Mess Hall Masters

By Hannah Wallace February 28, 2006

Twenty years ago a friend told Mara Routh she was a good cook. Last fall, Routh used that talent to feed tens of thousands of people in hurricane-ravaged Louisiana, Texas and Florida, returning to Sarasota occasionally to manage elegantly catered events at Michael's On East, where she serves as director of creative catering and leads the restoration catering division-a disaster relief catering service-she helped create.

When Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, many organizations that ordinarily would have provided food service were unable or unwilling to go, according to Michael Klauber, co-proprietor of Michael's On East. But Routh, now the master of the mess hall, and her crew were ready and prepared when the Federal Emergency Management Agency called.

"It's not glamorous. We have a big mess house basically, like you'd see on the TV show M.A.S.H., and we're feeding first responders, residents, National Guardsmen, firemen, search and rescue crews, and a big contingent of building inspectors from California who came to see what could be saved," said Routh in a phone interview in November from a catering tent in New Orleans.

The destruction she saw upon arrival in Louisiana was the beginning of what turned out to be months of work in disaster relief. After a short stay in Franklinton, La., her crew was needed in Bush, about half an hour south, where she oversaw the preparation of 1,700 meals three times daily for six weeks. When Hurricane Rita came through, the crew was dispatched to Woodville, Texas, where they made 500 meals three times a day. Fifteen days later, they were feeding utility workers in St. Bernard's Parish, La. By October, Hurricane Wilma hit Florida's east coast, and Routh set up a crew to feed rescue workers in West Palm Beach.

Routh began disaster catering pre-hurricane 2004, when she was operating her own catering company, Celebrations, and decided to bid for a Florida Power & Light contract to provide emergency catering for FPL workers in case a hurricane struck. Four hurricanes hit the state within a six-week period that season, and Routh was soon traveling the state, working 16-hour days.

"We were given an agreement with them that if they needed our services we'd be there," she said. "And if you do a good job your first time out, chances are you'll be called out again. FPL is serious about taking care of their crews."

Why would anyone want to live for months on end in communities ravaged by hurricanes, left without water or running electricity, with thousands of desperate people wandering around?

Routh, 51, who in January became president of the more than 1,000-member International Caterers Association, says it keeps her young. "I feel mentally challenged, emotionally fulfilled because every day I can see that I make a difference." She adds, "I don't have any children, but I'm so proud of every person who works for me, and I admire them for giving up big chunks of their lives. It takes commitment."

Michael's On East co-proprietor Philip Mancini, who lost his bid to Routh for the 2004 FPL contract, was enticed by her sense of commitment and tried-and-true expertise in restoration catering. After hurricane season ended, he and Klauber brought Routh on to help manage their traditional catering business and then saw that her skill at catering during a disaster both served a good cause and brought in a profit.

"This has really evolved into something that's almost overwhelming," Mancini says about his first restoration catering work with Routh. "Who would have thought planning this [many] months ago [we] would have come up this big? When we saw that it could take [almost] a year, we had to restructure." Mancini says that now he, Routh and Klauber have turned restoration catering into a separate company within Michael's On East. "We're partners-Mara, Michael and I."

The three work well together, ensuring that the food they serve lives up to the Michael's standard of high quality. "We took the same quality we have in our restaurants and gave it to the catering crews. We serve a choice of three entries every night, then we have specials. The guys sometimes want jambalaya, so every so often they throw in a traditional Mississippi or Louisiana meal."

Routh and her crews, ranging from 15 to 20 people, did such a tremendous job of feeding emergency workers, utility workers, the National Guard, homeless residents, police officers, firefighters and FEMA workers that she's received numerous requests to handle firestorm and other disasters around the country.

One particular experience, catering a dinner in Louisiana during a visit from the Archbishop, proved her professionalism. Told to prepare for a certain number of people, Routh got more than triple what she expected.

"We went through 1,000 [cutlery and plate] kits for a meal that was supposed to be for 300 people. We ended up having 1,000 people-and we didn't run out of food!" she says. Though communications were down and there was no electricity, Routh says, "That was one of the best experiences in my life. It gave people hope, determination and the will to keep going on."

Filed under
Show Comments