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Omaha Magazine

Catering in the time of Coronavirus: How Two Area Companies Pivoted In Response to the Global Pandemic

Sep 30, 2020 11:44AM ● By Katy Spratte Joyce
Nathan Newhouse, owner Attitude on Food

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The economic impact of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is undetermined. Yet, in these unprecedented times, business leaders see glimmers of hope and ingenuity as service providers creatively spin to meet changing needs and updated safety measures. Unsurprisingly, the novel COVID-19 has hit the catering industry particularly hard. According to the National Association of Catering and Events, whose members’ businesses rely on people gathering, the estimated economic impact is staggering. NACE Executive Director Lawrence Leonard said that, according to a March survey, 75% of membership felt negative personal economic effect and the remaining 25% waited for the other shoe to drop. Leonard estimated that the number of affected members as of late summer sits between 95% and 99%. 

Though the Omaha area claims a strong and varied economy, it is not exempt from the sweeping winds of pandemic change. Nathan Newhouse, owner of Attitude on Food, estimated the initial wave of COVID-19 closures and cancellations swallowed 95% of his catering business for the March to June time frame. Kathy Silvey from A Catered Affair said that from mid-March through the end of June, her company was down 90% in sales. 

The quick shutdown of the nation meant both companies were forced to pivot their business models and strategies. Silvey’s team revamped their menu to focus on individual and family-style meals. She said, “Instead of a dinner for 300 people, we switched to feeding families of four.” Pre-pandemic, A Catered Affair boasted a thriving lunch business, feeding an estimated 300-400 people daily around the metro and region. Silvey added the lunch business has nearly evaporated, though they have been able to offer individually packaged lunch options beyond the traditional soup and sandwich. Additionally, ACA has crafted a weekly specials menu, which gets emailed to 2,500 past clients. This has lead to new ways to engage with customers and an increased use of social media marketing, something the company was not focused on before COVID-19 hit. ACA also upped their game on beverage choices, offering local beers like Kros Strain’s Fairy Nectar and Nebraska Brewing Co.’s Cardinal Pale Ale; also selling well in the booze category are individual margarita kits. Each kit, a new option, includes a mini bottle of Patrón and homemade margarita mix. 

Newhouse said that his organization was also able to meet the changing needs of their customers. They opened an online grocery store, which was especially helpful when many staple items were sold out at supermarkets around the metro; the online store even required its own separate website and was heavily marketed on social media as well as with TV news exposure. AOF embraced take-and-bake options or hot delivery to corporate clients while creating family-style, to-go meals for smaller groups. Newhouse said that while it didn’t make up for lost income from large events like weddings and fundraisers, it did help with cash flow, and “it allowed us to keep our doors open and got us through that time before PPP was doled out.” 

To help assuage customers’ fears, make staff feel supported, and avoid spreading COVID-19, both caterers have updated protocols and procedures. AOF staff all wear masks and must comply with a daily temperature check; anyone symptomatic stays home or gets sent home. Newhouse also said that there has been extra core team communication, brainstorming, and group problem-solving to ensure that his team feels looked after and safe. Silvey has set timers so hands are being washed more frequently and also required temperature checks from March through July; staff must report symptoms and are not allowed to come to work if they show symptoms. AOF and ACA both use industrial grade sanitizing solution. Silvey added that ACA’s contactless curbside delivery option has been popular. There is no more overlap of wedding clients for tastings; they must wait in their car for the office to be sanitized between visits. 

On the event side, since buffets are no longer permitted, AOF has also tried to steer customers away from classic passed appetizers and toward a station format with limited toppings. For example, their popular mac-and-cheese bar usually comes with six or seven toppings like herbed bread crumbs, bacon, bleu cheese, roasted tomatoes, etc. These days, three or four favorite toppings selected by the client are the norm, which means less time spent in a food service line and less contact with staff for increased efficiency. 

Masks and gloves are worn the entire time catering employees are interacting with guests. Silvey said, “from the moment we arrive to the moment we leave, the masks remain on.” Additionally, since the staff members at AOF and ACA serve everything, those employees are the only ones touching the utensils. 

AOF has catered unique events—Newhouse said his favorite was an outdoor grill-out with hot meal delivery to cars at the drive-thru-style theater in Bellevue. This was for a corporate health care client, and everyone being in their own vehicles helped keep each other safe while providing a normal social outing of attending the movies. Another favorite event Newhouse mentioned was for a large local charity, which wanted to mark the grand opening of a building. Attitude on Food crafted gourmet snack boxes with instructions to wait to open them until the virtual event. Goodies were mailed ahead of time to local, out-of-state, and even Canadian recipients for this particular festive occasion. 

Silvey said her favorite event thus far happened in March, when one of her clients in West Omaha bought family-style dinners for all of his neighbors. Complete with a bottle of wine, this generosity allowed the neighborhood to experience a sense of community during isolation. 

At presstime, neither Attitude on Food nor A Catered Affair had holiday parties on the books. Newhouse said planning for the future and knowing what to expect are fraught with uncertainty, since the disease has never gone away. As the pandemic continues to impact people’s daily lives, it’s clear that the catering industry will need to continue responding with strategic changes and creative solutions.

Visit attitudeonfood.com and acaomaha.com for more information.

This article was printed in the October/November 2020 issue of B2B Magazine.