Danielle, I know how you feel. When I came to catering a year ago I was very disappointed in the types of food we were doing, for the most part. Sure we did some great, very high end parties, with lots of fun, creative food, but our day-in day-out work was rather boring, limited, and quite often low-budget. Unfortunately, this is the stuff, that for us, pays the bills. I have learned over the year, how to cut corners (I hate that term as it sounds so negative) to fit into a clients budget. Sure it is not ideal, and when I have my own restaurant these things will not happen, but for now, as I have to deal with feeding lots of people on small budgets, it is what has to be done. I can't afford to run any party at a loss, no matter how small their budget is. The key then becomes how to cut without compromising the quality of the food, or without letting the client know. The average diner will not notice 95% of these things. Again, this is a conference, and as such expectations of food quality are not the same as expectations of a $150 per person party. I am not saying that that makes it ok to serve them crap. But it does make it very easy to wow them on a low budget. It takes a little creative thinking, and thinking with that budget in mind. It is a hard mindset to learn coming from fine-dining, where you have the luxury of working with great products and much higher budgets.
In this economic market our company has to take every party we can get our hands on, and our salespeople rarely ever say no to a client, which puts me and the chef in some very tight situations. Clients are on a tight budget and:
-they want a shrimp hors, we do shrimp fritters. They are great, the client gets shrimp, and we only need 1/3 the amount of shrimp per person as normal
-they want lasagna, we do veggie lasagna
-they want beef entree for a luncheon, we offer them pot roast or sauerbraten
-they want hors for less than$1.50 a piece, we come up with creative veggie hors, hors that we can shred inexpensive chicken thighs.
Sometimes its a matter of putting ego aside, and looking at the situation objectively. You have to ask yourself "What can I do to cut costs without affecting the enjoyment of my client?" Sure you will know, but can you honestly say that they will know if you do things like serve whipped butter?
You are lucky. Since this is not your main source of income, you can pick and choose who you want to work with, but if you have already agreed to take this job on then you have a professional obligation to give them a meal that they will enjoy, and to do it in the budget you were given. I have no choice (until I leave this job) in what parties to take or not. I have to work with these budgets all the time and I have to make sure that they like it well enough to want to come back to us again and again. Am I doing the food that I really want to be doing for these parties? NO. Am I getting these people back in the door by serving them the best quality I can, within their budget guidelines? YES.