(Oct. 28) Holidays, weddings, anniversaries and a never-ending lineup of special occasions have helped make the catering industry big business. With a bit of creativity, you can make your mark, either as a sideline to an existing foodservice operation or as a full-time undertaking.

The National Restaurant Association, Washington, D.C., estimates there are nearly 90,000 caterers in the U.S. That figure could be closer to 140,000 if you count the supermarkets and delis entering the field in record numbers, says Frank Puleo, former president of the International Caterers Association, Washington, and owner of Catering by Framboise in New York City.

Catering is the fastest-growing segment of the foodservice industry despite the turbulent world situation and the weakened U.S. economy, Puleo says. “From all of our indicators, our clients are continuing to entertain in the style they are accustomed to.”

The catering category accounted for more than $30 billion in foodservice sales in 2001, according to the NRA. When you add restaurant catering departments, that number jumps to almost $51 billion.

There’s money to be made in catering, but there’s also a lot of competition for those dollars. The key to success is setting yourself apart from your competitors, catering professionals say. Produce plays a major role in terms of profitability, practicality and the perception of your business.

With the trend toward healthful eating, it makes sense to offer a selection of fruits and vegetables at any food function.

Follow these seven suggestions to help boost your catering profits and reputation.

1. CREATE A SIGNATURE

Top-quality, distinctive produce helps create a signature for your business and shows you aren’t a run-of-the-mill company, says Nicole Aloni of Dana Point, Calif., a former caterer and restaurant owner who now teaches about catering. She has written several books on the subject.

Use baby white eggplant in a centerpiece, for example, to show that you have a sophisticated operation, she says. It’s also cheaper than a traditional floral arrangement. Or accent a gorgeous buffet table with artichokes or ears of corn tumbling out of baskets. Use them as decorations one day and as part of the menu the next.

2. STRIVE FOR THE UNUSUAL

Distinguish yourself by offering out-of-the-ordinary fruits and vegetables.

Wade Sirois chef-owner of Infuse Catering, Calgary, Alberta, and chef council co-chair for the International Caterers Association, often features taro root, key limes and fiddlehead fern on his menus.

At The Global Dish Caterers, Philadelphia, Mitch Pensky, chef-owner, distinguishes some of his dishes with bright yellow cucumber blossoms. They look good on the plate, have a great flavor and go well with seafood and in salads, he says. Sometimes he stuffs them with smoked shrimp, chives and creme fraiche.

Andrew Spurgin, executive director at Waters Fine Catering, San Diego, often encourages his clients to try unusual items like chervil, Ugli fruit from Jamaica, young thyme and popcorn leaves — blades of yellow grass often used as a garnish.

Be sure to spend a few minutes before your catered affair cluing in your servers about what they’re serving so they can answer guests’ questions.

3. GET CREATIVE

Once you’ve come up with an array of unique fruits and vegetables, extend that creative touch to your menu offerings.

Spurgin loves to serve a deconstructed-reconstructed “traditional” cobb salad made with fresh microgreens and herbs tucked in Belgian endive tied with chives. Around the perimeter of the plate, “like numbers on a clock,” he places brittany gris sea salt, pan-roasted chicken breasts, Point Reyes blue cheese, cubed avocado with Meyer lemon olive oil, petit thyme croutons, green picholine tapenade, goat cheese and garnishes of bachelor button flowers, flash-fried carrots, leeks and infused chive and dill oils.

Pensky enjoys serving baby potatoes as an hors d’oeuvre. He salt bakes them and serves them on an oyster fork and bakes a camembert to use as dip. He’s also proud of his roasted vegetable tureen layered with basil, goat cheese and such colorful vegetables as zucchini, red pepper, squash, caramelized red onions, carrots, spinach or whatever is available from the market that day.

Aloni impresses her clients with an Italian strata layered dish featuring four kinds of wild mushrooms or a marinated grilled portabella mushroom. She prepares vegetarian grilled salads featuring marinated exotic and mainstream vegetables served as an entree for vegetarians. She also makes a stuffed pepper dish that costs a quarter of the price of a chicken entree but still gives the perception of elegance.

Sirois with Infuse Catering serves organic pea shoots in salads with wild blueberry vinaigrette and a red bartlett pear. For barbecue season, he makes preserves from quinces and serves them as jelly on shrimp or chicken. Or try taro root chips served with a warm curry crab dip.

4. TRY A TRAY ALTERNATIVE

Don’t write off vegetable trays as being too ordinary. With a bit of creativity, they can be the hit of the party.

Sirois forgoes traditional mixed vegetable trays and focuses on items with great flavor and presence — like lemon-grilled asparagus or lime-marinated jicama sticks.

Instead of the usual vegetable platter, Spurgin turns a 10-foot table into a whimsical garden by layering baby carrots, asparagus, Belgian endive, green beans and other vegetables in rows. He arranges wheat grass between the rows with seed packets featuring pictures of the vegetables at the top. He places a variety of dips nearby.

5. RELISH RELATIONSHIPS

To make sure you get the freshest, highest-quality produce available, develop good relationships with your suppliers.

“Forming relationships with any purveyor is one of the most important things you can ever do because they’re the ones who are going to look after you,” says Spurgin with Waters Fine Catering.

Suppliers also can help you come up with hard-to-find specialty items, and they’re more likely to split a case for your small orders.

Seek out small producers who may be willing to plant a special variety for you, Sirois says.

Don’t overlook the local supermarket, Aloni adds. If you’ve developed a relationship with the produce manager, he may be willing to special-order items for you.

And don’t be afraid to send something back if it’s not up to your standards. Eventually your suppliers will get the message and ship only product they’re sure you’ll accept.

6. TURN A PROFIT

You can buy produce at bargain prices, compared to meat or fish, mark it up several times and still not price yourself out of the market.

Caterers have an advantage over restaurants because they know how many people are coming to dinner and don’t have to overbuy, risking losses because of shrink, Puleo says.

Aloni says she never sells anything for less than three times what she pays for it. Rather than cost out every produce item, she usually charges a flat fee — except for specialty items, which can be marked up four or five times their cost.

And remember that words sell, Sirois says. A caterer easily can turn a $20 entree into a $24 entree by adding a couple of words to the menu description. Instead of “red plums,” for example, label them “Santa Rosa plums” to add menu presence.

7. PLAN AHEAD

You know that vegetables selling for 99 cents a pound in the summer might cost three times that amount by the time a Christmas party comes around. Even worse, they may not be available. Be sure to have a Plan B.

Sirois warns his clients that some items may not be available and encourages them to be flexible. “I may want to make a grilled fig dessert,” he says, “but I have to see how the figs come in.”

Buy top-quality, local produce in season rather than fuss with out-of-season product from far-off places, Spurgin advises.

IN CLOSING

The catering business has its challenges, and, like any worthwhile undertaking, it requires a lot of work. But it has its rewards. In fact, Aloni says it remains “the most lucrative part of the food industry.”

So, for those willing to put in the time, focus on quality and treat their clients right, the future in catering seems bright.