Christmas always comes early for caterers. Long before most people's thoughts turn to the festive season, there are menus to plan and marketing activities to devise. Then, as December draws closer, the attention turns to buying the extra food needed for numerous pre-Christmas office parties and family get-togethers.
For many caterers the seasonal rush means reliance, at least to some extent, on pre-prepared products - products that will make the job easier and ensure maximum return on the kitchen brigade's efforts.
Food plays a big role all year round at the 120-seat Camden Arms in Tunbridge Wells, Kent. But with the pub's traditional open fires and the atmosphere offered by a 250-year-old building, Christmas always represents a massive business opportunity for proprietor James Cunningham.
Special Christmas menus are printed as early as April, and by August Christmas Day is usually 50% booked. Such advance preparation is essential, particularly with the pre-Christmas and Christmas Day menus offering such a wide choice of fare.
A typical pre-Christmas menu, available from mid-November, will offer a choice of five starters, six main courses and four desserts. Options tend towards the traditional, with roast turkey and all the trimmings a perennial favourite. Other main-course options for this Christmas include traditional roast beef, asparagus-stuffed chicken breast and poached salmon in a prawn sauce.
While Cunningham advocates using fresh ingredients, he is realistic enough to know that when he's catering for parties of up to 120 people, a little help in the form of pre-prepared products is essential. Pressure is taken off of the five-strong kitchen brigade by regular use of Maggi Original Gravy, and a variety of the brand's sauces, all of which are customised in the pub kitchen.
The prawn sauce, for serving with the salmon, uses Maggi B‚chamel Sauce as a base, with fresh prawns added. And for the Christmas Day gravy, Cunningham adds port and red wine to Maggi Original Gravy for something "a bit special".
The most important aspect of any pre-prepared product has to be consistency, Cunningham says. "Chefs need something that is easy to use and that they can rely on," he says. "And customers want to know their sauce or gravy is going to taste the same every time they order a particular dish."
With customers expecting something rather special for their Christmas celebration meal, it's important to add value to the dishes on the menu without upping food costs considerably.
"Customer complaints during the Christmas period are often regarding value for money with many believing they are overcharged," says Phil Marshall, senior marketing manager for Woodward Foodservice. "It is essential for caterers to work closely with their suppliers to create a bespoke menu that fits staff skills and resources and makes an impact with customers looking for a special meal with family, friends and work colleagues." The company has added a Turkey Wellington to its Christmas range for caterers looking for a bit of a twist.
And the pastry element adds value. "The addition of pastry to a meal adds only 5-8% on to ingredient costs yet can command a price premium of a further 20% or more," says John McKears, bakery and food service sales manager for Jus-Rol. Other suggestions for using the company's range of frozen prepared pastry include keeping vegetarian diners happy with a vegetable jalousie-style dish or offering a freshly prepared fruit pie as an alternative to Christmas pudding.
Just because you're using pre-prepared products doesn't mean there's no room for innovation. In fact a bit of creativity can increase the return on pre-prepared products, says Kelly Hance, culinary technologist for Schwartz for Chef. "Don't be afraid to use leftovers and traditional meal accompaniments to add value to a buffet or to create a more adventurous range of starters," she says. "For example, rather than just using cranberry sauce as a side-of-plate serving, why not try making goats' cheese and cranberry sauce bruschetta? It's ideal as a light, festive canapâ or starter and a great way of using Christmas leftovers. What's more, there are customers who like cranberry sauce but not turkey - or who are vegetarians - and this dish is a great way of bridging that gap."
Say cheese The Cheese Cellar Company suggests making the most of the festive season by offering a variety of unusual cheeses. "Create a cheeseboard that encourages your customers to explore new tastes and textures," says managing director Brian Baker. "And instead of restricting the cheeseboard to evenings, make the most of the lunchtime trade too and don't forget to recommend accompanying drinks. Cheese is popular as a shared snack to enjoy over a fine wine, a fruity cider or a glass of festive port so provide a selection of cheeseboards with drink suggestions."