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Catering Creativity

Southwestern caterers prove innovation is the only rule

By Susan Lanier-Graham

Spectacular. Extravagant. Innovative. These words define today’s ever-evolving catering industry as events become increasingly lavish.

To meet the demand for culinary artistry, caterers must be evermore creative, looking for ways to offer experiential catering events, provide personalized service, and serve quality ingredients—all while offering bigger, better, and Instagramable events.

Sushi on ice from Tom & Lin Catering of Phoenix, Arizona || Courtesy of Tom & Lin Catering

Experiential Catering

“People want to be unique, special, and different,” says Lin Baumbach, director
of business development for Tom & Lin Catering (TLC), based in Phoenix, Arizona.

TLC recently received a NACE Award for the Most Innovative Catered Event 2023 from the Phoenix chapter of the National Association for Catering & Events (NACE) for a steampunk-style “Alice in Wonderland” event. Attendees could order custom cocktails at the bar, or explore the venue on their own to discover bottles marked “Drink Me” and filled with bright-colored cocktails.

The steampunk wonderland also featured a garden wall where a sign on a brass bell encouraged guests to “Ring Me.” When the bell rang, a hand emerged offering a glass of champagne. Food seemed to glow and shimmer, while dry ice created a fog across tables of appetizers.

Baumbach says experiential events are not only fun, but they’re also functional. “People want mingling opportunities, and action stations allow for that,” she explains. “It allows them to walk, check out silent auctions, and meet more people.”

Open Kitchen Events in Santa Fe, New Mexico, offers an interactive mixology theme to feed the need for experiential events. Guests opting for a Spanish feast start out crafting a classic sangria and use that to prepare the perfect wine cocktail while enjoying tapas and paella. Another option is a Southwest theme, which begins with tequila mixology before attendees are able to savor New Mexico classics like tamales.

Nikki Shaffer, the general manager of Artisan by Santa Barbara Catering, headquartered in Tempe, Arizona, believes surprises play a key role in creating the most memorable events. “Our company always strives to introduce an element of surprise,” she explains, “whether it involves breaking into your dessert with a custom mallet or torching smoked salmon right at the table.”

Creating Instagram-worthy Moments

Every day, people upload more than 40 million photos to Instagram. Setting the stage to encourage photo-taking has become an essential component of catering. Whether it is TLC’s steampunk version of “Alice in Wonderland” or Chateau Luxe’s circus theme with cotton candy, the idea is to devise a space that engages eventgoers and provides plenty of shareable settings for attendees to snap some good photos.

Cuisine Unlimited in Salt Lake City, Utah, also incorporates elaborate event planning into catered events to give that photogenic wow factor. Planners at the company love to create “mind-blowing events” that excite guests, providing plenty of Instagram-worthy moments for people to capture in their camera rolls. An example of one such event was an elaborate Studio 54-themed party for Celtic Bank. The event included a red carpet walk for attendees arriving in over-the-top costumes, photo walls for capturing the glitz and glamour, uninhibited dancing, decadent food options, and a bartender crafting elevated cocktails.

Not every caterer has to be a set designer, relying instead on a solid third-party team. As Johnny Church II, chef and owner of Las Vegas, Nevada-based Johnny C’s Catering, explains, “We partner with some great companies to build the experiences for our clients.”

Breaking into dessert prepared by Artisan by Santa Barbara Catering of Tempe, Arizona || Courtesy of Artisan by Santa Barbara Catering

Personalization is Key

Personalization is a major component of innovative catering. “We must be able to meet individual dietary needs,” explains Eric Renstrom, owner of Phoenix-based Fat Freddy’s Catering. “Today, 95% of our events have special dietary needs. We serve vegan [and] gluten-free [options], and it has to be good.”

A fun way to personalize a menu is to create action stations. Baumbach says attendees love TLC’s crème brûlée bar. “It’s where Cold Stone Creamery meets crème brûlée,” she laughs. “People top their custards, and then we torch the desserts while they wait.”

Part of personalization can also be the location. While plenty of ballroom events still exist, caterers can take meals to unique locations. For example, Tom & Lin Catering offers the TLC Experience. “We have a supper club where people dine in unique and interesting locations,” explains Baumbach. “We [have] had dinner in the middle of the desert, center stage at the Herberger Theatre, in orchards, on farms, and in scenic Sedona locations.”

Lux Catering & Events in Salt Lake City, Utah, also stresses the need to create a personalized experience in an exceptional venue. After 25 years in Salt Lake City, Lux has a network of unique venues, including warehouses, museums, art galleries, ski lodges, the old Union Pacific train station, and the planetarium. Finding the ideal setting to fit the occasion is as much a part of the experience as the food and the service.

Quality Ingredients

Shaffer of Artisan by Santa Barbara Catering sees farm-to-table catering as a continuing top request, but says people are also interested in functional foods. “People are becoming more interested in foods fortified with vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial compounds, as well as those that support specific health goals.” 

Fat Freddy’s Catering sees a significant demand for barbecue. Renstrom uses a Southern Pride smoker with pecan wood to smoke brisket, pork, and chicken. While they don’t smoke meat during an event, they use grills often. “People love the smell as the smoke wafts through the space,” he explains.

Tom & Lin Catering prides itself on being a chef-driven company and agrees with the importance of quality ingredients. “We source from local farms and purveyors,” explains Baumbach. “Most are Arizona-based. We have relationships with Alaska and San Diego purveyors for fresh, sustainably sourced fish. We like to say you can taste the TLC.”