ICA webinar recap: a seasoned caterer's secrets for beating burnout

After two years of survival mode, catering companies were hit with one of the busiest wedding seasons in recent memory. While a jam-packed schedule may seem like a blessing after all the industry has been through, it’s not without its drawbacks. Companies that take on too much, too fast risk wearing out their employees — and themselves.

And although the peak wedding season is now behind us, the holiday events season and a busy 2022 are just around the corner. So how can you prepare for the next time you're swamped?

In a recent webinar with the International Caterer Association, we spoke with Tony Santos, Executive Chef & owner of Tony Caters, and a number of other industry experts to discuss how they combated burnout during one of the most challenging seasons to date. Here are a few of the top takeaways.

  1. Identify your core team & train up supplemental staff
  2. Build out & refine your on-call roster
  3. Have an always-on recruiting mindset
  4. Offer competitive compensation
  5. Get detailed with training materials
  6. Show support & appreciation

1. Identify your core team & train up supplemental staff

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Santos had to furlough his entire team. But as soon as business started picking up again, he quickly began reassembling an all-star lineup.

“We definitely used it as a chance to bring back the staff that we really wanted… it gave us a chance to have a more dialed-in roster of our own staff,” Santos said.

With a core group of high performers in house to lead operations and take on the more specialized tasks, he began building out his bench by recruiting and adding Instawork Professionals to his roster.

“When we get into the busy season, we never can get it done with our in-house staff [alone], so the Instawork partnership’s been great for us to be able to flex up like that.” 

-Tony Santos, Executive Chef & owner of Tony Caters

“There's so much infrastructure with Instawork… I love the fact that there's dynamic pricing and flexibility,” Santos added.

One of the ways he’s been able to help Instawork Pros immediately add value is by starting them out in support roles and moving them up over time. 

“And if someone just surprises you in the right direction halfway through the event, we're definitely shuffling them around” to more high-skilled positions, Santos added.

2. Build out & refine your on-call roster

One of the biggest game-changers for Tony Caters? Instawork’s roster feature, which allows you to create a pool of your favorite Instawork Pros to call on anytime you need. They’ve been making sure to pad their lineup with extra staffers for added assurance.

“We have 100 or so people on our roster, we've cast a pretty wide net,” Santos said. “It's all part of good client service in the long game, and I think it's worth it right now.”

After all, it’s better to have them and not need them than to need them and not have them — especially since there’s no fee if you cancel more than 24 hours in advance.

Austin-based catering company PEJ Events has been taking a similar approach, adding nearly all high-performing Instawork Pros to their roster.

“It's definitely been an easier way for us to staff our events, to find those people for busy weekends," said David from PEJ Events. We know that we're getting people that have seen our events before and are familiar with our team.”

“We have a group of about 25 of our own staff, and then our Instawork roster is about 40… if I combine those, we're actually at a bigger roster than we were pre-COVID, which has been great because our wedding business is off the charts right now.”

- PEJ Events (Austin, TX)

Santos and his team have been taking the time to cultivate their roster during their weekly production meetings.

“When we have the bigger events where we've had a lot of Instaworkers, we're always talking about how well they did [and] if we want to add certain people on the roster,” he explained.

This is critical to making sure that you don’t let any star workers slip through the cracks, Santos said. 

“We had [someone] who had no gig experience with Instawork, [but] he was amazing. He had tons of experience, he just didn't have tons of Instawork experience,” he shared. “So he's like the number one on our roster, great guy to work with.”

3. Have an always-on recruiting mindset

With a serious shortage of hospitality workers in today’s market, companies need to think about recruitment as an ongoing initiative — not just a to-do list item to be crossed off. As business ramps up and headcount fluctuates, companies that haven't spent enough time hiring risk overwhelming their staff, and maybe even needing to turn down opportunities.

Santos’s team has been putting the call out for employees in all sorts of ways, from the standard — online job boards, recruiting at college campuses and hospitality schools — to the more creative.

A few of his existing employees attend Orangetheory Fitness classes, and they’ve been using their local studio and its Facebook page as a recruiting source. He also reaches out to service employees he comes across in his everyday life.

“I've handed business cards out to baristas and quick-service restaurant employees that are just really going above and beyond with customer service,” Santos said.

He’s also encouraged his team to reach out to folks in their own personal networks — but only if they truly think they’d be a good fit.

“Everybody puts the call out to family and friends, but it doesn't just mean family and friends — it's [only] if someone has hospitality experience, and legitimately wants to be on payroll,” he explained.

4.Offer competitive compensation

Of course, it’s not enough to just find great candidates. You have to put together an attractive enough offer that they want to join you — and stay throughout the busy season and beyond. At Tony Caters, they’ve done this by significantly bumping up pay for employees.

“We had a pretty major pay rate increase for our servers and our leads to meet the market — we went up 20 to 25%,” Santos shared.

They’ve also been building out a generous benefit package, especially for a company as small as theirs. They added medical benefits for staff about five years ago, and more recently, they began to offer a retirement savings plan.

“We launched an IRA with, of course, the matching component… We added medical benefits maybe four or five years ago [and] PTO for full time staff,” Santos said.

“We're acting like a bigger company than we are knowing that we need to be competitive.”

- Tony Santos, Executive Chef & owner of Tony Caters

5. Get detailed with training materials

The better you train your new staffers, the more help they’ll be to your current staffers. Even though it might be an additional time investment upfront, it’ll pay off in the form of increased productivity that’s more evenly distributed across the team. Tony Caters has created a wealth of training materials to help new hires and Instawork Pros quickly get up to speed.

“We have all of our procedures documented and we've shot training videos,” Santos said. “If someone gets hired on and they're going to be an event server or a driver, we're pushing those training modules to them.”

And they’ve become increasingly detailed with that content.

“One thing that we're trying to be way more diligent [about] and comprehensive with is station diagrams…  so there shouldn't be any questions,” Santos added. “We're sending a really detailed explanation of the name of the tray-passed item, all the dietary information, and pasting those up at the station.”

And remember, through Instawork, you can also include training information and details in the shift instructions.

6. Show support & appreciation

Even if you do everything right, there are going to be times when your team members are swamped. But you can often prevent that from turning into burnout by just being there for your team.

So far this season, Matthew of Simply Fresh Events says they haven't lost a single employee — a fact that he credits largely to their culture of support.

“It didn't matter what was going on. Our team members knew they could call [our General Manager] Jeff at any point, and he was going to be there. They could call me at any point and I was going to be there,” Phelan said. “From bussing to loading to cleaning the dishes, whatever it took, they knew we were here.”

And when things get tough, make sure to show your team that you care.

People “want to be appreciated. And when they are, they stick around,” said hospitality consultant Roy Porter. “How you treat the staff is how they're going to treat the guests. Acknowledge that they're doing a good job, that you appreciate it, and you hope that they'll come back, and they will.”

It never hurts to offer rewards, either. Simply Fresh recently threw their team a happy hour to thank them for working nearly 100 weddings in 10 weeks, while Santos surprised his kitchen team with gift cards after providing craft services for a TV commercial production.

Sometimes, the best reward is a break — for you as well as your team.

“I reduced our three event cap to two events a day, and I'm also closing the second half of November because I'm actually burnt out,” said Jeremy of Cut and Taste catering. “We're also going to do another closure at the end of February. It's just kind of [an opportunity to] regroup, cook as a team in the kitchen, and relax.”

As you navigate this first busy season since the onset of COVID, keep in mind that you don’t have to be perfect. You may not have a solid forecast established, or 100% of your roles filled. All you can do is your best — and know better times are around the corner.

“We're honestly trying to not predict the future and be really flexible… you have to be nimble in the moment, of course, but it really is a long game,” Santos concluded. “It's all kind of a leap of faith, but it's going to work out.”