Sarasota County tourism revenues hit an all-time high in 2016, with bed tax collections for the first time totaling more than $20 million, a 4.9 percent increase over 2015. And as the demand for our beaches, arts and outdoors surges, so does the demand for parties. Coupled with population growth and a construction frenzy, tourism is helping to create a boom time for caterers.
Catering contracts with Michael’s On East have increased dramatically, says Phil Mancini, who co-founded the restaurant 30 years ago. Catering now makes up between 60 percent to 70 percent of the company’s overall business, and includes events at the restaurant’s own spaces and at offsite venues for weddings and corporate parties.
There’s more growth on the horizon. Unlike a sit-down restaurant, caterers can always expand, either by moving into new territory or adding capacity. Fifteen years ago, Michael’s catered in St. Petersburg a couple times a year. Now Mancini is working there regularly. The company has traveled as far south as Bonita Springs.
While Michael’s works with residents and local nonprofits, much of its business comes from outside the market. Destination weddings make up roughly three-fourths of its overall wedding business, and corporate clients often book Michael’s for fly-in holiday parties. Overall, Michael’s is doing between 1,500 and 2,000 events a year, with prices ranging from $50 a person to $1,000 a person. Repeat clients are booking dates as far out as 2022 and requesting upgrades like specialty bourbons and Scotches.
Mattison’s, led by head chef and founder Paul Mattison, also has a robust catering business. The company provides food for thousands of events a year, with up to 20 events booked each day during the holidays. Get-togethers range from intimate family gatherings to extravagant blowouts. Clients from outside the region make up about half the company’s business, Mattison estimates. The company buys keywords on search engines and advertising space on wedding blogs to market itself.
Online promotion is also key for Christine Nordstrom, whose bakery, Sift, provides dessert tables and cakes for events like weddings, bar mitzvahs and birthdays. “Instagram is crazy for me,” she says. She posts pictures of unique cakes on the social media site; party planners cruise it to generate ideas for their events. Sift delivered 80 cakes in just the two weeks before Christmas.
Building local relationships and a local reputation is also vital. Venues maintain lists of recommended caterers, and Mancini, Mattison and Nordstrom all credit a big chunk of their success to having strong ties to local event planners.
Growth may seem limitless right now, but challenges loom. Mancini says it’s difficult to find qualified staff at times. Many cooks and servers can’t take on more shifts, and many experienced employees leave the area during slower months to work in busier markets like Cape Cod or upstate New York. Mattison relies on part-time help—typically residents who work a 9-to-5 during the week and want to earn some extra income on weekend nights.
Mancini also frets that there aren’t enough large venues to accommodate big parties. If you’re trying to put on an event with 600 to 800 guests, Mancini says, “You only have three choices. You have the Ritz, you have the Hyatt or you have a tent.” Some venues are already booked solid two years out. And although a number of new hotels are under construction, none has the massive space he needs to pull off some functions.
Mancini finds himself spending less time finding business and more time making sure Michael’s isn’t taking on too much. “I wish I was 30 years old,” Mancini, now 56, says. “When I see what’s happening with the next generation, it’s endless.”