Catering to the Summer Crowds - August 5, 2004
East End caterers seem to agree that volume is up this year after two weak years following September of 2001.
John Kowalenko and Cheryl Stair, the co-owners of Art of Eating in Amagansett, are even confident enough to be starting a separate company, Hampton Event Management International, to organize large parties.
This year has been "outstanding," Mr. Kowalenko said. "It started early and stayed strong. . . .We started on May 8 and have been rocking ever since." Art of Eating's weekends are booked with parties and other events through mid-October.
The 15-year-old catering company handles everything from birthday, cocktail, and dinner parties for 20 to much larger weddings and corporate events. It also caters benefits at which thousands of people gather, such as Southampton College's All for the Sea concert.
The company employs a full-time staff of 15, not including a core group of waiters and waitresses, and hires additional kitchen and waitstaff as needed.
Mr. Kowalenko said he had seen a marked improvement this year over the past two summers, about which clients were not as "committed." Often they make inquiries and book summer dates as early as January, but last year the period between January and June was a "challenge," he said, with the war in Iraq casting a shadow over upcoming events, especially weddings.
What does one say to "the father of a bride planning his daughter's wedding when his future son-in-law is being called up to war?" Mr. Kowalenko asked.
"This year, people feel better," he said, and his company is catering up to six parties a weekend for the rest of the season. "By April, we had five or six weekends in June and July booked."
Christopher Robbins of Robbins Wolfe Eventeurs of Bridgehampton, which has operated on eastern Long Island and Manhattan since 1987, estimated a 40-percent increase in business over all for the spring to early summer of this year, after a 20-to-25-percent decrease after September 2001.
Of that decrease, the portion reflecting summer business in the Hamptons was down "moderately," he said, adding that in the summer of 2002, there were "fewer renters, fewer parties." Then, in March of 2003, "the war changed business," Mr. Robbins said.
Nevertheless, fund-raisers for nonprofit institutions are scheduled regardless of war and the national economy, and have "guest counts that remain the same year to year." The planners of these benefits are always somewhat cost-conscious by nature, but Mr. Robbins estimated that in 2002 and 2003 there was a "10-percent drop in summer spending" compared to 2001.
This year's boost has come in "the number of parties, the kind of event, bigger events, and more involved menus," he said. "People are entertaining again. Private events are big." Mr. Robbins said he had private parties of 200 people or more.
Robbins Wolfe employs 26 full-time staff members in Bridgehampton and Manhattan, and hires as many as 200 staff members on a busy weekend, he said.
With multiple events on midsummer evenings, he said, "you live in your car," running from cocktail party to private dinner party to be present at "key moments," such as the cutting of the cake at a wedding.
Fortunately, he has found a window of driving opportunity on Montauk Highway between 6:45 and 7:30 p.m. The road is empty then, he said, because cocktail party-goers are already sipping their mojitos in living rooms and backyards, while people getting ready to attend dinner parties and fund-raisers have not yet sallied forth.
"For people with significant wealth, entertaining is a general part of a lifestyle," Mr. Robbins said. What has changed significantly over the past 20 years, he said, is "the amount of service." Mr. Robbins recalled his early days in the business, when a party of 70 would be staffed by a single chef, a single bartender, and two waiters. The cooking would be done in a regular household oven, with the only rental cost being the china.
"Now, we would have one chef and two kitchen assistants, one captain, two bartenders, and one waiter for every 10 people; an area cordoned off for grills, a 30-by-60 kitchen tent, baker's rack. . . ."
Brent Newsom, an East Hampton-based caterer, said he was similarly pressed for time and flush with business, operating at full capacity "seven days a week, 17 hours a day."
At this time of the year, he said, the only concern is the possibility that "you wear down." His day starts at 5 a.m., catering photography shoots for such clients as Victoria's Secret during the week, and on the weekends his team is off and running with the weddings, benefits, and cocktail parties for 150 to 300 that are his stock-in-trade.
His company has four full-time, year-round employees and 22 summer employees, and it also calls upon select workers from staffing services tapping labor pools from "mid-Island east," he said.
Reaping the summer harvest, Mr. Newsom reported a 20-percent growth in sales this year over last year, following another 20-percent increase last year over 2002. As far as weddings and other large private events are concerned, he is already booked through the end of October, with one exception: the weekend of Sept. 11.
Mr. Newsom started his 20-year run in the East End food service industry as a restaurant and club owner, operating the Swamp in Wainscott. "If you've survived 20 years in the Hamptons, you're successful," he said. Flipping through a calendar, he rattled off: "Let's see, five parties this Saturday, four last Friday, four last Saturday, two last Sunday, a big lunch, five next Saturday. . . ."
"The hot new cocktail, by the way," he said, "is the Southside, a mojito with vodka instead of rum."
Food costs have gone up about 10 percent, he estimated, adding, however, that customers have not complained since they see higher prices in their own shopping, too.
"Dairy prices are off the charts, up to 20 percent," said Michelle Florea of Food and Co. in East Hampton. She added that higher gasoline prices raise the cost of everything trucked out to the East End.
It's significant, she said, but even though her firm is "eating some of those costs" it is enjoying the best year in its 12-year history, with an average of 16 events per weekend.
Ms. Florea did not see a drop-off in 2002, she said, although last season was hurt by "horrible weather in May and June," which seemed to affect the rest of the summer. She has a "magnificent waitstaff" of about 100, she said, in addition to "phenomenal help in the kitchen."
Janet O'Brien also said her company is having its best year ever. "Fabulous," she said, referring to the large events she caters.
Charlotte Sasso at Stuart's Seafood in Amagansett, which caters clambakes in addition to selling seafood retail and wholesale, reported "good, solid" business so far this year. Her regular customers, unlike those of companies catering more formal affairs, seek the simpler pleasures of eating fresh seafood on the beach, lobster juice dripping along their chins, wearing shorts, and going barefoot in the sand.
"I have no reason to complain. . . . It's not a boom year, and things could always be better, but the Hamptons are so beautiful, and the economy is good out here," she said. Once food, service, and rental equipment are factored in, high-end caterers charge upward of $150 per person, but Ms. Sasso's beach clambake, even the deluxe version, runs around $55 per person.
"It's the real Hamptons, beach parties, clambakes, lobsters," she said.
Higher gasoline costs have had a significant effect on her business as well, Ms. Sasso said, and customers are "tentative about the economy" and the world situation in "personal ways," but continuing to schedule parties.
What's important, she said, is "to keep a positive attitude, work hard, try to provide employees a living, and get return business."
© Hampton Event Management International