The Catering Issue

By David Helbraun
on May 21, 2020 in
We have been so laser focused on the plight of restaurants and bars that we thought it was high time to expand our horizons and check in with the industry’s unsung heroes; caterers. They are the toughest and most compassionate breed of hospitality people. 

They are empathic therapists, sly, sleight-of-hand artists and wily business people and they are hurting like everyone else. Reality is different for them and so, in their own words, they describe here their particular challenges and let us know how they are coping with bummed out bridezillas, deposit demanding dads and canceled cotillions.

Brooklyn Style by Holly Sheppard

The catering side of the hospitality industry is made up of a close group of  scrappers that thrive on obstacles and pressure. We can make a colander or a shaker out of a quart container and a pen, we can cook fish for a 150 people perfectly in a weird fucking hot box with 6 sternos and plastic wrap, we can make 500 cocktail napkins out of a rented linen because we forgot to add those to the rental order and there are canape’s to be passed! WE MUST HAVE COCKTAIL NAPKINS OR THE WEDDING WILL BE A DISASTER!!! We can do literally anything in this crazy event industry but this…this covid has stopped me in my tracks.
 
The catering industry is on a complete hold. I had 47 weddings booked this year and as of now I have 7 still booked without a postponement or cancelation. I am going to assume those will be postponed eventually too but still holding onto hope. Even if NYC opens to full capacity I don’t see working a wedding again until 2021.
 
We’ve definitely changed our business model quite a bit since Covid happened. We have new deposit terms and a pre-tasting booking policy to secure a date.  I think as this unfolds the entire industry will have to grow with the changes and accommodate new industry standards. I think buffets are a thing of the past and honestly I’m happy about that. I kind of hate buffets. yuk.
 
We are definitely getting inquiries and blind bookings for 2021 but at a much slower pace. I’ve also had a few old school clients reach out with small job opportunities like a 10 person dinner in the Hampton’s kind of thing but they are for late June early July.
 
Our kitchen has gone unused since March 10th. The government needs to get their shit together and help out landlords so the landlords can help us. I like my landlord and he has always helped me. I don’t feel comfortable not paying him but I also don’t know if it will continue to be possible for much longer. My business will survive this pandemic but I will be playing catch up for the next two years. We need rent relief and we need that ppp loan to make sense for this industry. We need less restrictions on how to use it.  We need to raise hell.  
 
This pandemic feels similar to the 5 stages of grief. The first being denial. Our bank accounts or lack of have helped us move onto the second stage called anger. WHY THE FUCK IS THIS HAPPENING!!!! WHY!!!!!!!! Breath…ok onto stage 3 called  bargaining. I should’ve been better at saving…I should’ve been better at costing…I should’ve done everything differently to prepare me for this fuck show. Ok onto stage 4 called depression. Wake me when this is over.  Stage 5 acceptance. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. I think I’m somewhere in the middle of stage 4 and 5 right now.

– Holly Sheppard, Chef/Owner, Fig & Pig Catering


Helicopter Hustle, NYC and Hamptons by Lexi Ritsch

Catering always refers to the “future”.  We don’t just open our doors at 5pm with the candles lit and menus wiped down and hope that someone walks thru it, which of course, has it’s benefits + downsides.  Catering is wrapped in a tight bow of emotion, whether we’re dealing with the Events team at a huge tech firm with their “asses” on the line to execute a perfect summit or  it’s someone’s dream wedding (enter pure panic) and everything in-between!  

Catering requires a ton of planning and each event averages 40-60 hours of pure desk work: creating proposals, re-working menus + negotiations, creating floor plans, making all the rental arrangements, attending walk-throughs, organizing the staffing + the tasting.  We have “skin in the game”.

The Wedding Industry is being majorly affected right now across the board.  It’s mostly constructed of self-employed florists, event planners, photographers etc. And it has been a mad scramble, Hunger Games – like, for 2021 dates, (which by the way clients are still totally apprehensive committing to, but feel like they have no choice so do it anyway). 

The unknown is the issue for all, right?!  BUT it’s also the littlest things that effect these “special” events. For example, a 275 guest wedding in August at the Parrish Art Museum:  let’s say we’ve been working on this event daily for the last 7 months (true story).  Now enter daily panicked diatribe of the below (for each and every event).

1) How many guests will be “allowed” per the mandate to gather (275? doubt it), sub convos: drop guest count to 50%, whats the venue legal capacity, reschedule, wait and see?!  What about August, what if we push to September, will it come back in October?  (Sometimes I’m tempted to just buy a crystal ball and call it a day)

2) If we can “gather“ and there is not a mandate limiting to 50% of the venue, will there be “social distancing” rules?! – * if someone can explain to me how we do a seated dinner for 275, 6 feet apart from each other I would love to hear it!

3) (and I get this question the most) what if my guests have to wear masks at my wedding? Fair question! 

4-12) are along the lines of: international travel, wedding transportation, will my guests feel comfortable, is family-style food service safe (is it more expensive for plated, “yes”), are passing Hors d’oeuvres safe, “my florist doesn’t have that rescheduled date open”, what if this happens again…. 

I don’t even know where to begin on “what would help”.  People are scared to “gather” or scared their friends / family will judge them for not being scared (insensitive, putting others at risk for your own wedding), people are mad that their special day is being interrupted, lots of them “just want to cancel altogether” which is the worst case scenario for us.  Sure, we’ve taken a deposit but we’ve worked well thru that retainer in admin, we’ve likely turned other events away, etc.  So I spend my time just listening and offering advice.  I’ve planned / executed over 360 weddings in my life time and I’ve never been in this scenario before. I’m empathetic, I’m on their team, but I don’t have the answers and I’m just honest about that, ready to help in any way we can.

In addition to being caterers we also have an Event Venue (our hamptons hub / commercial kitchen) and had over 12 onsite weddings booked this year (mostly the fall).  I think this is personally my biggest struggle thru all of this.  I feel so sorry for anyone having to make tough decisions at this time about their wedding, and in these specific scenarios we’re dealing with legit inventory of onsite dates + contracts to rent the venue, so it’s been hard trying to find the balance of being “fair” and being a business owner.

It’s hard to “excuse” a client from their contract 5 months from now because their “dad lives in Italy” or because the couple was furloughed.  I’ve been called nasty names when explaining our cancellation policies outside of “the mandate”, and it hurts.  

When the mandate releases, for catering, it will only release fear (or I hope it does).  We don’t get to just unlock the door + click on OPEN neon sign and have income (I am in no way down playing that massive feat ahead of restaurants fighting fear and mandates and the new norm)!  In Catering, it will open the 
“hotline” of inquiries, where we will fight for our lives to get contracts and hope we have enough dates available.

I feel like we’ve been on a massive bender, and we’re starting to sober up, the question is how long will the hangover last?  18 months is our current projection, hand over the Advil and Gatorade….

– Lexi Ritsch, Co-Founder + Director of Catering & Events, Hamptons Aristocrat + Heritage Aristocrat


Parents Just Don’t Understand by Sara Conklin

The word catering is tough because it conjures everything from craft table on the sidewalk to black tie waiters and silver cloches and everything in between. Some drop off food in aluminum tins and others provide family therapy and steam your moms wedding dress.  We fall into the latter. 

We are finding ourselves in painful, daily conversations acting as mental support for families who want to know what the future will bring; when will my daughter be able to get married, what new date can you offer me in 2021 preferably post vaccine so 91 yr old grams can join from Oklahoma. The boat I rented from the Rockaways is not available on that date because the captain has his cousins bat mitzvah so we need to push to October. (These are real examples).

Our clients want us to offer them a new date in 2021, mostly after spring because they do not have faith in anything now through then and they do not want to go through this rigmarole a second time. Clients are forced to check in with all their vendors; florists, designers, AV, rabbis, event planners, brides maids, bffs, etc to see if a hypothetical new date works for them. In our case the venue where we provide our services is charging fees to switch from 2020 to 2021 dates. Clients find this concept to be preposterous and insulting. “Covid is not my fault, you should be prepared for these types of things.” And, “I am not paying a fucking fee to replan my party and rebook flights and hotel and make up artist and coach bus,” is the general response

And then you’re forced into an uncomfortable frankness of explaining the internal workings of business. The overhead costs to scrap the 2020 events season do not disappear when you move your event one year into the future. Rent, insurance, utilities, staff must all still be covered despite losing prime spring, summer and fall event revenue. No, we are definitely not prepared for this. (Price increases clause finally comes in handy).

Then inevitably Dad reads the fine print of our contract and enter the force majeur talk. “If you don’t waive my fee, then we will just plan to have our event next week and you will be forced into force majeure and thus need to refund us our 43k”. (Ah, that’s what the act of god portion of the contract that no one ever reads and no one has ever had to exercise is for).

I dread the inevitable day that the city issues a sweeping mandate saying all events for 100+ guests until x date are not allowed because this would result in x number of events times x thousand dollars to need to be refunded and most certainly a hole impossible to get out of. This nebulous state of not knowing and relying on daily Cuomo briefings has bought us time to at least try to appease some clients by moving them into a safer time in 2021.

Last bit: in the midst of all this we are still booking new events, conducting site tours with masks and gloves offering exorbitant rates because we now have to recoup losses and there are only so many prime party dates in a calendar year. 2021 is shaping up to be the biggest event year of the century – if we can make it to then.

– Sara Conklin, Owner


Hudson Valley Variety by Laurie Gershgorn

When I opened the cafe in 2017, I knew I had to have a few streams of revenue other than sit down.  So in addition to being the first whole food plant based vegan organic and seasonal menu cafe in the area, and previously a personal chef, I continued to serve my clients but instead of going to their homes to cook, ran it through the cafe kitchen.

In a sense, it is catering, but  for families and individuals, and it is personalized to the dietary restrictions of my clientele.  Such as Gluten free, many people now are oil free and salt free (yes challenging to make delicious too!), allergy free, etc. No onions, garlic, etc no problem. Also all plant-based no animal products.
So what is explained above is the Green Plate Club Weekly Meal Plan. That brings about 15 families a week ordering multiple days worth of food a week that they pick up once during the week.  Interestingly enough, that is what is mostly keeping me going now.

Other more “regular” catering jobs that I would get for corporate events, birthdays, weddings, etc are non existent since covid, which is unfortunate as I had some proposals out for the upcoming months. 

People would come in when I first opened and taught me that take out was a need, so I do a substantial amount of take out via online ordering on my POS platform, as well as Door Dash, Ubereats and Grub Hub. Which is also what is keeping me going now. Our community has hired me, and other local restaurants, to provide pre packaged meals to the hospital workers in the area which is subsidized by Go Fund Me crowdfunding initiatives. That has been a slight lift as well.

I also sell at farmers markets – the one I do now is pre paid, pre packaged not on site food preparation. Orders come in during the week, package them and bring to market Saturday morning and the customers drive though the market and pick up at their predetermined time. 

I also hold, but not during the pandemic, cooking classes, Farmer Spotlight Prix Fixe dinners with live music, alternative medicine talks and demos, in house small catering affairs (I seat 36).

So in summary, weekly meal plans, take out curbside and delivery, hospital meals, pre paid orders at innovative markets is how I have been operating since 3/20/20.

With all staff furloughed except myself and my 20 year old son… And I am closing Saturday and taking a 3 day weekend.

Laurie Gershgorn, Chef/Owner, Good Choice Kitchen


Livin’ in a Box: Kosher Catering by Judy Marlow

We are a little different because we are a kosher catering and event planning company, known for our great tasting secular style menus and sophisticated event design.  We’ve been in business since 1988.  We not only work with kosher clients (private and non-profit) but also produce kosher menus when needed for secular caterers and restaurants like Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Olivier Cheng Catering, Marcey Brownstein, Creative Edge, Great Performances, the Met Museum, to name a few. 
 
Our last event was March 7, 2020.  There will not be any parties or events for a while, as even when the world “reopens,” unlike a restaurant, we can be open but have no events for months because of postponements to later dates.  Most all our events have been postponed to the fall or next year. 
 
The catering business will not return to any degree that makes money until there is a virus vaccine.  Social distancing, masks, and gloves do not work with parties, full bars, and dancing.   Even when events return, we believe they will be not at the full budgets but I also believe that once the social distancing fears are allayed, requests for parties and fundraisers will come back roaring from months of pent up isolation.  
 

The first pivot I made was to go back to my best clients and ask for deposits on events they had yet to plan.  I told them I would provide menus for future events over the next year but it did not include staffing or alcohol.  That brought in $25,000 in 48 hours.  I guess that was my own version of crowdfunding. 
 
For some time I had been cutting expenses but, since March, immediately cut back to the bone.  My staff was furloughed from March 9 to the present.  We had recently moved to a new location and the landlord has worked with us as we never really got started in the new kitchen.  I’ve renegotiated debt and vendor bills as best I can.  Some of my party staff from our last events are still waiting to be paid because we needed every penny to stay alive.   I will pay them all but its taking time.  My first concern was to get my expenses down to where I could manage on the least amount possible for months ahead and then figure out how to cover these reduced monthly expenses.  We had no reserves or resources for money other than my creativity and a strong stomach.
 
We have basically been left to pivot to two ways of operating – drop off menus or producing inexpensive meals for the city’s seniors or other meals required during this crisis. 
 
We actually would prefer to have the second production because it’s based on a volume numbers of cheap daily produced meals six days a week.   We very much want to do this right now but have yet to connect with anyone that has given us a contract, although we have been working diligently for weeks to try to get this business.   The goal here is to have steady, inexpensive, reliable production for as many weeks as possible.  But, so far, we haven’t been able to secure this kind of work.   Any connections anyone has are welcome. 
 
We also have created “Shabbat in a Box for 4” and have weekly dinner subscriptions for drop off boxes for dinners for four.   These are good gift items for families and friends and for people sick of cooking and wanting something different. 
 
Overall, because of cut expenses, we hope to make it through these very lean months but there are no guarantees.   We do not have reserves or deep pockets and are out of resources to keep us going other than creating new promotions and campaigns that keep us alive.  We are basically living promotion-to-promotion and month-to-month.    

I’m hoping for the best but continuing to come up with new creative ways of staying afloat.   I’m determined to still be standing in 2021.
 Judy Marlow
Simply Divine


I’ll leave you with these words from the late great, Anthony Bourdain:  “We knew well how much these people were paying for cocaine – and that the more coke cost, the more people wanted it. We applied the same market plan to our budding catering operation, along with a similar pricing structure, and business was suddenly very, very, good.”

Call a caterer friend this weekend and tell them you love them.

Good Night,
David
Written By David Helbraun
David Helbraun is the Founding Partner and Chairman of the firm. He is a lifelong entrepreneur who has been running successful businesses in New York City for years.

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