Catering an event offsite can be a great moneymaker for a food establishment, whether they are a large catering company, small catering company or a restaurant. Food safety remains a critical requirement, but presents more logistical challenges when offsite. Workers are out of their “comfort zone,” and food safety might not be the first in mind for presentation and service purposes.
Food safety summation still applies with catering as we avoid foodborne illness by eliminating the three types of contamination: biological, chemical and physical; by controlling time and temperature, avoiding cross contamination, good personal hygiene and good cleaning and sanitizing practices.
To control time and temperature, you have to trust your equipment to transport the food is insulated and capable of keeping hot food hot and cold food cold. When you get to the party to deliver the food, you are going to have to trust your holding equipment to keep food out of the Temperature Danger Zone (TDZ), 41°F – 135°F. Cold food will have to be held at an internal temperature of 41°F or lower and hot food will have to be kept at a minimum internal temperature of 135° or higher. If you don’t want to use and monitor temperature control for the safety of the food, you can use time control and make sure you discard the food at four hours. If you use time control for the safety of the food, please make sure you label it with the correct discard time for your staff or your guests to follow.
To avoid cross contamination, make sure you have one serving spoon designated for each food item. Have extra serving utensils available if the catered event should last longer than four hours so you can change them out at four hours versus having to clean and sanitize them as required. Make sure that you have lots of extra plates if serving buffet style, so you can provide fresh plates to the guests looking for second helpings so they don’t contaminate food. Don’t use the same ice to hold cold food in your beverages, please.
Make sure you have a portable hand washing station available if you don’t have access to proper hand washing sinks at the catering site. You can purchase a portable hand washing station or I found when I worked in restaurants for outside events – we would use a large dispenser with a spigot that we would normally use for holding iced tea, as that worked well with to let the water out for proper hand washing. Make you sure don’t forget a bucket to catch the water falling down below. If gloves are worn, one still has to follow proper guidelines, i.e. wash hands before putting gloves on, changing them when changing to a new food or task, if they get dirty or torn and at the minimum four hours in constant use at the same job handling task. I recommend changing the gloves every hour or at least two hours on a personal bias. Please don’t use hand sanitizer instead of washing your hands. Hand sanitizer is to be used properly after washing of hands. My pet peeve, make sure your serving staff know not to grab glasses or cups from the rim please.
In regards to cleaning and sanitizing, it is a good idea to use more single use items like plastic cutlery, plates and glasses to lessen the rigors of clean up. If you don’t have sanitizer solution in a clearly labeled spray bottle, at least keep your wiping cloth in the sanitizing solution and keep it located below food.
Many of our large catering company clients don’t allow food to be left or taken away after a party. They ensure enough food at the catered event, but they don’t want to be liable for the safety of food after the event is done. For that reason, they don’t give the leftovers to the customer. Should the customer insist they be allowed to keep the food, then the catering company is stating in their contract that they are not to be held responsible for the safety of the food after the event. Should you leave food at an event, it is highly recommended that you provide instruction labels on the food, on how to handle the food safety, i.e. precise time or date to throw the food away, instructions to refrigerate the food with clear instructions to reheat the food properly to 165°F within two hours and to discard the food if it does not reach 165°F within two hours.
Many of our customers don’t allow outside vendors to provide food at the same event, i.e. a wedding cake. They want to ensure they know the safety of the food provided and don’t want the added risk of another vendor or food source they don’t know and then may be being implicated in something that they had no control over. Additionally, a lot of our customers have taken to freezing samples of food served at an event to have it available should testing be required in a possible foodborne illness incident or outbreak.
At the end of the day, catering can be a real moneymaker, but play it safe with proper food safety not only for your customers but for yourself as well.