Whether you need fresh catering ideas to land a cutting-edge client or you’re looking for one-off events to leverage your catering skills in the slow season, this list is for you. Offering unique catering menus and collaborating with like-minded small businesses helps you drive business throughout the year.
- Write menus that meet customer appetites for sustainability.
- Look for ways to personalize customer experiences with interactive food stations and staff members.
- Leverage your existing equipment and skillset to offer more dynamic services like cooking classes and food tours.
Unique Catering Menu Ideas
When you have a successful catering brand, it can be easy to just do the same menus and event types. They keep the money coming in after all! The ideas in this category are all about unique ways to serve your food and some current food trends to freshen up your menus.
1. Interactive Food Stations
Interactive food stations have come a long way since the brunch standby omelet station. Although, the omelet station is still a classic; there’s no shame in rolling one out if the occasion calls for one. But there are so many more options for interaction and—most importantly—personalization. American consumers are more obsessed with personalization than ever. According to a McKinsey report, 71% of consumers expect companies to deliver personalized interactions, and even more (76%) get annoyed when personalization is not available.
Interactive food stations are tailor-made for personalization. It could be as simple as a popcorn station or as elaborate as a build-your-own poke bowl. Just be sure you have the appropriate equipment to keep whatever you are serving at a safe serving temperature throughout your event.
2. Interactive Service Staff
This strategy goes beyond the interactive table, arming your service staff themselves with interactive components. This can be a hoop skirt filled with Champagne flutes or an oyster shucker with a belt holster of mignonette. You could also create something completely new to draw client interest.
3. Personalized Menus (or Items)
Find dynamic ways to work personalization into your menu offerings. Depending on your location and your target customer types, you could offer to create menus that use your customer’s names, zodiac signs, favorite colors, or other attributes. If your client has the budget, you can offer dishes or cocktails with their images printed on top.
You can order custom prints on frosting sheets directly from sites like Inkedibles, or buy an edible printer that prints directly onto food or onto thin sugar sheets with edible ink. An edible printer can be a worthwhile investment to expand your personalization services. Depending on the scale you plan to print, you can find an edible printer from $150 to more than $30,000.
4. Think Sustainably
Sustainability is almost as popular with consumers as personalization. In a recent survey, 42% of consumers said they always or nearly always consider environmental impacts when making food purchases. That’s an 18-point increase since 2022. So in 2023, you kind of can’t afford to not think sustainably. Offer menus that feature locally sourced ingredients and tout their environmental benefits and low carbon footprint.
Creating dishes that feature cover crops or that use the whole ingredient (like carrots served with carrot top pesto) are good ways to meet clients’ appetites for sustainability. You can even get certifications from the Green Restaurant Association and the Green Wedding Alliance to show you are serious about sustainability.
5. Fair Trade Menu
Fair trade is another marketable angle that clients look for when making food purchases. Luckily, fair trade certifications have been around for a long time. Fair trade products are also widely available, even from mainline food distributors and major supermarket chains.
6. Mushroom Menu
Mushrooms are having a moment in 2023. Mushrooms make a great savory placeholder in meat-free dishes—and this lines up with consumer curiosity about meat-free living. Consumers also perceive mushrooms to have adaptogenic benefits, feeding customer interest in “functional” foods. A recent study found that 57% of global consumers think mushrooms have positive health impacts.
Try creating a menu that heavily features a variety of mushrooms—even better if they are organic; according to the USDA, the US organic mushroom industry is actively growing.
7. CBD Menu
No conversation about trending ingredients is complete without mentioning cannabidiol, or CBD. CBD is a non-THC-containing chemical found in marijuana. Customers are interested in it because CBD is believed to help with relaxation. CBD is legal at the federal level but check your state laws. Some states (like Idaho and South Dakota) do not permit the use of CBD.
If you’re in the clear to move forward with a CBD menu, it is easy to add this ingredient to food. CBD is easily infused into oils, which can be added to any number of dishes from lattes to salad dressings and salsas. Virtually any dish, savory or sweet, can feature CBD.
8. Open Your Kitchen
Open kitchens are popular in restaurants, so why not at a catered event? Rent ranges, grills, and other equipment to create a show kitchen for your event attendees. Make the most of an open kitchen configuration by preparing a menu with lots of active cooking components. Stir-fries on a flat top grill or wok or a whole roast animal on a rotisserie grill are visually appealing options for large events.
9. Embrace Your Inner Child
Comfort food is classic for a reason. Turn the comfort dial up by invoking childhood nostalgia and serving grown-up fare in a childlike way or upgrading childhood favorite foods with a high-end flare. One of my all-time favorite takes on this theme is the childhood menu from Chicago restaurant Next—they served foie gras mousse off a mixer whisk. You might serve a charcuterie board in the style of a Lunchable or offer updated takes on grilled cheese sandwiches or mac and cheese.
10. Go Nonalcoholic
A growing number of consumers are “sober curious;” 34% of Americans say they are trying to drink less in 2023. But sober curious diners still want a high-end experience. Update your beverage offerings with curated, well-crafted nonalcoholic beverages. Several brands—like Seedlip and Ritual—make alcohol-free spirits that give you completely nonalcoholic beverages with the elegance and refined flavor profile of a classic cocktail.
11. Go Vertical
Think of ways to go vertical with your food displays. This could be a pegboard to hang donuts or a fleet of tasting spoons on a fishing line. Vertical displays do double duty as decor and food. So, get creative. Google and Instagram searches for the term “food wall” can give you plenty of inspiration.
12. Zero-waste Event
Catering and events are known for a long trail of single-use paper and plastic items, not to mention the potential for leftover food waste. Sustainably minded clients also tend to be interested in the concept of zero-waste—in fact, 69% of consumers say they are zero-waste advocates. So, pitch a catering package with zero-waste options.
There are five strategies for reaching zero waste: reduce, reuse, recycle, refuse, and rot. You can start by reducing the items you need to the bare minimum. Look for opportunities for using reusable vessels rather than single-use items. Find recyclable or compostable options for any single-use items. Refuse to use items that are wasteful, and finally, compost whatever food waste you can. Alternatively, you can arrange for leftover food to be delivered to a charity and use reusable containers to transport food.
13. Restaurant Within a Restaurant
The strategy here is to essentially style an event like a restaurant pop-up. Either style your serving stations as individual restaurants, or collaborate with other businesses to actually create an event with several pop-ups. This increases the variety for your clients while also sharing the workload. This is a great choice for a large event that might otherwise be outside the scope of your catering abilities. By choosing your collaborators in advance to offer a pop-up package to a client, you ensure that you know everyone involved. This can be better than working with businesses you don’t know.
Creative Catering Concepts
Fresh menu ideas and unique serving styles are great when you have event inquiries walking in the door. But what about those times of year when your catering supplies are gathering dust? This section is full of innovative ideas for catering businesses to keep busy (and drum up business) when they find themselves an unbooked week or wanting to add a new revenue stream.
14. Cooking Class
Teach a cooking class featuring your favorite cuisine or showing your customers how to use seasonal produce. You can turn a profit on a cooking class in a couple of ways. One of them is, of course, charging for the class itself. Cooking classes also have the potential to drive bigger business since your cooking class clients are also potential event clients. So, make sure you impress them with your culinary skills and show them how great you are to work with so they book you the next time they need catering services.
15. Food Subscription
If you have the bandwidth, consider creating a food subscription business for local customers. This could be a single weekly meal you offer for pick up or a full week’s worth of reheatable meals. What you offer will depend entirely on your available time, equipment, and customer base. Keep the foods interesting and economical. You want to be able to turn a healthy profit—at least 30%—without pricing your offering so high that customers fail to bite.
16. Meal Kit
You don’t have to cook everything to create a new revenue stream. You can organize ingredients into kits with recipes and offer a local alternative to food subscriptions that require shipping. Market your kits to customers who are concerned about sustainability and carbon footprints. Local kits come with a shorter supply chain and can also be more flexible than subscriptions from a bigger brand. If you can, offer some customization options that the bigger brands can match, like kits that consider food allergies and dietary restrictions.
17. Farmers Market Booth
Sell prepared foods like breads, pastries, and condiments from a booth at a farmers market. A farmers market booth is also a good place to sell meal kits. However, until you are well established in a market, you’ll be more successful selling smaller items at more affordable prices.
18. Partner With Local Farms
Collaborate with a local farm to cook and sell prepared foods made from their products. If the farm is open to the public, cooking and serving on their property could create an event large enough to draw a crowd and sell tickets. You could combine this strategy with another and teach an on-farm cooking demonstration or cooking class. The farm gets a way to use up ripening produce before it spoils, and you both have an opportunity to meet new customers.
19. Winter Greenhouse Party
Another fun farm collaboration is to host a gathering in a greenhouse during a cold month. One of my friends who owns a farm in New England does greenhouse events every winter, and they are incredibly popular with the local community. Especially in places with long winters, gatherings in greenhouses can be a great way to boost everyone’s moods with a warm, sunny place to gather. And who knows? Your winter greenhouse party might just turn into some winter greenhouse events, bringing business to both you and your farm collaborator.
20. Partner With a Brewery or Cidery
Food and beer and excellent partners. Many breweries are also small business owners, like you. Cideries are also an increasingly popular small beverage business, and ciders are just as food-friendly, and a great beer alternative for customers who are gluten-free.
Most breweries and cideries would be eager for food collaborators, and many have excellent venues for events, either at their brewery or—in the case of cideries—at their orchards. Designing a food menu to complement beer or cider is also an excellent way to expand your menu offerings for future clients.
21. Food Truck
Many catering companies eventually purchase a food truck so they have a mobile kitchen for off-site events. In low seasons, this gives you the option to simply run a food truck. You don’t have to go guerilla truck style and set up on a different street corner every day; you can use your food truck to sell a la carte offerings at festivals, conferences, and outdoor markets.
See our guide to opening a food truck for information on more food truck operating strategies.
22. Chef’s Table
Take a page out of the private chef’s book and offer smaller, more intimate services, like cooking a dinner for two in a client’s home. If you have a secluded space in your catering kitchen, you could also offer to host clients there (if local zoning permits). Hire a waiter to take care of the table service aspect, or serve the clients yourself.
23. Freezer Filler
This personalized service is a spin on subscription boxes and meal kits. Create a service offering that fills a client’s freezer with easily reheated meals. In addition to being a service clients purchase for themselves, a freezer filler service is a great gift for new parents, and families who have experienced a loss or recently moved.
24. Picnic Baskets
Expand your revenue stream in good weather by offering pre-packed picnic baskets. These are a great fit for tourist destinations like beach communities and other scenic destinations. Such locations also tend to be popular wedding spots, so your one-time picnic customer could turn into a much larger client down the line.
Picnic baskets are also great options if you are located near outdoor event locations like the Kennedy Space Center (with its rocket launches) or the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles (which has 14 different picnic areas for concert-goers).
25. Tour of Local Food
As a food service provider you know a lot about food, and likely a lot about local food and food producers. Leverage those skills and contacts to offer a local culinary tour. Include farms, restaurants, and production spaces like breweries and wineries. If small businesses in your area produce ice cream, cheese, or other artisan products, visit those businesses, too. You’ll earn money through ticket sales and deepen your connection to a network of local businesses.
26. Charity Collaboration
Consider collaborating with a charity or nonprofit for a year or a season. Let clients know that a portion of your proceeds will go to support a local food shelf, wildlife preserve, educational organization, or other group that is close to your heart. This is an especially lovely way for caterers in tourist destinations to give back to the surrounding community. Clients like knowing their dollars are doing good, and giving back to local organizations deepens your ties to your neighbors.
27. Dinner Theater Collaboration
Dinner and a show is a classic combination. Reach out to local performance groups to see if they are interested in a dinner theater collaboration. As a caterer, you’re used to setting up an event from tables to serving utensils and food, so you could turn any location into a dinner and theater location—whether outdoors or in.
28. Tasting Event
Host a tasting event to showcase your menu offerings to potential clients. This is a great strategy ahead of wedding or holiday event seasons. Invite local event planners, companies that throw holiday parties, and other wedding businesses like photographers and DJs to taste your food. Print physical menus and business cards they can take away so attendees can easily contact you and send you referrals.
There are many ways to diversify your catering business. Whether you want to add a permanent new revenue stream or simply find ways to fill a few slow weekends, you can leverage your existing equipment and relationships to keep your business profitable all year long. Look for local businesses you can collaborate with, and write fresh menus to meet changing customer interests in sustainability.