Just like the rest of the world, the hospitality and travel industries slammed to a halt when the pandemic hit last March. Some sectors within them had built-in solutions to focus on, such as hotels limiting capacities and restaurants focusing on takeout and delivery. But for many businesses within the related meetings and events realm, there were no natural alternatives to turn to.
Caterers specifically had to reinvent the wheel just to stay above water. At first, meetings and events were cancelled, or postponed to a future date—so promised revenue was swept out from under their feet. Next, the majority of offices started working from home, which resulted in some caterers losing a large portion of their business for the foreseeable future. Eventually, some social events came back, like outdoor weddings in the summer and select small indoor gatherings, but capacities were so limited that revenues could never reach pre-pandemic heights. Even at the few events still happening, communal dining such as family-style meals, buffets and food displays were typically out of the picture, so some caterers still had to rethink their typical serving styles—another added obstacle during a time full of enough hurdles.
All of these individual changes contributed to an overall recipe for disaster for caterers, although the pandemic has written a different story for each one. A few commonalities across companies include the essential death of corporate catering, and the constant adaptations to ever-changing restrictions. But other than that? The only thing all caterers have in common is universal change.
Northeast Meetings + Events spoke with caterers across New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut in order to get a better sense of the full impact.
"Save Your Favorite Restaurants"
While restaurants—similar to caterers in the fact that they both serve food—had the obvious solution of switching to takeout when the pandemic hit, they also had the support of a collective rallying from their communities in support, and a fan base dedicated to keeping them alive by visiting regularly.
“When all of this happened, there was a lot of talk… ‘Save your favorite restaurant, save your local restaurants,’” says Dan Biagioni, owner of Spice Catering Group near New Haven, Connecticut. “And a lot of us, including me, started getting takeout from a lot of our local restaurants, trying to help them out a little bit. Well, no one thinks, ‘Save your favorite caterer,’” he laughs.
Just like restaurants, some caterers began offering individually packaged meals to-go and family meal boxes, with varying results. But the comparison to restaurants reminded caterers of the ongoing, mismatched restrictions throughout the pandemic, although restaurants and caterers inherently have certain similarities.
Domenick Savino, CEO and managing partner of The Drexelbrook in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, has been especially frustrated by the differences. His company owns a hotel, two venues, catering services and a restaurant under The Drexelbrook. Throughout the pandemic, the company’s restaurant, Streetlight Kitchen & Bar, has been able to host similar capacities as their venues have, although the square footage is much, much smaller.
“It’s ironic how my restaurant, which is one quarter of the size of my grand ballroom, can seat 104 people at 50 percent occupancy,” says Savino. At the same time, his ballroom was only allowed to hold 150—which is 10 percent occupancy for his 15,000-square-foot space. “It just doesn’t seem equitable that you can have that many people in that space, and have so much fewer people in a bigger space,” he says.
The Drexelbrook’s situation is just one example of the uneven restrictions that caterers arguably, have faced unfairly—and other professionals across the Northeast besides Savino have become frustrated with the lack of attention toward caterers and private events.
Just Getting By
Although restrictions continued to be inconsistent, caterers had to find ways to accommodate them anyway. As mentioned, many companies began offering to-go meals for individuals, families and smaller groups for special occasions, holidays and virtual Zoom meetings. One company that took this approach is Constellation Culinary Group, a Philadelphia-based company that provides nationwide services, mostly via exclusive venue partnerships in New York, New Jersey, California, Florida and Washington, D.C. Constellation created Prepped, a menu of individually packaged, room-temperature meals for attendees of virtual events and small, in-person social gatherings in the regions they serve. As the large catering company is accustomed to catering about 2,500 large, in-person events each year, they had to learn to adjust to smaller numbers all around.
“Most of the events that we would cater previously were hundreds of guests, versus the bulk of events that we’re doing now virtually or in-person are less than 50 guests,” says Morgan Bedore, vice president of sales and creative of Constellation Culinary Group. “Obviously, that value in volume position doesn’t work in today’s world, so creating price points and minimums that allow profit is certainly a challenge right now, but we’ve worked really hard to put together a plan,” says Bedore.
Reaching the point of breakeven, let alone profit, has been a struggle for other companies besides Constellation. In addition to catering some summer weddings, Spice Catering began selling charcuterie boxes around the holidays, but it wasn’t nearly enough to get by. “It was a shell of our business. For December as an example, our revenue was maybe 10 percent of what our normal revenue was, so literally we lost 90 percent,” says Biagioni.
Other companies didn’t bother with switching to individual takeout meals or other temporary fixes, and shifted their focus to permanent improvements to their business instead. In New Jersey, Crystal Plaza Group decided to direct all of their efforts last year to a remodel of their entire venue in Livingston.
“One of the things we didn’t want to do is just say, ‘What can we do right now to make it through this?’ That’s not really our style,” says Max Janoff, director of sales of Crystal Plaza. “It’s, ‘What’s something that would work in a non-COVID world also?’ Because we’re all about longevity,” he says.
Crystal Plaza’s remodel was already in the works before the pandemic began. But when mid-March hit, they decided to take this window of “opportunity” where restrictions reigned to channel their energy into speeding along the process—whereas a remodel in normal times would have meant balancing hosting events with ongoing construction in other parts of the building. And it paid off—as of March 2021, the remodel was five months ahead of schedule.
Over in Pennsylvania, The Drexelbrook knew that its previously existing online storefront needed to become more integral to the catering side of its business during the pandemic. The company began offering family meals and Zoom happy hour packages for pickup or delivery in April 2020, and plan to keep the online storefront for these kinds of offerings open after the pandemic has run its course, too.
However, a more major part of The Drexelbrook’s efforts to stay afloat included charity-focused initiatives. First, The Drexelbrook started Food for the Frontline, a program where a $10 donation served a high-protein meal to a frontline worker at a local hospital. Eventually, this morphed into a more industry-related initiative called Delco Feeds Delco, where donations provide a meal and a local grocery store gift card to unemployed hospitality workers and their families. The catering company served over 200 family meals for Delco Feeds Delco, and 7,000 meals through Food for the Frontline—all with a staff of nine, as compared to their normal 165 full- and part-time employees.
Advocates of the Industry
While all caterers were determining and implementing alternate ways of business to handle the pandemic, some individuals decided to do something to advocate for the meetings and events and hospitality industries as a whole. Many states didn’t recognize the impact that these had on economies, and therefore set restrictions without it in mind. Plus, legislators were discounting the fact that professionally planned and managed private events are executed much differently in terms of safety than gatherings held in private residences, and hosted without professionals during the pandemic.
“When you have an event that’s run by professionals, you’re taking yourself out of the realm of all the dangers that COVID may bring,” says Julia Jablonowski, director of marketing and communications for NACE Philadelphia/South Jersey/ Delaware and creative director of Eventricity, a luxury event planning, design, and floral arts company. “Versus when you’re shutting down to 10 or 15 percent capacity, people want to gather, and they’re going to gather in their homes where there aren’t rules. So, there’s nothing to check them, there’s nothing regulating,” says Jablonowski.
Especially in Philadelphia, the government’s extremely low capacities and high restrictions caused people to host more events within their homes instead of hiring professional event planners and caterers at official venues. Therefore, there wasn’t much evidence specifically to show that professionally planned, private events were the culprit behind the spread of COVID-19. “For some reason, somewhere along the line, somebody decided that private events were going to be a major cause of the spread of COVID-19.
Now, since we’ve been closed for a year, that theory just does not hold water, because there’s no data that supports that private events cause the spread of COVID-19—private events that are by professionally managed businesses,” says Savino.
In support of these sentiments, professionals across Pennsylvania came together to form the Private Event Professionals of Pennsylvania, or PEPP, to combat this feeling of helplessness within the industry. The organization even has a lobbyist whose goal is to show legislators that professionally planned, private events are not the problem, and that keeping capacities so low continually hurts the economy and the industry more than it prevents the spread.
Savino says that event planners and PEPP have tried to showcase to legislators the cleaning and health protocols that they follow while hosting events, but legislators haven’t come to give them a chance at making their point.
What’s worse for PEPP is that not only are capacities alarmingly low, but the lack of a known, public exit strategy on how restrictions will gradually decrease makes it impossible for caterers, event planners and venues to anticipate and plan for any semblance of what the future may look like. Now knowing or planning for a potential future— even one that is dynamically changing—hurts caterers and the private event industry much more than other businesses. For example, announcing increasing capacities for restaurants just days before it goes into effect doesn’t prohibit them from doing business almost immediately, because guests can make same-day reservations. For caterers, clients book months in advance, and caterers will still have to take the months-long hit of little to no activity until they get up to speed with booked events. The longer a plan is not released, the longer it will take for caterers and private event professionals to bounce back, and more businesses could be lost. With Philadelphia’s strict restrictions especially, another concern is that meetings and events are being surrendered to neighboring states with fewer restrictions, doubly damaging the economy.
On top of this, by the time that reopening finally happens, many furloughed and laid-off hospitality industry workers may have migrated to more stable industries in search of a steadier flow of income.
“One of the biggest challenges besides reopening is that when we reopen, the pool of talent is getting smaller and smaller because so many places have lost employees to other industries,” says Savino.
It’s possible that some or all of those employees may never return, which puts more stress on the people who have stayed to push forward with less help. Perhaps caterers who typically serve more corporate clients than social ones may not be as overwhelmed when things go back to “normal”—because some people believe that corporate catering will not bounce back. The success so many companies across the globe have found in working from home may result in working from home permanently, meaning there won’t be regular office lunches to serve, or nearly as many corporate events. But the loss of corporate clients for caterers will never be a good outcome, even if it provides a temporary reprieve in a surge back to business.
As the United States continues the process of exiting the pandemic, decreasing and ultimately eliminating restrictions, businesses have to continually keep up with changing rules by checking what’s shifted on a weekly, or even daily, basis.
“Literally, you have to read the website every day,” says Bedore of Constellation. “Because we’ve got businesses across state lines, it’s really our responsibility to know exactly what the city and state restrictions are. I help guide our clients, because what is permissible today may not be tomorrow. So, we’re being forward-thinking with those clients and looking toward events that have been contracted for the spring, helping to guide them.”
So, while business strategies have never been further from normal, this lack of clarity and everchanging protocols adds another task to the plate of caterers and event planners. Professionals are burnt out from constantly having to be on high alert for new rules. Of course, depending on the county or state, whiplash hasn’t been so bad—but attitudes vary depending on differing experiences.
In Pennsylvania, where regulations are currently the strictest, Savino at The Drexelbrook doesn’t have full faith in seeing the light at the end of the tunnel as vaccination numbers increase across the country.
“You hope it’s not the train coming the other way, right?”
Whereas in New Jersey, Crystal Plaza’s Janoff has a much different outlook. “Our attitude is, ‘Let’s go, let’s rock.’ The attitude of clients has changed from, ‘I don’t want to do this. How do I postpone? Or what do I do from here?’ to ‘How do I make this happen? Let’s rock and roll.’ And it helps with everyone’s attitude in that sense.”
No matter where in the Northeast, caterers are eager to get rolling again. Perhaps that means corporate events won’t be back regularly for years, or maybe plexiglass barriers will separate gorgeous cheese displays from guests for the foreseeable future—but slowly, and surely, events will come back.
“We’re in the industry of human connection. That’s what we do, that’s what we strive for,” says Jablonowski. “I’m not just here to plan your event or design all of your floral or design the event as a whole for my own benefit, it’s because I love seeing other people get excited. I love seeing other people celebrate. I love seeing people share moments with each other. Our industry is based in human connection. We’re all really missing it right now.”