Catering Equipment Buyers' Guide
Success in catering depends on several factors, including a number of intangibles like who you know and how well you understand and adapt to your local market. But one thing that always impacts your ultimate success is whether you have the right catering supplies to deliver quality service.
The first major challenge that a caterer faces is keeping food hot and appetizing between the time it's finished cooking and the moment it's presented to guests. There are many solutions at varying levels of cost and complexity, and choosing the right catering equipment depends primarily on how long food needs to be held.
Non-Heated Food Carriers
The simplest transportation solutions are non-heated food carriers. They're built with pan slides that accommodate batches of food held in standard Gastronorm food pans. They're best for making shorter trips from the kitchen to the venue as they'll only keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold for four hours at the most. Most manufacturers offer hot and cold packs that are designed to be inserted into the equipment and extend those holding times.
Non-heated food carriers take two forms. The lighter-weight and slightly less expensive solution is the soft-sided food delivery bag. These hold up to half a dozen pans, and they can be carried by hand by one person, making them easy to load, unload, and carry. They're generally much lighter than the more rugged alternatives.
A more heavy-duty method of transportation is the food carrier, generally made from nearly-indestructible polyethylene. The smallest hold four full-size hotel pans and are generally light enough to be carried by hand. Larger carriers can hold twice that number of pans or more. Both sizes can be pushed around on dollies, and both are usually made with vents to exhaust steam, preventing moisture from making your products soggy.
For transporting individual pans, or one layer of several fractional-sized pans, there are top-loading carriers made of the same rugged materials. They're small enough to be carried individually, and can be transported on dollies when stacked. Food can be served directly out of them, making them an excellent solution when food will be plated before it's served. They're also an ideal option for holding ingredients and trimmings that will be assembled at your venue.
Heated Holding Cabinets
Heated holding cabinets are the catering equipment solution to keeping food hot for more than just a couple of hours, as well as situations where the box will need to be opened and closed frequently. They're powered by heating elements and often include a circulating fan to spread the heat out evenly. They're typically constructed with a sturdy metal frame that sits on large casters capable of traversing varied terrain. They're available in full- or half-sizes.
Presenting and Serving Food
Chafers are the go-to serving solution for buffet-style catered events. They come in a few common shapes and sizes, most of which are designed to accommodate standard food pans. The simplest kind have removable lift-off covers; others have roll-back covers. The latter come at a higher cost but are tidier and a little more convenient to use.
Because presentation is key at catered events, chafers come in a number of attractive finishes. Mirrored chrome is by far the most popular. Designs range from classical opulent to modern sleek and simple. This buffet equipment is also available with various gold and brass accents to match your demographics' expectations.
Traditional chafers are heated with canned chafing fuel. Electric heating elements can be purchased as a substitute for fuel, which can be safer and cheaper to operate, but can be tricky to accommodate at venues without plentiful electrical outlets.
Buffet Stands and Risers
As an alternative to serving buffet offerings in chafers, food can be set up on buffet stands and risers. This decorative buffet equipment consists of platforms that display individual platters of food and are the most upscale of all display options. There are fuel-heated risers as well as non-heated options. Although setting them up might require more labor and time than regular chafers, customers who expect to see them will probably be willing to pay a premium.
Another class of catering supplies that's almost as important as chafers is serving utensils, including tongs, serving spoons, and ladles. Plastic is the affordable solution, costing just a few dollars each or less, so you can afford for a couple of them to go missing occasionally. If your style dictates it, metal versions are available in the same steel finishes as common flatware.
Buffet Beverage Serving
Insulated Beverage Dispensers
Insulated beverage dispensers are made from the same rugged polyethylene as their food-holding cousins. This design helps keeps their contents insulated so they maintain their proper serving temperature throughout service. These are available with capacities ranging from under two gallons to nearly a dozen.
There are also decorative coffee urns for holding batches of hot drinks large enough to serve dozens of guests. They're available with the same finish as common chafers to match your lineup and they are kept hot with the same canned fuel as chafers.
For serving bottled and canned drinks, cooling tubs filled with ice can create a classic way to chill and present drinks. They're available in styles ranging from rustic to modern.
Modern plastic drinkware mimics the look and clarity of glass very well, without posing the safety hazard or being nearly as heavy as the real thing. They resist the scratching and clouding of plastics in the past that barred them from being suitable for upscale dining. These catering supplies are available in the form of tumblers for soft drinks, tea, and water, as well as stemware appropriate for serving nearly any conceivable cocktail, spirit, or wine.
Whether you set up a sauté station or offer grilled-to-order steaks and burgers, having an on-site chef preparing custom meals for guests can add a special flair to an event and provide a hint of personalization that is often missing from catered meals.
Induction cooktops are the go-to equipment for mobile cooking. They're relatively lightweight and plenty of models come equipped for regular 120 V power, which you'll have access to at most venues. Because they use no open flame and only generate heat in the actual cooking pan, they're very safe for use near a crowd and in hectic environments.
Butane stoves are a more conventional alternative, and while they're a little more cumbersome and not quite as safe as induction burners, they're the answer to cooking where there's no electricity.
Even for operations on the go, good handwashing practices are critical to the safety of guests and staff. Investing in a mobile sink or a fleet of them provide employees and guests a convenient place to wash their hands wherever your buffet is set up. Mobile sinks don't require running water, but in order to provide hot water, they must be connected to a power supply. They'll include water reservoirs for holding both fresh water and waste water. Hand soap dispensers and paper towel dispensers are also often built in.