Erin Henderson, Blue Springs, Mo.-based Zarda Bar-B-Q and Catering Co.'s catering director, gave five catering tips for retail delis.

1. Gather all of the necessary information prior to the event.

People don’t realize how much information you need for catering. People think, “I need this much food for this many people,” and that’s it. When doing a wedding, I need to know when the ceremony is, when the reception starts and if the food is going to be served at the same place the ceremony is happening. I need to know food allergies. Will there be stairs?

Anytime I have a full-service order, I tell the customer they need to reach out to their venues and find out if there are specific requirements for caterers — where to park, where to set up buffet line. A lot of that is knowing each vender or event space you go to can be completely different from the last. I just had one yesterday that needed contracts and insurance information and to have busing and cleaning done a certain way. It’s super important that the customer reaches out to them. If I’m going to bus and clean and set up a buffet line, I’m going to send more people to handle those tasks.

 2. Prepare for the unexpected.

The hard part about catering is that you’re always somewhere else. You’re leaving the restaurant. You have to know how to adapt on the spot to little bumps you’ll run into. You don’t realize the wind is going to blow out the Sternos so you need to wrap them in aluminum foil to keep them lit. It’s all about learning to adapt. Sometimes I’ll be in a fully staffed, lovely event space, and other times I’ve been in a barn that doesn’t have a floor in the middle of nowhere. It’s crazy where you’ll go.

3. Use an organized system to keep track of details.

We have an app called Caterease. That’s where we type up all of our orders. It keeps track of all orders we have done and contact information. I can input each menu I have with a per-person portion size, and it’s going to multiply portion size for me so that I don’t have to do that every time. That’s how I get my invoices. You can email out invoices through Caterease. I can sign up for billing through the app. It does 80% of my work for me. I just need headcount, a little bit of information, and it takes it from there.

Another digital trick is to email everything. Anytime you have an order, email invoices and anything with details about the event, especially if you have repeat orders. If someone says an order didn’t get there, I can pull that back up. You’ll talk to so many people you won’t remember what they ordered. It’s nice to have something to look back on.

4. Train employees exactly the way you want things done.

Always train them yourself. Anytime we have someone start catering, I make a point to start training them. I’ll say, “I’m going to teach you how to do everything my certain way. Once you start doing it on your own, if you have little tweaks, that’s fine.” Whoever is in charge should be the specific one training them. Once you’re done training them, they’re out somewhere else representing your company.

There are hundreds of things to remember to do. They are responsible for their equipment, food prep, getting everything back in the van, leaving on time to get there on time and talking to customers going through the line. I have a checklist for everything. They can’t check something off their equipment list until it’s on the cart, not just set aside.

5. Be thorough with food safety.

We use hot boxes. I can set meat in the hot box, and it will stay hot for hours. It will keep the right temperature. For cold sides, we use cold boxes as soon as it gets in the van. It needs to stay in that stuff until you are ready to serve. It should be kept in temperature-controlled boxes until it’s ready to serve.

If I had a serve time at 5 p.m. and it’s running late and they don’t eat until 5:30 p.m., the hot food is still okay because I have them in shaping dishes keeping it hot. The only thing to worry about is potato salad because of the dairy. If it is served, we have serve time for an hour. Then we need to get it cleaned back up and put it in the fridge. If people want it out longer, keep it on ice on the buffet.

When taking an order, ask the customer if they have a refrigerator on-site so you can store the food. With people drinking at weddings, they’re going to get hungry and go over to the tables and want to eat again. If people have no fridge but have leftovers, we take it back to our restaurant and they can pick it up later. A lot of people choose not to leave leftovers with customers because of how customers will treat the leftovers, but I don’t like the idea of people paying for a ton of stuff and not getting to keep it all.