Before many sensed a disruption in the hospitality industry, catering companies began to see the writing on the wall. Corporations delayed international product launches, couples postponed their weddings, and parties with more than 50 people suddenly became public health hazards in light of the COVID-19 crisis. In early March, Jamie Erickson of catering company Poppy’s called her accountant to tell him she was closing the catering side of her business.
“I knew I had to pull the trigger pretty quickly,” says Erickson, a fourth generation New Yorker with family roots in the food industry. “I saw the situation in Europe and thought, ‘There’s no way this isn’t going to happen here.’”
But like other businesses facing drastic changes due to novel coronavirus measures, caterers across the city have made changes to keep at least some revenue rolling. Some, like Poppy’s, are selling groceries like produce from local farms, while others have adapted to make meals in bulk that can be heated up at home. With industrial-sized commissary kitchens at their disposal and the volume experience necessary to pump out hundreds of meals in the matter of hours, several companies have also been contracted by FEMA to provide meals for hospital and other front-line workers.
Some are even still working parties — sort of. For its first ever virtual birthday party, Marcia Selden Catering is sending identical flights of batched cocktails and double chocolate cakes to small groups stationed across multiple households, complete with a virtual karaoke MC.
“We’re a bit like Navy Seals,” says Jeffrey Selden, president of the International Caterers Association and managing partner of Marcia. “We get thrown into a situation, and we deal with it.”
Catering companies usually have higher profit margins than restaurants. While restaurants average profits of 3 to 4 percent, caterers have the potential to make average profits of 7 to 8 percent. But with the entire spring events season erased, these margins are no longer a reality for the year. Caterers are scrambling to manage deposits, with some offering full refunds and even more proposing postponements. The hashtag #postponedontcancel has made its way onto the social media pages of events-oriented businesses, many of which have resorted to taking much smaller deposits than what they normally require for next year’s bookings, just to provide a little bit of cash flow.
Much like the city’s restaurants, the majority of catering companies made the decision to lay off staff and cancel or postpone any immediate engagements. “There was a human trauma within the financial and operational trauma,” says Paul Neuman, founder of Neuman’s Kitchen, a corporate and social caterer based in Long Island City that had to lay off employees who have been with the company anywhere from 10 to 30 years. Many caterers have halted all operations.
But those that remain are quickly adapting to the circumstances.
The biggest need, many caterers say, is home delivery, especially as big box grocery delivery struggles to meet demand. Neuman’s company, which once served high-end events, is working on a consumer-facing website, featuring a new menu of individually packaged meals. “We are, and we’ve always been, a proactive company that just wants to respond to a crisis and do whatever needs to be done,” says Neuman. “Since most delivery services are overwhelmed right now, we saw an opportunity.”
The food, of course, must change as well. The menus at companies like Marcia, Dish Food & Events, and Purslane — once resplendent with colorful hors d’oeurves and rustic family-style platters — now consist of soups, meatloaf, rotisserie chickens, and lasagna, which are all better-suited to reheating at home.
Brooklyn-based caterer the Pixie and the Scout has swapped its aesthetically-minded farm-to-table spreads and homemade pretzels for vegetable dips, snacks like granola, and reheatable entrees such as pork and cabbage dumplings or squash and spinach enchiladas. Lance Knowling, a longtime New York area caterer and co-founder of the Black Chef series, is experimenting with a new meal package, where a rotating set of meals cost $12.50 each, with a four meal minimum.
Typically, Knowling serves modern versions of comfort foods like smoked oysters and fried cornish hen to a celebrity clientele. Now, the focus is non-fussy foods at an affordable cost. Options include breaded pork cutlet in a white wine and caper sauce and marinated grilled chicken with mashed potatoes and roasted carrots. “When you’re sitting at home in your pajamas watching TV, you don’t want your dinner to be a science experiment,” Knowling says.
Other caterers have taken the opportunity to sell through their pantry stocks. After ceasing all kitchen-related operations, seasoned caterer Naturally Delicious is organizing a stock of dry goods, cheeses, meats, wine, and beer into $75 provisions boxes, which can be delivered throughout select Brooklyn neighborhoods. Poppy’s is offering a weekly CSA box from Lancaster Farm Fresh co-op for $48, along with a sampling of dry essentials, cheeses, and bakery items, including out of a now-closed Cobble Hill cafe.
Some companies have been able to use their expertise with volume cooking to feed front-line workers. Marcia Selden and Deborah Miller Catering have been delivering meals for up to 200 healthcare workers , from Central Park to Stamford, Connecticut. While some businesses are solely relying on their own resources, companies like Dish Food & Events have started accepting meal donations via a Gofundme page. Poppy’s Columbia Street kitchen, now supported entirely by FEMA, is now one of many making thousands of meals a day for local hospitals.
But also like restaurants, many caterers are unsure of how long they’ll continue to do business as the number of confirmed cases in New York grows. Already, mother-daughter catering company and acclaimed Middle Eastern restaurant Tanoreen opted to close on Sunday due to health concerns. Erickson of Poppy’s says she feels like she’s making a major ethical decision every day of work. “You see all of these businesses that are still operating and the government deems you as essential, and yet, I cannot make anybody go in to work and do something they’re not comfortable with,” she says.
Regardless of how they’re adapting, catering revenues are a far cry from where they would normally be at the tip of the spring season. Most of their efforts are less centered on raking in money and more focused on serving locals, while hopefully earning enough to keep the lights on.
Still, some caterers are hoping it’s an opportunity for changes and growth later down the road. Eventually, hors d’oeurves might not be passed so much as wrapped, family-style will turn to small plates, and buffets may finally be deemed passé. Knowling, who had been working on implementing a home delivery service as part of his catering company prior to COVID-19, sees this as an opportunity, albeit under bleak circumstances, for the catering industry to reinvent itself.
“We can no longer think about the industry as it once was,” Knowling says.
Leah Rosenzweig writes about wine, cultural history, and books in Brooklyn, New York.