Serving Up a New Reality
For an events and catering industry devastated by the pandemic in 2020 and still hampered in 2021, this past year was certainly reason to celebrate.
“It’s been an incredibly strong year post-COVID,” said Seth Mias, owner of Seth Mias Catering in Leeds. “We had quite a few people making up for postponements, and a really robust season overall.”
The problem, said Mias and others we spoke with, is that it can be difficult to meet that demand due to a workforce crunch that has hit this sector hard.
“The challenge is staffing, obviously — getting people to come back to work — and supply-chain issues,” he noted. “Honestly, we were able to work through all that and had a really good season. To me, it seemed like clients were gracious and understanding about some of the challenges we’re facing as opposed to other years, like when certain products were unavailable.”
Peter Rosskothen has faced some of those realities as well, but said the Holyoke businesses he owns — including the Log Cabin, Delaney House, and Log Rolling Catering — have weathered them well.
“It’s been an above-average year — actually, a very good year,” he told BusinessWest. “Business has been very strong. Attendance to events is a little lower than it used to be, but the quantity of events, and the quality of events, has been better.
“The world is different,” he added. “We are much more focused on smart events for us. So we’re not giving stuff away, we’re charging more, and we’re being selective in the process to make sure we have staff and the ability to do something right.”
That selectiveness forced by workforce realities has changed the entire event industry quite a bit, Rosskothen added. “We just don’t say yes to everything anymore.”
Peg Boxold, owner of Elegant Affairs Catering in Springfield, has had to become more selective as well. “Coming out of the pandemic, we’ve got business, no problem, but we don’t have the staff. My staff have other jobs, just like the rest of the world. So we do what we can.”
During one past holiday season, she recalled, the company had a couple of days with 12 different events at different venues. “But now I have to think twice about doing two parties in one day, depending on whether I have staff. Also, it’s tough sometimes getting product for the kitchen, so if I don’t get the menu soon enough, I’ve got to hunt for the product. It’s not an easy world out there, and the profit margin is so much tighter now; we’ve had to go up on prices. It’s a new world.”
Like others we spoke with, Boxold said turning down business is simply a matter of not taking on a job she may not be equipped, because of staffing, to do well; she noted that she’s built up a reputation over more than three decades for quality events, and won’t risk that on understaffed bookings.
“I’ve worked too hard for too many years to jeopardize everything now for something I know I’m not going to be able to handle.”
“I had one lady call in September; she wanted a lunch on a Wednesday for 200 people, a plated meal. I said, ‘I can do a buffet setup the day before, but I don’t have the staff for plated.’ She wanted to be served, so I said, ‘sorry, I can’t.’ I’m not going to take something I don’t feel comfortable with in terms of quality of product and quality of service. I’ve worked too hard for too many years to jeopardize everything now for something I know I’m not going to be able to handle.
Even the events that do go on are more challenging, Boxold added. “Last week, I had a Thursday fashion-show luncheon in Wilbraham for 90 people. I begged, borrowed, and stole people to make it happen.”
Picking and Choosing
Rosskothen said he expects the upcoming holiday season to be a bit slower than in past, pre-pandemic years.
“I haven’t read any statistics, but my instinct tells me corporate is still slow to do group parties. So we see them, but we don’t see them to the level we used to. Every Friday and Saturday is booked, but if you go back a few years, we used to be booked five days a week. So it’s a little different than in previous years, and again, the selective process of picking and choosing the business that fits our company also gets rid of a few.”
The Log Cabin won’t be hosting group holiday parties this year, he explained, noting that the Delaney House, with its smaller rooms, is being used for smaller parties, while the Log Cabin focuses on big events.
And events are ‘big’ in different ways, Rosskothen noted. Wedding attendance is down, from an average around 170 years ago to 120 today, partly due to today’s marrying couples being slightly older. But the average per-head charge is up.
“This generation knows what they want; they’re very specific about their wishes, and it pushes the check average up,” he explained, noting that, once they book the event and set their guest list, they’re willing to pay more for certain things. “Prime rib used to be included in all our prices. Now, if you want prime rib, its $8 a head more. But the people who want it select it.”
The biggest challenge dealing with customers is that the price of everything is up these days.
“When somebody’s booked a long time in advance, which happens mostly on the wedding side of the industry, it’s very frustrating. There’s a budget established, and you kind of have a vision, but if you planned a wedding two years ago, you’re paying 20% more than you were planning. And that’s a big jump, especially if somebody’s on a budget. But there’s no choice; our costs are easily 20% higher versus pre-pandemic.”
For the most part, people have been understanding, Rosskothen added.
“I think most understand, though once in a while we get questions — ‘why this is $5 more a head?’ We go through the process and explain it, but I’d say 99% of the people kind of expect it.”
Mias agreed that this holiday season seems a bit slower than what he’s seen in the past. “I’m booking a solid base now, and just looking to do some fill-in booking at this point.”
Over the years, his business has morphed into a wedding-reception-focused enterprise, with those events gradually shifting from 10% to 15% of his bookings to around 85% today. “But we’re still doing corporate events, retirements, funerals, things like that.”
Many clients postponed events during the pandemic, he noted, which led to a scramble to fit them in with new business once COVID restrictions eased; only a few clients couldn’t make a new date work and had to go elsewhere.
Out and About
Rosskothen wonders how his industry will be affected by a trend he’s observed in the younger generation of not wanting to go out as much, and not valuing networking as much as young professionals used to. But he’s especially focused on economic trends.
“I think 2023 is going to be very interesting; I don’t know where it’s going to go. Are we really going into recession? I think people are going to contract and be careful. If the national climate changes, that’s going to affect us. So I’m a little worried about 2023, I really am.”
Still, he added, “it’s too early to tell. We might get out of this. There’s a lot of money in the economy, and a lot of companies have saved money, so it will be interesting to see how that plays out.”
Most people these days are not afraid of COVID when it comes to gatherings, he added. Boxold agreed, but noted that Elegant Affairs has COVID-friendly, individually packaged meal options as well. “For a lot of companies, it’s important for them to be able to stay in business and make sure everything is COVID-friendly, so we can do something for their employees but keep it within the parameters of COVID-friendliness.”
As she noted earlier, demand for events of all kinds is there. Meeting that demand with steady staff, however, is a persistent challenge.
“Hopefully it changes somewhere down the road,” Boxold said. “I’m assuming people have to go back to work at some point; they have to pay the bills. I don’t know whether they’re opting for other jobs or still sitting at home. I just can’t get a good read on everything. But I think it’s coming back, and that people will be coming back to work.”
Mias said 2022 was one of his strongest years — if not financially, then with the quality of events.
“Looking at the product we were able to put out with all the challenges, I thought it was a great year,” he added. “Hopefully the next few weeks continue on that path, and 2023 is looking just as good. We keep plugging along.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]