ourselves catering so many wakes that we just cannot believe it!"

A study by Technomic released last month revealed more than 50 percent of consumers are buying platters or prepared food for holidays, and at least one third of them are socializing at home with friends and family more than previous years. The company even pointed to catering as one of the strongest segments of the food industry.

Though fast-casuals have long had catering operations, traditional quick-serves have also noticed the trend. KFC advertisements announce it now caters for all occasions with other major eateries like McDonald's also rushing to adapt to changing trends. And as owners scramble to launch dual operations with both dining and catering services, they're creating opportunities for other industries.

MonkeyMedia Software, a software company in Vancouver that designs Web-based solutions for food providers, offers MonkeyCatering 3.0, intended specifically for catering owners. The program allows brands to manage their operations online—from order taking to accounting and marketing.

More than 50 percent of consumers are buying platters or prepared food, and at least one third of them are socializing at home with friends and family more.

MonkeyMedia CEO Erle Dardick says as more food places launch catering divisions, they're looking for help to develop a system that aids in the transition. As a result, Dardick, a former deli owner, and his business partner, a Web developer, teamed up to produce software that accommodates the burgeoning demographic.

"The recession has changed things," he says. "But with catering you can get retail dollar at wholesale prices—that's the beauty of it."

The catering sales manager at Nashville-based Bread & Company, Bruce Pittman, started using MonkeyCatering almost two years ago when the company needed more practical means of serving patrons.

"We took orders by hand and had no business records prior to MonkeyCatering," Pittman says. "As the volume of patrons requesting catering grew more and more, we knew we had to do something."

Lakiesha R. Carr is QSR's online exclusives reporter.