Jen McKay, president of Oakland’s Grace Street Catering was at a conference in Las Vegas in March when “the world started to shut down.” Prior to the pandemic, the catering company grossed an average of $4 million a year. Grace Street was the food provider for Oakland Museum of California (its contract with the museum expired in February), UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall and several other nonprofit clients that made up roughly 70% of the company’s business. But all of that changed within the first 48 hours of the conference.
“The first three months were good standard months, but now we have nothing.” — Jen McKay, Grace Street Catering
“The first day we had lost half a million dollars, and after the second day we were at a million,” McKay said. “The first three months were good standard months, but now we have nothing.”
For many East Bay catering companies, a huge portion of its yearly income stems from large corporate events and the very reliable, multi-billion dollar generating wedding season — a period of time that allows businesses to hit their yearly revenue goals. But thanks to the pandemic, opportunities to celebrate nuptials or a company’s launch have disappeared, and along with these events, the need for any sort of catered meals. Which begs the question: What happens next for catering businesses?
Rejected, overlooked for not being a restaurant
One might think that the rallying cry to support small, locally-owned restaurants and food businesses that’s reverberated across the county would include caterers as well. Unfortunately, this really isn’t the case.
“We are definitely forgotten, and I totally get it,” said McKay. “People don’t think about us. They only use us once a year when they need food for an alumni gathering,” or some other type of large event.
For Kristine Seinsch, owner of ACT Catering in Emeryville and currently closed Jazzcaffè in Berkeley, she is in complete survival mode. At the outset of the year, ACT Catering was experiencing a high volume of requests and averaging 10 events a day. But after having 90% of her events canceled within days of the coronavirus’ arrival in the U.S., Seinsch found herself in new territory as she struggled to maintain payroll for her 25 employees.
Realizing that she needed to pivot, and do it fast, Seinsch explained that she started to, “reach out to everyone and their mothers to see how we can help.
“I was approached by Frontline Foods and we got a few gigs with them, and we worked with Double Helping Hands to feed the homeless,” Seinsch said. “But when they all found that we were a catering company they didn’t want to give us an opportunity anymore. They wanted to support restaurants instead.”
“When they found that we were a catering company they didn’t want to give us an opportunity anymore. They wanted to support restaurants instead.” — Kristine Seinsch, ACT Catering
Turning ACT away for being a catering company instead of a restaurant was not an isolated incident. In fact, almost every catering business owner we spoke with, including ACT, Grace Street, Salt & Honey Catering and Montperi Catering and Events, said that caterers have been excluded from several opportunities to feed members of the community simply because the businesses did not fall under the traditional restaurant category.
Salt & Honey’s owner Olivia Colt said that she was turned away from several nonprofits working to feed front line workers because her business was not a restaurant. And after applying for almost every grant program under the sun she was still met with the same “you’re not a restaurant” response.
These types of rejections were also a common experience for Lamont Perriman and Amanda Pinkham, co-owners of the Black- and woman-owned Montperi Catering in Oakland. And while Perriman admits that restaurants are struggling and they should absolutely be supported, he also asserts that caterers have as much of a place at the table as any other food business.
“We saw a lot of websites geared specifically towards restaurants,” recalled Perriman. “We were writing to businesses saying, ‘Hey, we need help, too. Let us know how we can help.’”
“There’s a direct difference between restaurants and caterers, but we are all here to cook food and provide a service and keep our business going. And we want to get help when we need it.”
After months of rejections, caterers finally saw some semblance of hope after World Central Kitchen (WCK) — chef José Andrés’ nonprofit organization devoted to providing meals in the wake of natural disasters — took many food businesses under its wide-reaching wing, providing desperately needed work and funding to small businesses, while simultaneously feeding food-insecure community members. And although WCK’s presence is much appreciated and alleviates some of the strain caterers are experiencing, it can’t pull struggling companies out of the red.
In the red, but moving forward anyway
Beyond applying for small business association (SBA) loans there are no other government-assisted programs in place to serve these types of businesses. And, according to Perriman, many food purveyors are afraid to accept loans since they already are in debt from opening and operating a business.
But even for companies like ACT and Salt & Honey, which were in the black at the beginning of the year, the pandemic has forced owners to get creative in how they’ll stay afloat. Colt, for instance, moved from her $13,000 a month shared kitchen in Berkeley to a significantly smaller space in West Oakland to cut costs, and she did it all from her bed.
Colt is in the unique predicament of not only running a largely overlooked food business, but also suffers from paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH), a rare blood disease that makes her a member of the “at-risk” population. Colt had self-quarantined in February, and while she was able to remotely arrange for the move, she entrusted her employees to handle the rest, including the physical moving of equipment.
Despite her chronic illness and geographic displacement from her team, however, she is determined to keep her business going even to her own personal detriment.
“I stopped taking a salary, I’ve drained my savings, I’ve drained my investments and I maxed out my credit cards,” Colt said, very matter-of-factly. “I don’t want it to close for my employees. They love their jobs and are so happy. I want to be open for them. I want to do everything in my power and it’s about the commitment and holding up my end of the bargain” — a sentiment that is reiterated amongst all the caterers mentioned.
Reinventing what catering can be
By now it should come as no surprise that the pandemic has forced most, if not all, surviving caterers in the East Bay to completely redesign operations and business models.
After closing its doors in March for the first time in 30 years, Grace Street Catering reopened and shifted to contactless delivery and curbside pickup for groceries, and rolled out The Graceful Box — a curated selection of themed kits that provide ingredients and directions for at-home meals. (McKay’s kids even pitch in by selling their homemade ice cream every week.) The group also hosts special collaborations and pop-up events, and is planning to open a restaurant hopefully before the end of the year.
Paula LeDuc Fine Catering & Events, a 40-year-old Bay Area institution specializing in high-end catering for arts and culture galas, tech events, and high-profile clients, has had to retool their offerings for smaller parties dining at home.
“It’s been a navigation,” said Nancy Parrague, Paula LeDuc’s director of sales. “We closed our doors and became active online. We weren’t doing very many events when shelter-in-place orders came down the line. And our primary concern was for the health and wellness of our team.”
The company’s Paula LeDuc at Home offers high-end, seasonal dinners with craft cocktails and house-made provisions available for pickup or delivery. In addition, Paula LeDuc has customized boxes for at-home corporate events, along with a new Dinner and a Movie experience, where diners are invited to a catered meal in their cars while watching a drive-in movie at the Paula LeDuc warehouse in Emeryville.
Seinsch launched ACT at Home in March, offering home diners a weekly changing menu of takeout dishes for delivery and pickup. This week, after six months of the service, ACT Catering is concluding its At Home menu; it’s currently taking orders for its final round of Thursday and Friday meals before transitioning back to catering for events. For its next iteration in catering, ACT will offer individually wrapped items in plant-based, compostable containers that are delivered to a home, office or venue. While its days of serving individual home diners is just about over, ACT does plan to do some special pop-up events in the future.
Salt & Honey has put together Market Pantry Boxes that exclusively feature products from local and family-owned small businesses and farms. (Supporting small, local purveyors is a cause close to Colt’s heart as she is on the fundraising committee for the Oakland Indie Alliance’s Repair Fund.) The company also has themed meal kits, a recipe section on its website and even launched a Youtube channel with step-by-step cooking and baking demos.
Being a full-service catering and events company, Montperi has always been an adaptive business. So when faced with a pandemic, Perriman and Pinkham were able to build out their already extensive list of services including meal prep and delivery, personal chef experiences, virtual cooking classes and virtual team building and lunch meetings; not to mention helping to feed single mothers in the Oakland area through Urban University and World Central Kitchen.
And although constantly reinventing operations is stressful, taxing and downright exhausting, for these caterers it’s entirely worth it.
“It’s like starting a new business, but I’m not tired,” Seinsch said of ACT Catering’s constant changing model. “In every crisis there is an opportunity, and I’m always thinking, What can we do to get through this? Not only ACT, but everyone in this.”
Grace Street Catering (4629 MLK Jr. Way, Oakland) offers curbside pickup or contactless delivery on Thursdays of groceries and prepared foods; ACT Catering (1552 Beach St., Suite D, Emeryville) is offering one final ACT at Home menu pickup or delivery this Thursday, Sept. 10 and Friday, Sept. 11 (no same-day orders) before transitioning back to catering with its Wrapped Attention offerings; Salt & Honey Catering & Events (3303 San Pablo Ave., Oakland) offers its Market Pantry Boxes for pickup (Tuesday through Friday) or delivery (Fridays); Montperi Catering and Events offers a variety of services including meal prep and private cooking classes; Paula LeDuc Fine Catering & Events (1350 Park Ave., Emeryville) offers its Paula LeDuc at Home menu for pickup or delivery, Thursdays through Saturdays; its Dinner and a Movie events will happen through the end of summer.