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With events canceled by coronavirus, what’s a Petaluma caterer to do?

Following widespread event cancellations, caterers have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. Many are now pivoting, offering meals to go, as an attempt to survive the massive drop in business.

It is the nature of the catering business to change up menus for each event, which is part of what makes catered events so enticing. But diners rarely think of a catering company when they are looking for a bite to eat, no matter how good our local caterers might be.

Slowly, this seems to be changing, especially in an area like Sonoma County, where expectation are high. This has made the shift from catering to to-go meals an especially tasty boon for Petaluma diners where our caterers tend to be so good, they become household names.

Employees - the ?biggest hit

Most local caters have been able to keep core staff. The same can’t be said for part-time and on-call staff, many of whom rely on the extra money from catering jobs to make rent.

Spring and summer are the busiest seasons for caterers and when staff balloons in size to include dozens of on-call servers. Every caterer I spoke to is deeply concerned for the part-time staffers who found themselves out of a job.

“I think about and worry about each and every one of our staff right now. I feel helpless,” Chef Kristina Daya of Mazza Catering said. “There are so many talented individuals and I can’t wait for the day we can all work together again doing what we love to do.”

New prep

Another challenge has been the scaling down of menu production. “Instead of large orders for dozens to hundreds of people, often delivered to an event location in large serving trays, we are now having to think about and produce individual servings, which is time consuming and requires a lot more packaging,” says Chef Bethany Barsman of Out to Lunch catering. They also now must turn around orders day-by-day instead of enjoying a longer prep time.

Supply chain

The supply chain seems to have held up relatively well so far, although there were clearly some unexpected consequences of switching from large-scale catering to family-sized deliveries.

“A main supply issue has been packaging for to-go orders,” Barsman continued. “And we are also running into some hurdles with meat, which has gotten more expensive. So far, produce has been pretty good.”

The first (and hopefully only) victim

The COVID pandemic has already claimed one victim in the Petaluma catering scene as Fit for a King does not plan to reopen. Working out of a commercial kitchen on Petaluma Boulevard North, owner Valerie King was candid about the pandemic’s effect on the catering industry. “We are a small catering business,” Valerie told me. “We only did a half-dozen weddings a year but when we saw how quickly business could dry up, it just does not make sense for us to continue. We love feeding people and may be back in the future, but for now are going to concentrate our efforts elsewhere.”

With four grandchildren she would like to spend more time with and a successful family business (King Electric), Valerie will have no trouble filling her time.

Petaluma players

Bay Laurel Culinary - baylaurelculinary.com

Starting alphabetically with Bay Laurel Culinary, opened by Christopher Greenwald. He grew up outside of Folsom, studied at Humboldt State and then attended culinary school in San Francisco. He eventually settled in Sonoma County, an area his family used to visit when he was a kid. He cut his teeth as the chef at Iron Horse Winery in the mid-2000s before launching Bay Laurel Culinary in 2008. Ciara, the future Mrs. Greenwald, hails from Dublin, Ireland. She worked at Jackson Family Vineyards when the couple first met in 2010, but now she works beside Christopher.

Christopher chose to call his company “culinary” instead of “catering” because of the company’s diverse business, which reaches beyond traditional catering. Chef Christopher also teaches culinary classes and handles special events, such as the artist’s backstage area at the Greek Theater. BLC also caters to Bay Area visitors in the need of a private chef.

“Shelter in Place has seen our business drop by 80%,” said Chef Christopher said. “We have turned into a to-go restaurant, which is a menu we’ve had on the back burner for a while ready to go anyway.”

By downsizing the portions to feed a family of four to six, BLC has been able to retain five main employees, but has no need to call up its 20 or so “on call” employees.

Relying heavily on area farms, dairies and other suppliers, each week’s menu highlights the small, local food businesses. Regulars include Clover, Skippy’s Eggs, Straus Family Creamery, Coyote Family Farms, Petaluma Creamery, Tomales Bay Foods and Keith Giusto Bakery Supply.

“We rotate around through the various local farms and food businesses each week,” said Christopher. “The idea for the week’s meal drives us toward certain suppliers each week.”

The purveyor that caught our eye and spurred us to order last week’s menu was Bellwether Farms, an award-winning sheep and cow cheese and yogurt creamery located out Bodega Avenue. Our meal started with complimentary Full Belly Farm “new crop” roasted garlic focaccia, which may have looked plain but was packed full of great flavor. Next up was the BLC’s Italian chopped salad, which was right up my alley with a healthy serving of olives, salami and garbanzo beans. The lemon, thyme and balsamic vinaigrette outlasted the salad, and was enjoyed on homemade salads as well.

I am usually a red lasagna fan but could not resist trying BLC’s green lasagna, advertised as Bellwether Jersey milk ricotta and pesto lasagna with basil, mozzarella and pecorino. From the looks of it, I was reminded of a pesto lasagna I once had in Bologna, Italy, but BLC’s was honestly better. The balance of flavors was magnificent.

The main course was definitely the main event but the sides were memorable too. This particular dinner came with Chef Christopher’s “market picks” rosemary roasted vegetables. The potato salad had a nice dill flavor to it from their secret “ranch seasoning.” The BLC slaw was simply spectacular. At the finale, there were six servings of Meyer lemon “berrymisu,” which was even better than it sounds.

Our meal came packaged in two large containers, one for the salad and one for the entrée, along with side containers. There’s no need to be concerned about a hot dish and cool dish in the same bag, BLC thoughtfully uses an egg crate between the two for insulation. The salad was still crispy and cool upon arrival and the lasagna was warm enough to dig right in.

This meal was so good that we ate nothing else from Saturday afternoon, when we picked it up, until Tuesday afternoon, when we finally finished it off. The quantity alone is a great value for the $130 price, but it is the restaurant quality that will keep us coming back. This week’s menu includes lemongrass and coconut curry chicken, mixed coastal lettuces, raw zucchini and poached prawn salad, pork larb and Tahitian vanilla pudding. Pickup is available Wednesday through Saturday with 48 hours notice required by calling 981-8100. Refer a friend or tag @baylaurelchef on Instagram and receive a treat with your next order.

Cherubina Catering (Penngrove) - cherubinacatering.com

Cherubina is an apt name for Chef Tamara Westerhold’s catering company, as the reviews of her food claim it to be heavenly. Chef Tamara is a third-generation Bay Area native with family roots reaching back into old world Spain, which inspires much of her cooking. She was born in San Rafael and grew up in both Marin and Sonoma counties. Four years ago she moved to Penngrove to raise her daughter in a more tightly knit community.

Tamara has been cooking since she was a child and became a private chef after college. She cooked and planned events for friend and family, so starting her Cherubina Catering in 2010 was a natural transition. Her business is focused mainly on “boutique” catering for small events of two to 20 people with a distinct Mediterranean flare.

“All of my summer events have been cancelled,” Tamara said. “And weddings with contracts with event spaces have been postponed until further notice. Currently, I’m not seeing any new contracts.”

The summer is typically Cherubina’s busiest time of year but with the current cancellations, she has no need for her on-call and part-time employees. Currently, Tamara is working alone after shifting her focus.

Currently, Cherubina offers Friday meal delivery, with a new three-course Mediterranean inspired meal each week. The menu is published every Monday on Cherubina’s social media as well as in the Petaluma Foodies Facebook group. Meals feed four people and are served family style, while the desserts are individual servings. Order by texting or calling 415-548-3189 by noon on Thursday of each week.

A recent meal came complete with Greek lemon oregano chicken, kalamata olives, orzo and feta salad and pistachio and raspberry trifle with orange blossom honey whipped cream. Another was Italian sausage, sweet peppers and onions over creamy polenta, arugula parmesan salad with blood orange vinaigrette and Meyer lemon cheesecake. Yet another was gorgonzola spinach pasta topped with bacon breadcrumbs, mixed baby greens with walnuts figs and shallots, and finished out with amaretto-chocolate-chip cheesecake with an almond graham cracker crust.

“My clients are so important me, many of them have been with me for years and we’ve become like family,” continued Tamara. “Getting to know people helps me to personalize their experience. My commitment to preparing high quality and delicious food remains stronger than ever.”

Mazza Catering – mazzacatering.com

With a kitchen in both Petaluma and Healdsburg, Mazza Catering supplied weddings and corporate events throughout our region’s wineries and special event centers.

Chef Kristina Daya is a first generation Jordanian American who grew up in Sonoma County and attended Sonoma State University.

“Food and hospitality has always played a large roll in my life,” said Kristina. “It’s how we celebrate. Gathering and eating together is how we remedy any and all situations.”

Her father owned restaurants throughout Northern California and still owns and operates a few to this day, including Adel’s. Chef Kristina would join her father at work, helping with everything from opening the mini-umbrellas to picking mint leaves for ice tea.

“He and I would collect to-go menus from various restaurants then go home and study all the different items piece by piece. You could say this path was my destiny,” she said.

After successfully helping a winery friend cater an event, Kristina started Mazza Catering in 2011. Mazza is Arabic for “small plates,” which is appropriate for the food and wine pairing experiences Kristina creates. In 2017, she earned the Confrérie de le Chaine des Rôtisseurs, a prestigious French gastronomic award that in the past has been awarded to the likes of Chef Jaques Pepin.

Within days of the shelter-in-place order, Mazza saw cancellation requests through the end of the year. Kristina says most are postponing for the next year, so she is preparing for a busy 2021.

“Each weekend that passes my heart aches for my clients that should have been celebrating,” said Kristina.

When wedding and graduation season is in full swing, Mazza usually employees a support a team of 20 to 30 additional staff. Currently, she is working with two to five employees.

“We have been fortunate enough to continue to be of service to our community by serving frontline workers, medical field staff and first responders and we want to continue to do so,” Kristina said.

In anticipation of next year’s possible boom, Mazza now offers virtual consultation via Zoom for prospective clients. “It’s different but it’s a way to get the job done without throwing in the towel,” she said. “If I’ve learned anything the past several years, it is that we are a resilient community and always come through stronger than ever. I am so impressed with the hospitality community and the support of local business has been heartwarming.”

Mazza has also been working closely with wineries to provide individual packaged offerings so guests can attend wine tastings. This includes cheese and charcuterie boxes for weekend delivery, an attempt to bring the typical winery weekend straight to a customer’s door.

Mazza is taking orders for a special “Father’s Day Weekend Cheese and Charcuterie Board.” With all taxes and delivery fees included in the $35 price, delivery is available from 1 to 5 p.m. all weekend. These boards have been selling out quickly so advanced purchases are recommended at mazza.catering@yahoo.com.

“…We have been overwhelmed by the support,” said Kristina. “It continues to give us the push we need to continue moving forward. We are grateful for all the continuous ordering and referrals.”

Out to Lunch Fine Catering – otlfinecatering.com

Out To Lunch has been bringing home Sonoma County Harvest Festival awards for years, yet few know that they are hidden away in the basement below Copperfield’s Books on American Alley.

Owner Bethany Barsman grew up in Santa Rosa and worked in delis and catering for years before gaining valuable kitchen experience under local legend Lisa Hemingway. Bethany first moved into the space back in 1993 to help support the food side of Copperfield’s Café. The café has closed but Out to Lunch remains one of Petaluma’s most respected caterers.

Out to Lunch was lucky to pick up a corporate client that orders a substantial number of meals twice a week. But even when shelter-in-place lifts, it may be a long time before people want to gather in groups again. “We normally handle a lot of corporate events,” said Bethany. “However, 90% of those have either cancelled or postponed.”

So far, everything has been cancelled through August but OTL is optimistic. They have already catered two “drop-off weddings,” but there is still a long way to go to get back to normal.

“Thanks to our meal deliveries we have been able to keep our core staff but at this time of year we would normally be calling on 20 to 30 servers to help us regularly throughout the season,” said Chef Bethany.

To help supplement, OTL now offers home meal delivery throughout Sonoma County on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with order deadlines of the day before by 9 a.m. (look for a link on the Facebook page). Although announced regularly through social media, it is best to sign up for the email newsletter so as not to miss anything. There are usually three different meal options for $15 each, including dessert, with a three-meal minimum.

Examples menus include the Santa Fe grilled steak salad with roasted corn, black beans, roasted peppers, sweet onions, crispy tortilla strips and creamy cilantro dressing; the ham and cheese-stuffed pastry with mustard aioli and side of Cajun potato salad; the blackened salmon with remoulade sauce, dirty rice and green beans sautéed with tasso ham and onions; and the buttermilk fried chicken with macaroni and cheese and Caesar salad. OTL has a bit of a Southern-comfort flare because, along with using tasso ham, a Louisiana specialty, they occasionally offer dishes such as Jambalaya with cornbread and slaw.

Preferred Sonoma Caterers – sonomacaterers.com

A local institution for nearly three decades now, owners Amber and Jim Balshaw are deeply rooted Petaluma natives. Amber’s family goes back five generations and Jim’s is so entrenched that the downtown walking bridge bears his family’s name.

After attending SRJC, Amber apprenticed in Innsbruck, Austria, which helps explain why she is so good at desserts. En route home to California, she attended the Culinary Institute of American in New York and after a few years in Southern California, including a stint at the famed Ojai Valley Inn, returned to Petaluma. Amber has worked at West Point Military Academy, catered John Travolta movies and has cooked for three U.S. presidents.

Catering events from 30 to 1,500 people, weddings are a large part of PSC’s business. Postponements and cancellations are the new norm, with about half of the wedding clients postponing to the same weekend next year.

From a business standpoint, they have shifted to working with Sonoma Family Meals to provide meals to the elderly. Out of concerns for those with delicate immune systems, PSC is not yet offering meals to go for the general public to avoid any COVID cross-contamination. They are partnering with wineries, which are required to offer food with tastings as of now.

PSC is also offering a program where the public can donate meals to frontline workers. Donations are taken in $10 increments, which represents one meal. Donors can choose where the meals go and as soon as PSC has enough for that location, they deliver. Amber said about 80% of donors simply request that the meals go where they are most needed. Currently, PSC is concentrating on meals for the workers at the Petaluma Health Center.

Through the pandemic, PSC has been able to keep a core crew working, although not the 20 to 25 servers who would normally be called in by now. The Balshaws, however, remain positive and see this as an opportunity to give back at a time when many are in need.

“Our community has always been so supportive of us so it is nice to have some time to give back,” said Amber.

They have also been supporting Lynne Gordon Moquete and her Una Vida program, which provides food and clothing to families in need. PSC is providing cold storage and baking hundreds of mini loaves of bread each week for Una Vida.

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