Inside the Collapse of New York’s Catering Industry

Photo: Linda Raymond/Getty Images

Holly Sheppard of Fig & Pig Catering got her first cancellation on Monday, March 16. It was already too late. “We’d cooked 600 pounds of shepherd’s pie, 100 pounds of salad, and 18 quarts of dressing,” she recalls of the work already completed for a corporate client. “All this food, ready to go.”

Understandably, much of New York City’s economic panic around the coronavirus has focused on the survival of the area’s restaurants, but there’s another segment of the hospitality industry that’s suffering — and with even less ability to pivot or offer other products. What happens to the city’s special-events caterers when there are no special events for the foreseeable future — no galas, no weddings? “We all had thriving 2020 businesses, and within seconds,” Sheppard says, “I had no weddings through May.”

In some ways, folks planning events in April and May have it easy, caterers say. There’s no question their events are canceled. It’s the summer weddings and graduations that are more stressful, for both the caterers and the clients. “One of the issues that we’re seeing is that everybody’s trying to reschedule for September, which is difficult because there’s only so much you could do,” says Andrea Correale, the founder and president of Elegant Affairs.

Surprisingly, she and several other caterers tell Grub Street they’re asking clients to hold tight to their June bookings. “We’re actually still planning full steam ahead — our June weddings, they’re not, as of yet, rescheduling. I think that there is this hope that this will pass and that we’ll be allowed to resume social gatherings hopefully by June 1,” Correale says.

“I’m just trying to really convince people who aren’t in a government-mandated date to not cancel their wedding yet,” says Sheppard. “If your wedding’s not until June 27, give it until May 1 … to see where this goes.”

Others think the precautions will last longer. “If we knew this was over in eight weeks, we would be doing weddings eight weeks and one day from now,” says Michelle Gabriel, the managing director at Purslane. “You, first of all, want everyone to be safe at your wedding.”

Chef Rossi, who founded the Raging Skillet catering company in 1988, envisions an autumn where folks are stacking their weddings on Thursdays, Fridays, and Sunday. “When the economy tanked in 2008, Friday became the new Saturday and Thursday became the new Friday. I was catering Thursday weddings that year,” she says. Now, it’s less a money-saving venture than an acceptance of the time-space continuum.

Many veteran caterers have insurance in the case of acts of God, but it’s not protecting them from COVID-19. “We do have loss-of-business insurance, for the barn going on fire or something like that, but … basically all of them exclude viruses and bacteria, so nobody is seeing any income on that,” says Lisa Karvellas, the CEO at Cedar Lakes Estate in Hudson Valley. “It’s never even crossed my mind that something like this would happen, and I think a lot of people can say that.”

“How do you prepare? You prepare by being a smart businessperson,” Correale says. “I’ve been through 9/11. I’ve been through 2008. As a business owner, I’ve learned very valuable lessons from those two crises. You can’t live beyond your means.” Her business is structured to handle a whole lot of rainy days. “I suspect a lot of catering and event companies — not so much the [wedding] planners that work alone, but the companies with big overhead — will not make it through.”

One saving grace for caterers is that they tend to operate with smaller overheard than their colleagues in restaurants. And while fashion designers are now moonlighting as manufacturers of personal protective equipment, caterers are taking on some new roles of their own.

“I give a lot of handholding. You hire me as your wedding caterer, and you get a Jewish mother in the bargain,” Rossi says. “The first thing that I did for everyone was just tried to be as reassuring as possible.” Additionally, “I’ve become some sort of corona-foodie hotline,” Rossi says, for friends seeking home-cooking advice.

Others, meanwhile, are trying to keep real money coming in. “It’s a time for all small businesses, in hospitality particularly, to get innovative and think about what other streams of income they could be doing,” says Karvellas. Her hotel is offering beds to health-care workers and those who can’t quarantine safely in their own homes. They’re also launching a custom candle. “Part of me thinks it’s not the right time, but the other part of me is like, ‘You know what? People might actually really want a candle right now.’”

Purslane and Elegant Affairs both offer meal deliveries, too. “We had some long-term plans moving in the background that we’ve expedited given the changes,” Gabriel from Purslane notes.

For others, the thought of meal kits or delivery doesn’t make sense for their businesses, or for health guidelines. “I’m not trying to start that up at this time, while forcing my cooks and freelance employees to move around and travel throughout the city,” says Zach Mayer, chef and owner at Oak & Honey Catering. “The last thing I want is to put any of my employees in any kind of scenario that will risk their health and the health of their loved ones.”

“I’ve applied to quite a few of the government and city needs, which I haven’t heard back from,” says Sheppard of the callouts from schools, hospitals, and senior centers seeking meal assistance. “I don’t think we would make any profit really, but I might be able to stay still. Pay employees to come in and cook, and things like that.”

For the most part, though, these caterers and their cooks and their event staffers are out of work. For her own employees, Rossi says, “What my answer has been in the last couple of weeks is, ‘I don’t have any work for you, unfortunately, but here, have ten quarts of soup and four rolls of toilet paper.’ What else can I say?”

Inside the Collapse of New York’s Catering Industry