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Michigan Caterers’ Year of Loss and Learning

By Lauren Pahmeier

2020 was on track to be a record year. For some catering companies across the state, continuous growth year-over-year had set them up for success, and they thought it would be their best 365 days yet.

And a record year it was—but not for good reasons. Layoffs and furloughs, major losses in sales, and too many cancellations and postponed events to count made 2020 a year that catering companies will never forget.

When the pandemic hit last March, the meetings and events industry slammed to a halt, just like the rest of the world. However, many other areas of the hospitality industry had built-in pivots, such as restaurants focusing on takeout and delivery, and hotels limiting capacities. But for meetings and events, the closing of venues and offices took away the opportunity for clients to host their gatherings as planned, leaving caterers high and dry. Even when gatherings were held in someone’s backyard instead, restrictions held back the number of guests attending, meaning revenues for caterers could never reach pre-pandemic heights. Plus, differing county-by-county guidelines and restrictions made that struggle different for companies located in different parts of the state, on top of the ebb and flow of restrictions over time as the number of cases rose and fell.

But a few universal guidelines have emerged through the chaos: Corporate catering business has been almost nonexistent, and individually plated meals often replaced buffets and family-style meals. Michigan Meetings+Events recognized this disruption and upheaval for the catering industry, so we talked with several caterers across the state in early 2021 to get a better sense of the full impact, to learn how they have changed their business models to adapt and to find out their hopes and plans for an unknown future.

Different Companies, Different Problems

One of the companies that had high hopes for 2020 was Catering by Kelly’s in Williamsburg. Owner Dan Kelly said he expected it to be their eighth record year in a row. Instead, the company is down 60 percent in sales— equating to millions of dollars in revenue— and only catered 50 of its 250 scheduled events. In a normal year, the company typically caters 40 to 50 Christmas parties, but last year they didn’t have a single one.

As of January 2021, things weren’t much different, either. “We’re kind of holding our breath for the next three months and hopefully it gets opened back up, and then we should be great. But if it continues to be shut down… I don’t even want to venture to guess how much devastation that’s going to have on northern Michigan,” says Kelly.

Catering by Kelly’s is just one example of the across-the-board losses that the industry has experienced. While the northern Michigan company was down 60 percent in sales, Two Unique Caterers & Event Planners in Royal Oak has been operating on an 80 percent reduction since March 2020. Luckily, most of the social events they would have catered at a partner venue were not cancelled—just moved to a backyard instead. However, this doesn’t mean they weren’t hit as hard. “The unfortunate part of it was while the number of events was there, the event sizes were not comparable to what we were doing [before]. Typically, we would be seeing 200- or 250-plus guest counts; whereas this past summer, we saw much more intimate events… They sometimes are the same amount of work, but the bill at the end of the day doesn’t reflect the large event that could have been for 200,” says Jim Lenz, general manager at Two Unique.

These smaller guest counts also reminded chef/owner Kelli Lewton of Two Unique of the events she used to take on just after founding the company in 1991. “There’s no complaint for me, but the body of work we took on, it kind of felt like what I used to do when I was very young in my career.”

While Two Unique has been around for 30 years, companies like Skosh Catering are still in their early career days, making this a wildly different experience for them. Kenny and Rachel Carlisle, the husband-wife team behind Skosh Catering in Walled Lake, only launched their business in a commercial kitchen just four months before the pandemic in November 2019–meaning they’ve run their business longer within the pandemic than outside of it. Because of this, Skosh has had different struggles compared to veteran Two Unique.

Examples include Skosh’s struggle with packaging and preparing hot meals for smaller groups, as opposed to group sizes pre-COVID. However, Two Unique hasn’t had much trouble with the change. They had a to-go meal program that took a back seat for many years, but when the pandemic hit, they brought it back and plan to continue with it even after the pandemic is over. “You want to put it in a box, put it in a cup, put it on a plate, I’m your girl, we’re experts in that. We are packaging experts now,” says Lewton.

As opposed to ready-to-eat hot meals, Skosh has had less of a problem with serving and delivering food that the client must heat before eating. Rachel Carlisle says of the hot meals: “It’s a whole logistical nightmare that we’re not supposed to have … because our hot boxes, they’re not meant to hold individual boxed lunches; they’re meant to hold pans. So you go back and forth between, ‘Do we box them here? Do we take all the food bulk there and box them up there?’”

Skosh is not the only company that hasn’t had a good experience with takeout for smaller groups. The Catering Company in Grand Rapids offered to-go meals for the holidays, but said that it’s difficult without a large social media following to get the word out about their new offerings. “We were competing with a variety of other destinations that we had never competed with before, in an arena that was brand new to us,” says Kim Smith, president of The Catering Company.

Up in the Traverse City area, Catering by Kelly’s hasn’t offered to-go meals for smaller groups simply because there wasn’t enough demand in the area.

“It’s not worth it in Traverse City, Michigan … I did enough research with all the restaurants that are trying to do that up here, just to stay afloat … most restaurants up here have stopped doing it because it’s not making any sense,” says Kelly.

New Realizations & Business Plans

Life wasn’t put on pause when the pandemic hit. Newly engaged couples were still itching to book their future weddings, and companies their hallmark anniversaries and summer picnics. And just because caterers couldn’t serve their regularly scheduled large gatherings doesn’t mean they couldn’t plan for future ones, so some companies had to innovate the way they did tastings.

The Catering Company used to do one- to two-hour tastings in-person under normal circumstances. But with social distancing, adjusting has turned out for the better. Instead, they do to-go tastings, and can get four of them out the door at once, with phone or Zoom calls to answer questions. Now, their booking rate after tastings is up 5 percent from before.

To-go tastings are just one example of the forced creativity and adaptability that catering companies had to adopt over the past year. Of course, catering virtual events with individually boxed meals became prevalent. For example, Skosh Catering provided meals for a virtual Kentucky Derby, where the team dropped off meals at the client’s headquarters, and the meals were picked up by individuals who hosted five to 10 guests each within their homes.

Overall, due to furloughed and laid-off staff, smaller teams had to make up for everyone’s various responsibilities. At Two Unique, chef/owner Lewton called her team a “small tribe” that always rose to the occasion when necessary. “Our sales team got versed very, very quickly into being tenting experts,” says Lewton.

The pandemic has revealed remarkable loyalty from staff members and their superiors alike at their respective companies. Two Unique was dedicated to keeping the employees who were never furloughed or laid off at their original salaries, although many other companies had to assign pay cuts. Plus, they wanted to keep health care even for laid-off workers. Lenz advises other companies: “Take care of your staff the best you can. They’re the people that got you to where you were, that are going to help you push through this.”

At The Catering Company, Kim Smith says that the 12 employees they have currently, stayed on their own. “I didn’t ask them to stay, they stayed on their own accord, so I feel very fortunate.”

Forging Ahead

Despite all the learning that has been done over the past year, the team at Skosh will be grateful when things go back to normal, especially because of their love of feedback at in-person events.

“It’s a lot more anxiety, because when you’re at an event, you hear the reactions, people come back to the kitchen and say how everything was. You can ask people as you’re clearing plates… At this point, they pull into the parking lot, pop their trunk, we put the bag in and we send them on their way. We don’t hear from them until we follow up with them how things went,” says Rachel Carlisle.

Every caterer wants things to go back to “normal,” but many are nervous that it will take longer for things to go back even after all restrictions have been lifted. Of course, recent rollouts of the vaccine have shed some light on the timetable, but it might be much longer before people don’t worry about the spread or becoming infected with COVID19 even after they’re vaccinated. This could translate in several different ways within the catering world. Within corporate planning, Rachel Carlisle from Skosh Catering thinks that lunch and learns—often accompanied by catered food—will be no more, as people may want to avoid eating and drinking in front of each other. Several companies think that plated meals (as opposed to buffets or family-style meals) will be here to stay, as choosing plated meals means that planners won’t have to worry about keeping people socially distanced in line, or putting plexiglass shields in between their team and the guests at a buffet line.

Regardless of how the future plays out at in-person events, one thing that the pandemic has done is emotionally reconnected caterers to their clients and their teams.

“It was really heartwarming to just see people come together with us, the clients, their family,” says Lewton. “I think what was probably the most inspiring thing out of that whole process was our sales team and our culinary teams were able to execute weddings in sometimes less than 10 days,” says Lenz.

The extra effort during these hard times that has connected clients to their caterers—and event planners and vendors—will make meeting in person again that much more special.

While others may think differently, Lenz thinks that it won’t take long for people to want to get back to normal once again. “I think people are ready to party, they just need permission to do so.”