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.”
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.
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.
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.