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Editor’s note: Several catering workers and managers interviewed for this article agreed to go on the record only if they could remain anonymous, for fear of losing their jobs or being blacklisted. For ease of understanding, we have given them pseudonyms, which are marked by an asterisk (*).
Like the restaurant industry, the Philly region’s catering industry has been kneecapped by the coronavirus and concurrent safety restrictions, but its plight hasn’t received the same attention.
Business owners say revenue is down as much as 90%, and with holiday gatherings being discouraged, they’re holding their breath for spring. Meanwhile, according to interviews with workers, safety protocols put in place by many employers over the past six months were frequently ignored by clients and guests.
Chris*, a cook with a full-time job at a Philly catering company, described a small wedding he worked in July. As soon as he arrived at a downtown venue, he could tell something was off.
The request for the event billed the job as 25 guests — the exact number allowed by COVID mitigation measures at the time. But including seven catering staff, the event was already over capacity, with 32 people on site. Add other vendors like a photographer, a DJ, two musicians, two salespeople, two security guards, and two custodians, and the number in attendance approached double the legal limit.
“We are probably the least ‘essential’ industry,” Chris observed. “We’re literally having events where we’re bringing people together that normally aren’t together.”
Restrictions on private events are tighter in mid-December than at any time since the region’s spring surge, so most catering businesses are left with meager options.
In the Philadelphia suburbs, which fall under Gov. Wolf’s statewide mitigation orders, indoor catering is currently shut down, and outdoor events limited to 50% capacity or no more than 25 people per 1,000 feet of space. The indoor event ban also applies in Philly, and at the low-capacity outdoor events that are permitted, all food and drink service is prohibited.
George McLoughlin, owner of Tasty Table Catering in Berwyn, said his company only did about 20% of his usual business this summer and fall. His bread and butter was corporate catering, supplying 400 to 800 meals per day to Main Line offices that now sit empty.
“I knew my business was gone, kinda like the 10 million buffaloes — wiped out,” McLoughlin said. “It’s gone for at least two to three years, if not five.”
In response, he converted a portion of the company’s commissary kitchen into a retail shop offering grab-and-go lunches and prepared meals. But that only makes up for 5% to 10% of the revenue he’s lost.
Other caterers have decided to cancel or postpone events in order to mitigate risks to staff.
“We just couldn’t see a path forward yet where we’re doing events, when literally nothing changes from day to day in terms of health and safety … there are no good decisions here,” said Allegra Deregnowski, owner of North Philly’s Birchtree Catering. “At some point, someone has to take responsibility, and I’ll do it for my company and not put my employees at risk.”
Taking into account EIDL loans and PPP funds, Derengowski estimated Birchtree will only last another couple months without a return to full service catering.
Workers: Once alcohol starts flowing, rules go out the window
Private event managers have felt extreme pressure to balance the need to keep cash flowing in versus the need to keep workers safe.
“We made money in October,” said David*, a manager for a high-end suburban caterer, referencing the early fall period when coronavirus case counts in the region had ebbed. “Whether or not it was good and safe — and didn’t lead to this current wave — that’s a different story.”
Due to the highly customized nature of catering and skill sets it requires, full-time workers are often older than people staffing restaurants, which means they’re more likely to be at risk of contracting the virus.
As with the majority of workers across the hospitality industry, most don’t have health insurance through their jobs, making the proposition of working even riskier for some. Women in particular, many of whom did not have access to childcare as schools went online, have had to pass up shifts to take care of their kids. Others, who have seen family and friends die of the virus, have made the hard choice to forgo a paycheck or find other work to avoid the risk.
Some business owners argue allowing private event companies more freedom to do their jobs would make events safer than in-home gatherings clients might opt for instead.
“We’re licensed food professionals. We can have certain rules that we can enforce,” said Jeff Miller, owner of JAM Catering in Center City. “We’ve got a contact list of all the guests. It’s not like people just show up. It’s a lot safer to do a catered event than a party at someone’s house.”
Miller is on the board of Private Event Professionals of Pennsylvania (PEP-PA), an industry advocacy group formed over the summer. In addition to hosting weekly conference calls for event professionals, PEP-PA created a set of guidelines, like requiring staff to wear masks, screening guests and workers for symptoms, and serving food in individual packages or covered, single-serve portions as well as heightened cleaning and sanitizing protocols. The group also lobbies with officials to make pandemic regulations friendlier to the industry.
But the biggest risk factor over the past six months, workers and owners both said, has been the clients and their guests.
Once alcohol starts flowing, those guidelines and rules can easily go out the window, workers said. Guests remove masks to sip drinks or eat, then don’t put them back on. Seating may be socially distanced, with only guests from the same household sharing tables, but then people mingle.
Lex Knappenberger, a 12-year industry veteran, usually fills their calendar with shifts from half a dozen Philly companies. This year, to minimize their risk, they chose to work only for Birchtree, which has only offered drop-offs of boxed meals or arranged to have workers set up and break down only when guests aren’t onsite.
“Even as a company that is pushing forward to do contactless events, the unpredictable factor is the clients,” Knappenberger said, describing a set-up and drop-off event they worked in late August.
Despite suggested guidelines, guests arrived early and stayed late onsite, meaning staff had to come into contact with them to do their jobs. “It’s just not really feasible to keep workers safe in this specific industry. It’s just dangerous,” Knappenberger said.
When clients say ‘We’re not wearing masks’
Julia*, an event manager for a Philly restaurant group, picked up her first shift since the spring lockdown in August. There, she felt that safety protocols and regulations were being followed. But at her next gig in September, an outdoor wedding at a Chester County home, left her feeling rattled and unsafe.
“The party planner approached me — I had my mask on as soon as I got out of the truck — and she said, ‘Oh, we’re not wearing masks,'” Julia said.
She saw that what the party planner said was true: there were no masks worn by the DJ, designer, florist, equipment rental staff, nor the photographer. The client and guests also had their faces uncovered.
In the Chester County backyard, the clients had constructed a large deck under a tent where dinner service, dancing, and a satellite bar would be. However, they’d enclosed it within zippered plastic walls.
“My bartenders just didn’t feel safe being on the floor with 100 people who had no masks on for six hours,” Julia said. “Everything on paper looked like it met guidelines. And then when we got there, there’s 100 people in an air-conditioned structure that’s sealed off.”
Julia’s managers were supportive, but not all staffers have been so lucky — and it’s not just about pleasing your boss. Some workers expressed trepidation around refusing gigs, even when they didn’t believe that events should be happening at all.
Chris, the catering cook, described one of his uncomfortable experiences working an in-home private party.
“The client actually said to me, ‘You know, you guys can take your mask off. I can tell you guys are hot and working hard. Take your mask off, you don’t even need it on,'” Chris recalled. “That event had no masks for any of the clients. I was just like, um, thank you, but I’m okay.”
Several business owners and managers emphasized that workers who felt uncomfortable weren’t penalized for declining shifts. But turning down jobs when paying gigs are few and far between isn’t easy.
“When we’re on a shift, we’re like, ‘Why are we doing this? Why is this even taking place right now?'” Chris said. “But you know, hey, we gotta take the shift…We want to still have some work when work picks up.”
When will that be? With vaccines slowly starting to roll out, the industry is holding its breath for a possible spring season. Many events that didn’t happen in 2020 have been moved to next year.
“If we don’t have this under control by April, we miss the start of spring wedding season,” said David, the catering manager. He estimated half his clients had rescheduled their celebrations.
“If we can’t do those events in 2021, you’re going to see more businesses suffer, more people laid off, and the people who remain put under even more pressure than they are now,” he said. “We’re hanging on for spring, and if we’re not doing things now to beat it back in time for spring, you’re going to see so much hurt in this industry.”