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Seafood University: Ambitious retailers can build business by catering.

But to make it work, you'll need to commit time, personnel, and transportation.

Jezebul's seafood store offers simpler prepared items in the display case. The catering menu lets the owners get more creative. - Jezebul's Salty Fare Seafood Market
By Joanne Friedrick
July 01, 2005

Instead of just selling seafood, many retailers have gone a step beyond and are offering customers a selection of soups, sandwiches and entres based on products from the seafood case. The next stage of customer service to consider is catering, but at what point should you take your seafood show on the road?

Some independent retailers, such as the two mentioned here, have found that combining seafood catering with their retail operations sets them apart from traditional retailers and gives them a competitive edge in the marketplace.

But adding a catering operation requires a greater level of commitment, involving transportation, inventory, equipment, personnel and planning. Still, the potential benefits include greater exposure for your store, an expanded customer base and additional income.

Jennifer Dixon, who with Michelene King operates the 1,800-square-foot Jezebel's Salty Fare Seafood Market and Catering in Raleigh, N.C., says focusing on seafood gives them an added edge in the heavily crowded local catering scene.

"I knew I'd starve to death as a regular caterer," says Dixon. "There are hundreds [of caterers] in Raleigh. To have a niche, we had to be different, so we went with seafood."

The first catering item for the year-old establishment was a Low-Country boil, which features shrimp, crab legs, littleneck clams, kielbasa, onions, potatoes and corn. The whole lot is cooked in a disposable steamer and served with cocktail sauce, lemon, butter and spices.

Dixon says she first put together these pots for friends to take to tailgate parties during North Carolina State football games, but the demand soon grew beyond the tailgate crowd.

Today Jezebel's catering menu features appetizers like coconut shrimp and crab cake; she-crab soup, oyster and seafood stews and clam chowder; and such entrees as blackened tuna, tuna kabobs and shrimp and grits.

To date, Dixon says catering represents just 10 percent of the entire business. Retail seafood sales make up 55 percent, and prepared foods account for 35 percent of sales.

"If I had a bigger staff for catering events, it would be great," says Dixon, who relies on the store's staff as well as friends to help out.

Staffing is a major concern when considering a catering operation. Charlotte Klein Sasso, co-owner of Stuart's Seafood Market in Amagansett, N.Y., says her chef, Karl Vanstone, has a restaurant background and handles the food preparation for the catering business and hires seasonal help. Vanstone, who also serves as catering director, and his wife, Carolyn, have recruited many of the people who work with them.

"You have to be able to get the staff," she explains. "Finding enough qualified people to represent you is important."

Most catering jobs for Stuart's take place during the late spring, summer and early fall, says Sasso. The company is thus able to hire teachers and students who have the summer off to work as catering help.

Businesspeople who don't work weekends also make up staff during peak periods, she adds. The catering operation can handle up to six parties a day on weekends, she notes.

Catering makes up 10 to 20 percent of Sasso's overall business. "It's strictly a summer thing and hasn't engulfed our regular seafood business," she says.

In addition to staff, other considerations when starting a seafood catering business include transportation and inventory.

"We bought a truck to maintain a certain professionalism," says Sasso, adding that Stuart's now has four trucks in the fleet as well as access to other employees' vehicles during busy stretches.

Because her market offers prepared foods, Sasso already had many of the big-ticket items, such as ample refrigeration and cooking space.

Many of the catered events are seaside clambakes, and Sasso says the crew take everything they need with them to cook, serve and clean up after the meal. The clambake features clams, lobster and marinated tuna and swordfish steaks cooked to order.

Juggling inventory is another factor for retailers-turned-caterers. Getting an accurate count of attendees from the party-givers helps when ordering.

Sasso says she evaluates costs of her fixed menus each year and raises prices accordingly. Labor is the biggest factor influencing cost, she says. For equipment rentals, Sasso adds 10 percent over cost, but says with food "you have more leeway," so she doesn't work on a set markup.

Dixon says deliveries come everyday to Jezebel's, which helps with inventory issues. But sometimes, she says, it's just a matter of trial and error. When ordering for the store's booth at the North Carolina State Fair the first time, Dixon says, "I had to order the shrimp in advance, and I over-ordered by a ton. Everyone I knew had shrimp in their freezer."

Both Sasso and Dixon say the customer base for their catering operations comes in large part from their regular retail clientele.

"Our customers almost demanded that we do [catering]," says Sasso. Stuart's catering operation began with customers who want to get clambakes from a source they felt had really fresh seafood. Conversely, people who experience these retailers products during a catered event often become store customers.

Although Jezebel's catering menu varies slightly from what is offered in its prepared-foods case, Dixon says many market customers are also catering customers. Products in the case are simpler recipes that are "good to go," says Dixon, while catered items allow her and King to get creative with more elaborate preparations.

Dixon has a background as a caterer, she notes, while her partner is a third-generation fishmonger with "a tremendous amount of seafood knowledge."

While customers are often the source of catering jobs, it's important to get the word out in other ways as well. Dixon says she has used the store's Web site and a listing in the "caterers" section of the Yellow Pages to drum up business.

As a result of its seafood-oriented catering business, Sasso says Stuarts is now employed by other caterers to provide raw bars, "because we are adept at opening clams and oysters." This exposure can also lead to new clients for Stuarts business.

If you have the resources and commitment to add catering to your retail operation, chances are you'll expand business both inside your store and off-site.

Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine
July 2005 - SeaFood Business

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