As the holidays approach, local caterers are swirling in the whirlwind that starts with Art Basel and doesn’t let up until after New Year’s. But they’re not complaining. While clients aren’t living large the way they did in the 1980s and ’90s, they’re not as cost-averse as they were in 2008, during the worst of the recession. Definitely, says Sarah Davidoff, CEO of Fare to Remember, “they’re spending more.”
South Florida’s top caterers have found ways to provide client splash while containing cash, thanks in part to culinary trends. Back in the decadent days, clients “wanted conspicuous luxury. It had to sound expensive,” says Alejandro Muguerza, CEO of Le Basque. “Now it’s about good food, local food. They’re not asking for filet or Delmonico, they’re asking for short ribs cooked perfectly.”
And at least for the holidays, they want mac-and-cheese or mashed potatoes to go with their beef. “When I first started, the Pritikin Diet was hip, then Atkins, then fat-free. This year, clients don’t care,” Davidoff says.
“People want comfort food,” agrees Mena Catering CEO Jorge Mena. It has an added benefit for caterers, too. “When you do stations with a stir-fry of noodles or a Balinese rice dish, it makes it fun and it’s not expensive.”
But these days, prices are affected more by labor costs than by ingredients. “Somebody to buy it, prep, pack it up, serve it, keep the lights, dishwashers and the gas on,” Davidoff says. And, says Muguerza, “there’s constant competition from new high-end restaurants. To hire and keep quality staff, caterers are paying more than just a few years ago.”
Location logistics, design and rental costs also factor in. So how do caterers price an event?
As a baseline, a buffet of small plates and an open bar starts at $75 a person. And keeps going. A seated dinner, which requires more staffing, starts at $150 per person from Bill Hansen Catering, $175 from Thierry’s and $200 from Le Basque.
This holiday season, say Miami caterers, seated dinners are in far greater demand than simpler nosh-and-go cocktail events.
Whether clients want farm to table, comfort food, stations or small plates, “everybody is more savvy about food nowadays. Everybody’s a chef, everybody’s an event manager,” says Mena.
Blame Food Network and the Internet. “There was no Internet when we started, no social media,” says Thierry’s president, Alina Isambert. “These two mediums have provided awareness and knowledge.”
Connectivity has given rise to another new trend: clients are requesting food tastings. Bill Hansen Catering does up to 10 a week and provides them gratis. “It’s the cost of doing business,” Hansen shrugs. “Some of the costs you just absorb. You don’t earn as much on an event as you could in years gone by.”
On the upside, caterers deliver the wow with imported luxury items like Kobe beef, Jabugo ham and rare cheeses, all more available than they were a decade ago. So is organic produce. “We have micro organic herbs and edible flowers now,” says Isambert. Caterers are showering on the nasturtium blossoms even if the guests are more likely to dig into the truffled macaroni with four cheeses.
Along with greater gastronomic choices is a wealth of rental options for place settings, linens, tables and chairs. When these caterers started, white linens ruled. “Now every party can look different,” says Davidoff.
Every party is different. Fare to Remember is catering 40 holiday parties this month, some for 50 people, some for 5,000. Le Basque’s 75 events range from an intimate holiday party for 15 to a Basel gala for 1,000.
In addition to the corporate and social events — weddings, galas and birthdays — that comprise the bulk of catering, both Davidoff and Hansen have found and serve similar niche markets, providing lunches for corporate offices. It keeps them fully staffed throughout the year and provides a financial cushion.
That may not be a worry for caterers or their clients during the Basel and holiday season, but caterers know all that could change.
At the first tremor of economic instability, Mena says, “Corporate clamps down.”
On the other hand, as Isambert says, no matter what state the economy’s in, “People still need to get married — and they want a fairytale wedding.”
Bill Hansen Catering
CEO: Bill Hansen
Year launched: 1975
Specialties: “Culinary dishes from classics to cutting-edge, prepared on site a la minute.”
Number of employees: 300 (includes full-time and part-time).
Events catered in 2014: 300+
Hansen wrote the book on catering. Literally. Off Premise Catering Management is on the curriculum at Florida International University’s School of Hospitality Management, where he teaches. “I’ve trained a lot of my competitors. I speak at the National Catering Conference in Las Vegas to caterers all over the world. I share my secrets with them.”
With sales in the seven figures, Hansen can afford to be generous. “Besides,” he says, “it’s going to take them a while to execute what I told them. In the meantime, I can figure out a better way of doing things. I’m ahead of what I’m teaching.”
Closing in on 40 years as Bill Hansen Catering’s CEO, he’s more engaged than ever, still scanning each proposal for “purchasing, ordering, production, scheduling inventory, and how you handle rental equipment. That’s how you control costs.”
Where Hansen won’t cut corners: the food and the staff it takes to get it party-perfect. That’s how he pleases clients including FedEx, HBO and UBS.
“Never, never, never will we cut labor in order to save money,” Hansen says. “Everything we do a la minute, we don’t precook and serve, we prep everything, and then bring in a kitchen equipment to event site to cook to order. It comes out fresh, hot, appetizing and perfectly presented.”
Bill Hansen Catering 305-858-6660, www.billhansencatering.com.
Fare to Remember
CEO: Sarah Davidoff
Year launched: 1999
Number of employees: 17 full-time employees, 75 part-time bartenders, servers and cooks.
Specialties: “We do all types of ethnic food. Every menu is different.”
Events catered in 2014: 1,500
One of Business Monday’s original 20 Under 40 emerging leaders in 2010, Davidoff started catering on her own in her teens. What she earned beat babysitting. She attended FIU’s School of Hospitality Management, studying with Hansen and later working for him before launching Fare to Remember in 1999.
At first, as she had in high school, she did everything herself: shopping, cooking, set-up, service and clean-up. Now she’s got a full staff, including a new handful of full-time employees and “no turnover like other catering companies. I have work all year long,” she says. “We have a lot of corporate during the week — that’s what differentiates us and allows me to employ our staff 365 days a year.”
It’s working. “We’re in the mid-2 million in sales,” with business this year up 35 percent.
Exclusive caterer for Pinecrest’s Bet Shira Congregation and South Beach Wine & Food Festival’s preferred caterer, Fare serves high-end clients including Cartier and Citibank but caters to a solid social component as well.
For Davidoff, a Miami native and the mother of Jacob, 8, that kind of connection matters. “I’ve owned Fare long enough that the kids whose bar mitzvahs I’ve done I’m now doing their weddings. There’s something very satisfying about that.”
Fare to Remember 305-786-5387, www.faretoremember.com.
CEO: Alejandro Muguerza
Year launched: 1992
Number of employees: 15 full-time, plus another 10 full-time during season. Part-time staff: in the hundreds.
Specialties: High contemporary, seasonal and classic continental dishes.
Events catered in 2014: 275
Since launching in 1992, Le Basque has fed four presidents — Bill Clinton, George Bush (both father and son) and Barack Obama. But the majority of the firm’s clients are companies synonymous with splendor.
However, even Prada and Hermes felt the pinch when the worst of the recession hit in 2008. Consequently, so did Le Basque. “We thought it was the end,” Muguerza says.
It wasn’t. “When the world was in crisis, Miami seemed like a refuge. Luxury brands kept doing parties in Miami. We recuperated quickly.”
There’s been an adjustment in both cents and sensibility, though, and Muguerza welcomes it. He prefers design that’s natural and timeless. Plating food on slate rather than sterling, for instance, may sound counterintuitive, but it provides understated glamour.
“We simplify more — the amounts of food have changed a lot, and the style of cooking. Before, it used to be dishes full of ingredients, full of everything. Now there’s no more than three items on a plate, a fish, a side dish or two — it’s a simple approach but perfect execution,” Muguerza says. “The food is nicer that way, too.”
Le Basque 305-669-1070, www.lebasque.com.
CEO: Jorge Mena
Year launched: 1982
Number of employees: 12
Specialties: World fusion with an accent on Floribbean.
Events catered in 2014: 850
When Mena began Mena Catering over 30 years ago, “You saw a lot of money,” he says. “Later with the economy turndown, people stopped doing things. It’s like a rollercoaster.”
How does he survive the ride? “You have to have a passion for it,” he says.
Among the biggest changes he’s seen over the years has been the rise in special diets — Paleo, vegan, gluten free — as well a rise in client expectations. Savvy clients demand a feast for the eyes, with food presented as art but on less-than artful budgets.
“They have a party for 300 people and give you a budget of $3,000. Divide per person and you have enough to pay for the staff, potato chips and onion dip.” Mena shrugs and laughs. “You work with them.”
In Mena’s case, that means accommodating clients by letting them supply their own alcohol — a rare practice among caterers. “Seventy percent of our clients bring their own liquor and wine. They can take it back unused and get credit. They appreciate you’re looking out for them.”
In boom economies or bust, whether catering a Champagne bar for 12,000 or providing an intimate lunch for two (one of them being the Dalai Lama), says Mena, “You want to offer people a very special time.”
Mena Catering 305-666-8545, www.menacatering.com.
CEO: Thierry Isambert
Year launched: 1989
Number of employees: 48 full-time employees.
Specialities: “We have chefs in-house from Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Haiti, India, France, Dominican, Italian-Swiss, Belgium — we can produce anything you like. Authentically.”
Events catered in 2014: 775
Husband-and-wife team Thierry and Alina Isambert know a little about bounce-back. Three years after launching Thierry’s Catering in 1989, they were just starting to make a name for themselves when Hurricane Andrew hit Miami. By 2013, Focus Miami named them caterer of the year.
This fall, they celebrated 25 years in the business and their 27th wedding anniversary.
Alina credits their success both as a couple and as caterers to dividing and conquering. Thierry, born and raised in France’s Champagne region, rules the kitchen. Alina, Miami native and PR pro, does the “running around,” the planning, follow-up and client hand-holding.
The secret to saving money and drawing clients including Fendi, the Miami Heat and New World Symphony is “the balance,” Alina says. “We don’t make cheap food. It’s about how you put the menu together.”
Another tip to corporate clients: A smaller event can be more effective. “A lot of people think with a larger party, you’re going to get more for your money,” she says. She advises against “spreading yourself too thin.” The purpose of a party is to entertain your guests and if you’re harried working the room, “Instead of having 700 guests, have 300.”
Thierry’s Catering, 305-635-6626, www.thierrycatering.com.