Publix offers high-end catering that goes beyond deli wraps

When Loren Lopez, an executive assistant at Plantation brokerage firm Trade Station, was recently tasked with planning an office party for 300 employees, she went to Publix, figuring she’d order some cheese cubes and deli wraps.

What she got — a full-service catered affair with professional chefs and servers — impressed her, her colleagues and her bosses.

“They totally dazzled us,” Lopez said, recounting bites of warm cranberry-brie phyllo cups paired with wine. “Everything was very elegant, like we were at our holiday party. I couldn’t even believe it was all from Publix.”

For the past 10 months, the Publix in Plantation at University Drive and Peters Road has quietly started offering high-end catering services, covering Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. It is one of two of the supermarket’s Florida branches — the other is in Jacksonville — currently testing Publix Aprons Catering; the company is considering expanding the brand, spokeswoman Nicole Krauss said.

“Publix Aprons Catering is a natural extension of our Aprons brand,” Krauss said. “It all started with Aprons Simple Meals, providing easily accessible meals and recipes. That service grew to include Aprons Cooking Schools, where our customers can learn cooking techniques from professional chefs.”

Leading the catering-and-cooking-school charge for Publix in South Florida are chefs Wes Bonner and Richard Wilson. They share duties prepping for and leading cooking classes in the Plantation store’s second-floor demonstration kitchen as well as planning and cooking for off-site events like dinner parties, weddings, corporate events and bar mitzvahs.

In addition to almost-daily cooking classes, the Plantation Publix handles about four to six private catering gigs a month.

“We haven’t done a lot of marketing, so right now it’s about working really hard to build our reputation as a catering provider and blow away customers so we get that word-of-mouth advertising,” Wilson said. “The hardest part is trying to tell potential clients about what we do, and they say, ‘Oh yeah, I know Publix caters. I get my subs there.’ ”

Publix offers cooking classes at its markets in Plantation, Boca Raton and six other locations throughout the state. Several other supermarket chains, including Winn-Dixie and Whole Foods, host similar classes. Publix appears to be the first to enter the highly competitive fray of upscale catering in South Florida, where a web search reveals well more than 500 providers.

“Everyone will tell you they’re a caterer,” Bonner said as he beat egg whites for a chocolate mousse. “But there’s a big difference between cooking a gourmet meal for two people and cranking out 120 plates of properly cooked and plated food at the same time.”

The two young culinary school graduates — Bonner is 29, Wilson is 26 — both worked in restaurants before deciding they preferred the perks of being cooking instructors and private caterers.

“My two passions are cooking and teaching, and I get to do both of those here,” Wilson said.

He was moving methodically through the store’s aisles on a recent weekday, filling a shopping cart with ingredients for that night’s French-inspired cooking class: nutmeg, truffle oil, shallots, chicken breasts, potatoes. He scanned each item with a pricing gun and moved on; no need to wait in a checkout line.

“It’s pretty great to be able to run downstairs and have a whole market at our fingertips to pick out the freshest ingredients the day of a class or an event,” Wilson said.

For their catering staff, Bonner said he and Wilson cull from among “the best and the brightest” employees in their store, then train them on the finer points of food safety, service and bartending.

That means the person dressed in a pressed white shirt and black slacks, explaining your plate of roasted butternut squash with pancetta at a black-tie affair, may be a deli worker or cashier whose regular uniform includes a green Publix vest.

“We get high-quality associates who are really eager to learn about plating or helping in the kitchen,” Bonner said. “And they genuinely enjoy being able to interact with customers in a different role than what they’re used to in the store.”

In addition to service and access to fresh ingredients, Bonner and Wilson say they believe their employer’s standard of cleanliness helps Publix Aprons Catering stand out from other caterers.

“We promise we’ll leave your place cleaner than it was when we got there,” Wilson said. “We had to put that to the test when we did a dinner party at a house where the kitchen was literally brand-new. But I think the hostess was pleased.”

Just as Publix associates are not supposed to take tips from store customers, gratuities as well as delivery fees are included in the cost of catering plans and are not accepted at events.

Publix declined to provide a price range for its catering services, noting that its prices are competitive with other caterers and vary depending on elements such as the size of an affair, the type of food and drinks served, and whether rentals like chairs, linens and flatware are needed.

A catering catalog presents food options in categories of platinum, gold and silver. Sample entrées: slow-roasted duck with mango-habanero sauce (platinum), hand-cut rib-eye steak with bleu cheese butter (gold) and mojo-marinated roasted pork shoulder with sweet plantains (silver).

Krauss said customers can mix and match dishes from various tiers to create the menu they want.

“We’re able to accommodate each individual’s customer’s needs, no matter the type of event or celebration and regardless of size or budget,” she said.

Indeed, Lopez said Publix worked with her to ensure the Trade Station party she organized came in under budget. At $4,000, her appetizers-and-wine gathering worked out to less than $14 a person.

“The pricing was affordable, and that was important to us,” Lopez said. “They never tried to up-charge me or tack on extra fees. They took care of everything, no hassle at all. I can’t say enough good things.”