In addition to hurting restaurant sales, the Covid-19 pandemic has also taken a major toll on another main source of revenue for the food world: catering. Clients have canceled weddings, corporate parties, fundraisers, birthday celebrations and dozens of other types of events, and many are hesitant to commit to planning events even as far away as a year from now.
But even as the number of cases of coronavirus is rising again in Florida and the Sarasota area, there are signs of life in the catering world.
At Mattison's Catering, the phone has been ringing regularly for the past two months. "Inquiries are pretty strong, mostly for next year," says Paul Mattison, who operates three local restaurants and the catering business. He says most of the requests are coming for events scheduled for next March or later. Despite the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, people are setting dates and paying deposits. "It's very encouraging," says Mattison.
Esther Williams, the catering manager at Morton's Gourmet Market, says she's busy sending out proposals for weddings tentatively planned for next April and May. But business for now remains well below the typical fall for Morton's. "We did have a few weddings that were either scaled down or held at different venues, but compared to normal times, it's not even close," says Williams. She estimates that Morton's is doing maybe one-third of the catering business it normally does in the fall, after a similarly slow summer season.
"It's not all doom and gloom," says Phil Mancini of Michael's on East. He's encouraged by how stocked his calendar is for next fall. Many clients had to cancel events this year, but feel optimistic that a Covid-19 vaccine might be available by mid-2021 and are rebooking events for the fall. Those rescheduled events, when combined with new fundraisers and parties, should make for a busy 2021, Mancini hopes.
Mancini says Sarasota's residents are "starving" for something fun to do. "This is a social town," he says. "As soon as we get the opportunity to do it all again, all hell is going to break loose."
Between now and next spring, however, the landscape for many caterers looks bleak.
"Christmas and New Year's is a total bust," says Mancini. An engaged couple might take a risk on a once-in-a-lifetime wedding celebration, but corporate clients can always just put off their holiday bashes until next year.
"January, February, March, that's what I'm really concerned about," says Williams. "Whatever I have on the books is small."
Many caterers have been forced to get creative to keep revenue coming in. Most have adopted new health and safety measures and have rethought how they offer buffets and other types of service.
Mattison's is handling many small parties with a lighter touch—dropping off food and setting up disposable serving dishes rather than sticking around to offer full service, for example. The company recently catered a scaled-down fundraiser for InStride Therapy, an annual event typically draws hundreds of guests. This year, Mattison's seated just 140 at tables that were spread out in a covered outdoor area.
Michael's on East, meanwhile, has begun offering large batches of boxed lunches and dinners for remote events. Drivers deliver meals around the area to people who then participate in get-togethers held over Zoom or other video platforms. And Michael's and Mattison's have both seen a surge in interest in their pre-made holiday meals. If you can't get together in a large group, the idea of roasting an enormous turkey just for yourself isn't appealing to many.
Companies like Morton's, Michael's and Mattison's that have revenue sources besides catering have been able to weather a disastrous 2020 better than others. "I consider myself very lucky," says Williams. "Because we have the market, I did not lose my job. I was able to help out in other departments. Lots of other caterers, they were out of business for a good six months, at least."
Mattison describes himself as "cautiously optimistic" about a rebound in the catering world. "I try not to panic over anything," he says. "I hope for the best and prepare for the worst."