The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The pandemic crashed the party for caterers, who are struggling even more than restaurants to pivot

Betsy Hebron-Marks, owner of A Touch of Class Caterers, in the kitchen she has not used since March in Capitol Heights, Md. (Deb Lindsey/for The Washington Post)

The weeks leading up to the holidays are usually a boom time for caterers around the country. But this season, the trays that would hold cookies for office cocktail parties and corporate shindigs and even wintry weddings stayed stashed away as the industry cratered. The chafing dishes that would keep hors d’oeuvres warm gathered dust.

The party-less holidays were the cap to a year where the very premise of catering — people socializing and noshing together — was made moot by the pandemic, and likely to stay that way until the wide distribution of a vaccine.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this pandemic. It has ruined people to the core,” says Betsy Hebron-Marks, who has operated A Touch of Class catering in suburban Maryland with her husband since 1995. She estimates her business is down 90 percent since the lockdowns started last March and, one by one, clients called canceling weddings, funeral receptions and birthday parties.

Like their colleagues in the restaurant industry, caterers found themselves at the mercy of public health authorities, mayors and governors who could, with the release of new or revised guidelines, dramatically alter their business. Events that could host 250 people in the summer or fall suddenly contracted to 25 people in the winter as coronavirus cases and covid-19 hospitalization increased.

The National Association for Catering and Events doesn’t track industry data, executive director Lawrence Leonard said in an email to The Washington Post. NACE did, however, conduct a survey of its 3,300 or so members early in the pandemic and found that more than 75 percent had “already experienced personal financial hardship through business closures, layoffs, furloughs and reductions in hours or pay,” Leonard notes.

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“Nearly all of the remaining 25 percent were waiting for one of those things to happen,” Leonard adds. “And happen it did, one wave after another throughout 2020.”

The hit to catering tracks the “devastating” impact on the wider travel, tourism and hospitality industry, Leonard says. Nearly one in six restaurants have closed since March, and employment has dropped by 23 percent in the leisure and hospitality industries during the pandemic. And caterers were left even more vulnerable than the eateries that were able to shift to takeout-dependent models. Unlike restaurants, they didn’t have direct relationships with consumers.

Not only have caterers lost significant revenue, says NACE president Morgan Montgomery, but they have had to foot legal fees as clients sued to get their deposits back after events were canceled. The issue, Montgomery says, is that catering contracts don’t usually have cancellation policies that cover unforeseen events, like a pandemic, or emergency regulations that limit crowd sizes. So you have frustrated parties on both sides: Clients who didn’t choose to cancel their wedding or party, and caterers who have already invested time and planning.

Some have pulled off pandemic pivots — even multiple ones. Chap Gage, who runs Susan Gage Caterers in Hyattsville, Md., with his mother, has tried a bunch. “I keep thinking, 'What can I do to keep my people employed?’” he says. “Many have worked for us for 15 or more years, and I’m doing what I can to keep them on board.”

In the early days of lockdown, the company scrambled to create a meal delivery service, figuring out how to portion and package individual servings, set up an ordering service, and deploy drivers to doorsteps. That lasted seven or eight months, he says.

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Since then, he has started a kosher food truck, a kosher catering arm, offered cooking demonstrations and cocktail classes online, and even hosted drive-in movie nights for private groups in the company’s parking lot. He has started marketing for the first time, he says, something he had never really done before, instead relying on word-of-mouth and loyal client relationships that go back decades. Despite his efforts, he’s had to let go of half his staff.

Hebron-Marks ran a leaner operation — just herself and her husband, hiring contractors for bigger events. She says they’re still managing to pay the lease on a catering kitchen and their home mortgage, thanks to savings. “I’m just not sure how much longer we can keep it going,” she says. “We have almost gone through everything.”

Galas and fundraisers are the lifeblood of many catering companies, and those have either been canceled or gone virtual. But serving boxed dinners across a metropolitan area to hundreds of people Zooming into an event takes an entirely different kind of operation.

That’s how Eric Michael, the co-owner and creative director for Occasions Caterers, found himself in his car on a multistate search for picnic baskets. For a virtual dinner for 400, he had promised his client elegant picnic baskets filled with a gourmet meal. Just two days before the event, he learned that the baskets were stuck in a port in Los Angeles, and so he and a handful of employees set out to find as many as they could, hitting up whatever stores they could find open, from Washington to New York. “We will do anything to make a party successful,” he says.

But the margins for those kinds of labor-and-packaging-intense meals aren’t close to those served on-site. Catering, professionals will tell you, is all about volume.

On a recent weekday, Nicole Yamin, sister No. 3 in Four Sisters Catering in San Antonio, was in the kitchen with her 74-year-old mother, Michele West, preparing chicken pesto with wild rice for a pair of local doctor’s offices. One order was for 20 people, the other for 22. These small jobs help, Yamin says, but they don’t begin to cover for losses that are at least 40 percent.

“We just need to have more” jobs, Yamin says. “We don’t have enough.”

Catering isn’t exclusive to those companies that specialize in it. Restaurants and food trucks often derive significant revenue from their catering operations. BBQ Bus began life as a food truck on the streets of Washington, D.C., in 2011, and from the start, the founders realized they needed to launch a catering arm to insulate themselves from the many vagaries of mobile vending. Catering proved profitable. In 2018, BBQ Bus earned 30 percent of its revenue from it, says co-owner Ché Ruddell-Tabisola.

These days, catering jobs are really “spotty” for BBQ Bus. The company recently dropped off meals for about 20 workers at Bloomberg News in Washington. “They took our temperature,” says Ruddell-Tabisola. “Twice.”

It’s all about minimizing losses right now, says Lee Gregory, vice president for sales and marketing at McCalls Catering & Events in San Francisco. Her company has been pivoting, too — first providing meals for the homeless people that the city government had put up in hotel rooms to isolate them from the virus. That contract soon ended, but the scrambling didn’t, and the company opened MCmarket, which offers delivered single-serve meals and special holiday packages. Still, says Gregory, “We’re not making money.”

She says she worries not just about the impact on her own firm, which is down to about 50 employees from about 450. A company she used to supply catering and event equipment had recently emailed to say they were going out of business. They were just giving away all of their stock, since they couldn’t afford to store it. The produce company they relied on had already folded.

“Catering is so much more than rich people putting on fancy dresses,” she says. “It’s a lot of livelihoods.”

Some laid-off workers have managed to find other jobs. Sean Hingel had been an event planner with Canard Inc., in Manhattan, where he loved dreaming up creative menus and event designs for clients — the quirkier and more specific the challenge, the better. When the pandemic hit, he was laid off along with most of the rest of the company’s employees. He was brought back on while the company tried different models, offering delivery dinners and holiday packages, he says, but competing with restaurant delivery proved nearly impossible, and he was eventually terminated again.

Though he had dreamed of opening a restaurant, he says he realized he needed to provide a more stable living for his wife and two children, and he found work as a financial planner. “I lost my career. I put my heart and soul into it and fought,” he says. “I had the opportunity to meet incredible people and create incredible events. All that went away.”

Other workers in the catering industry have taken hits, too. Whitney Canon is one of many workers who moonlight as a cater-waiter, a flexible job that has long been used to supplement the incomes of students, artists, nonprofit workers and freelancers in other industries.

She took the gig when she moved to Washington, D.C., in 2015 to work at Habitat for Humanity through the AmeriCorps program. And although she has since landed a full-time job at the nonprofit organization, she still relied on her wages with Susan Gage Caterers to supplement her income, allowing her to pay unexpected bills or stash away rainy-day funds to cover Washington’s notoriously high cost of living.

The parties at Georgetown homes and art museums that she used to staff have been canceled, of course. And she’s had to turn down a few shifts she’s been offered, worried because of her own immunocompromised condition that even socially distanced working conditions would be too risky. “You have to tighten up everywhere,” she says, adding that she’s had to skip “extras” because of the hit to her income. “The pandemic has really made me see the need to have emergency money, so not being able to have that … can make you fearful.”

Caterers say they’ve had to balance the need to bring in money with the desire to keep their own staffs safe. Some prospective clients have proposed gatherings that either violated caps on attendance or otherwise didn’t feel safe, many report.

Alexis Ruiz, who with her husband co-owns the Munch Factory, a Creole restaurant in New Orleans that had two locations (down to one in the pandemic) and a catering operation, says she has had to learn to say no to clients who propose something risky. “We are naturally in the ‘yes’ business,” she says. “But sometimes the money isn’t worth it. You don’t need it at that cost.”

Gregory says she’s been wary of any inquiries to staff large gatherings, pointing to a San Francisco Chronicle story about a large wedding that was shut down for violating the city’s coronavirus protocols. “The last thing we need is to be splashed on the front page,” she says.

In Washington, not only are caterers missing out on the usual calendar of weddings, corporate shindigs and anniversary bashes, they’re also going without a quadrennial gold mine: inauguration.

Many people know of the handful of official balls that follow the Jan. 20 swearing-in of a president, but the party circuit in Washington spans days and includes hundreds of parties, worth millions to caterers. Of course, they’re all canceled this year because of the coronavirus.

“Inauguration is an enormous financial plus for caterers every four years,” Michael of Occasions Catering says. He recalls the biggest one he’s ever done, President Obama’s first, when he says he served 22,000 people over three days.

Associations, corporate outposts, and lobbying and law firms with offices along the parade route that stretches along Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to the Capitol often host parade-viewing parties or breakfasts and receptions where attendees can warm up from the chilly climes outside.

Gage has catered many of these over the years, describing the tricky logistics of trucking in ice and supplies along the security perimeter that surrounds the grand avenue. Gage says he estimates he could have made $1.5 million over the inaugural week.

This year, he’s offering delivery breakfasts and lunches to clients who might host viewing parties. Michael is selling swearing-in brunch kits with a champagne cocktail and a “stars and stripes” quiche. For corporate clients, he’s shipping patriotic-themed cookie decorating packages.

Many in the industry are hoping that the spread of the vaccine will mean 2021 still finishes better than the previous year. Some clients share their optimism, and calls are already coming in for people wanting to book weddings and other parties in the fall, which many caterers are taking down with the digital equivalent of a pencil — something that can’t be locked in, not yet.

Hebron-Marks, who calls herself “a hugger from a family of huggers,” is hoping to embrace longtime clients before too long. She’s trying her hand at new things, too, cooking meals for a friend’s elderly parents and possibly marketing to others in their senior development. She’s making boxed “romantic meals” for Valentine’s Day she hopes will sell.

And she’s waiting for the phone to ring. “I just try to stay gripped to my faith,” she says. “I know better days are coming.”

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