2020 | Business

Caterers adjust as they endure pandemic’s financial punch

Federal, county relief grants are not enough, they say

Caterers in Montgomery County say they are recalibrating their operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, but they haven’t be able to escape a severe hit financial with no events for the foreseeable future.

The catering industry became crippled at the beginning of the pandemic in March, when social distancing restrictions were first imposed. Large events that had been planned throughout the spring were canceled. Some caterers lost millions of dollars in business.

Earlier this month, Montgomery County limited the number of people allowed at indoor gatherings to 10 — down from 25 — due to a steady rise in COVID-19 cases.

Rockville-based Provisions Catering normally caters milestone events such as weddings and bar mitzvahs, along with corporate and holiday events, throughout the Washington, D.C., region. The company also makes deliveries.

Provisions owner Bunny Dwin told Bethesda Beat last week that her business is down about 75% from before the pandemic. She has had to furlough employees.

Dwin said her company has shifted to catering smaller socially distanced weddings and other milestone events. The typical 200-person wedding that Provisions would normally cater has become a wedding of with about 40 guests, she said.

The consequence, Dwin said, is that the events are less lucrative than normal, and there is a good deal of leftover food and drinks. There are also additional precautions to take in a COVID-infused world.

“Every single hors d’oeuvre has to be in an individual holder,” she said. “If you’re doing a buffet, only the servers can serve. You have to invite people by their families or tables, so it’s a much longer process.”

While in the midst of assembling Thanksgiving to-go orders for clients a week ago, Dwin said everything has to be packaged individually.

“We wind up with hundreds of thousands of individual containers. So it’s very laborious to do these events,” she said.

Dwin emphasized, however, that smaller events have still been positive experiences for the hosts and guests because they are more low-key, particularly with weddings.

“There’s a lot to be said about the intimacy and the ability to relax,” she said.

Rockville-based Off the Hook Catering, which serves area Catholic schools and some private events, took a large hit in March when schools closed for in-person instruction at the beginning of the pandemic, co-owner Missy Carr said.

“All of that got shut down, so essentially we had no business,” she said.

Carr said the company was forced to lay off four 30-hour-per week employees due to the pandemic.

To adjust to the times, Off the Hook started taking orders for pickup and a delivery from a food truck it had used before 2018.

She said Catholic families often eat seafood on Friday. Off the Hook tried to adjust by making Monday through Thursday the days people could place orders, and Friday pickup and delivery day.

“Our niche is the Catholic school community and when COVID hit, it was during Lent, so we decided to try to reach the Catholics on Friday with seafood,” Carr said.

Carr said Off the Hook received money from the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which lasted through September. She said it is surviving financially for now, but with an uncertain future.

“We’re lucky that we’re plugged into a great community that are supporting us. We’re able to pivot and get it done, but a lot of companies can’t,” she said. “So I feel lucky in that way and grateful that we’re still going. But I don’t know how long we can keep it up.”

At Bethesda-based Ridgewells Catering — an upscale caterer that serves the greater Washington, D.C., region — business is down 87% from before the pandemic, CEO Susan Lacz told Bethesda Beat in mid-November.

Lacz said she has had to furlough or lay off most of her staff. In March, Lacz said that of Ridgewells’ 275 employees, all but a half dozen had been furloughed.

With no live events coming back anytime soon, Lacz said it is difficult to be optimistic yet.

“If there’s no events, there’s no work. And I’ve pivoted to the curbside pickup and Thanksgiving is a busy time of year for us, fortunately,” she said. “But I have much more competition this year because everybody is doing Thanksgiving meals.”

Lacz said Ridgewells is still catering smaller events, such as backyard gatherings, but that could become difficult in the winter.

Lacz said she is encouraged by news reports stating that a COVID-19 vaccine could be widely available early next year. She said it’s important for people to understand the challenge that all caterers are facing during the pandemic.

“It’s not just D.C. Everyone is dying in this industry,” she said.

“People talk about restaurants. They talk about hotels. They talk about airlines. They don’t talk about live events. And we’re over a billion-dollar industry, and it’s a shame.”

Caterers, restaurants, food trucks and other food service businesses can receive grants of up to $10,000 through a program administered by the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation (MCEDC). Lacz said she appreciates the funding, but it’s only enough to cover expenses such as insurance or electric utilities.

“Anything helps. It’s just great. Ten thousand dollars is gonna help a small restaurant or a food truck. …. But with a business our size, there’s a lot more relief that we need than that,” she said.

Lacz said Ridgewells also received PPP money. She wishes the county implemented a funding formula that allocated the amount of money based on the size of the business.

Dwin said she also received PPP money, but went through it within six months.

“After the PPP finished, I didn’t have enough money to keep all these people on payroll,” she said.

Dwin said she also thinks the MCEDC’s $10,000 grants are not enough, although she is grateful for it. She said she’ll need much more to cover worker’s compensation, liability insurance, rent, utilities and trash collection.

“All that [$10,000] covers is two months or less of rent and utilities. It certainly doesn’t cover payroll,” she said.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com