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Catering To The Post-Pandemic Crowd

Catered events — holiday parties, weddings, bar mitzvahs — are back.

As COVID infections (and fears) fade, Westporters again celebrate with family, friends and food.

As you reach for that crudité cup or drink, you think that nothing has changed.

If you’re a caterer though, you know your world will never be the same.

The supply chain. Staffing. Service. All that — and a thousand things — is vastly different today.

Add inflation — affecting the price of everything from steak and paper towels to gas — and it’s a wonder there are any events left.

But caterers are a flexible bunch. They solve problems. They do it resourcefully, creatively — and out of sight of guests.

You’ll snag your skewer or cheese, and continue your continue your party conversation just like before.

Time now for a conversation with Alison Milwe Grace.

Alison Milwe Grace

The award-winning, professionally trained chef’s AMG Catering — a 1988 Staples High School  graduate, now a Weston resident — serves clients and guests throughout Connecticut and Westchester County.

Her business in 2023 is nothing like when she began in 1996. Or even at the start of 2020.

Alison could begin anywhere. She starts with vessels.

That’s cater-speak for the little cups that contain chicken satay, shrimp cocktails, grapes — whatever you once picked up yourself from a tray. Now — sensitive that clients and guests are wary of the number of hands that touch their food — Alison serves nearly every passed appetizer in a cup.

Each one costs money. So does each single-use, wrapped utensil pack she offers. (She’s not wild about the environmental impact, either.)

More cups mean fewer hands reaching for food. But creating each one is labor intensive.

Inflation — some of it tied directly to the pandemic, some of it not — has also eaten into clients’ budgets, and caterers’ profits.

Alison pays more for nearly every item of food. Plus plates, cleaning products, propone for her kitchen, helium for balloons. You name it, the price has risen — often dramatically.

Guests pay more for other things too. Alison notes that tents are generally bigger than before the pandemic, to avoid the feeling of “everyone on top of each other.”

Staffing issues are a constant headache. Labor shortages and illnesses make finding good employees tougher than ever.

Alison Milwe Grace is smiling here. Behind the scenes, running a catering business is not all sunshine.

When bookings began again as the pandemic eased, Alison gave raises to her staff. They’d been through a lot. And, in a tight labor market, she wanted to keep her valued employees.

Still, the coronavirus (and more recently the flu) combined to make staffing difficult. Alison has a strict rule — “If you feel remotely bad, you’re not working” — which means she constantly readjusts schedules.

But cooks and servers are not the only ones in short supply. So are her vendors’ delivery drivers.

Many cut back on the number of days they provide her with meat, fish, produce and more. They’ve also added fuel surcharges, which she must either eat or pass along to clients.

Expenses like table and linen rental have risen. Providing them is not always easy.

Speaking of gas: When prices spiked last year, Alison paid travel expenses for her staff. It was the right thing to do — and a good way to ensure she’d have the help she needs.

Despite her busy schedule, all events are not back to pre-pandemic normal. In an abundance of caution, clients want smaller guest lists. But caterers have fixed costs. Alison has learned to be selective about which events she can book.

Yet as the prices she charges rise, so do clients’ expectations. They’re paying more, so they expect even higher quality than Alison’s usual high standards.

“I’ve always been a perfectionist,” she says. “Now I’m more of one. I want to be sure everyone gets what they pay for.”

That’s not always in her control. These days, a delivery may be missing 5 items she ordered — and counted on.

Vendors don’t tell her ahead of time. So she unpacks, finds what’s not there, then heads to the grocery store herself. Or she readjusts her menu.

Her presentations look great. But from one day to the next, Alison Milwe Grace is never sure she’ll get everything she ordered.

Also missing: rental companies’ 24/7 service. They no longer have the staff to fix a last-minute broken table, or send over extra linen.

“You get what you get, and you can’t get upset” is her new mantra. She hopes clients understand.

She hopes too that they understand the importance of numbers. Guests continue to test COVID-positive or get the flu, sending regrets a few days (or even the day of) a party.

That wreaks havoc on her planning — and budget. With vendors demanding she place orders further in advance than ever, Alison now insists on a guaranteed head count 2 weeks before an event. (The number can increase, but not decrease.)

There are exceptions. “If the bat mitzvah girl gets COVID, of course we’ll reschedule,” Alison says.

As for weddings: The caterer has already booked “a ton” for this year. She’s already working on 2024.

Happy guests never see what goes on behind the scenes.

Meanwhile, despite higher costs, uncertain deliveries and the like, the parties she catered during the recent holiday season helped her — and guests — put COVID behind them.

“People were celebrating who hadn’t seen each other in years,” Alison reports. “Everyone was so excited. Parties seemed really, really meaningful.”

Corporate events — non-existent for nearly 3 years — returned in 2022. Still, the caterer senses “an undercurrent of fear” among businesses about a recession in 2023. Even the perception of belt-tightening could cut bookings substantially.

When COVID crashed into our lives nearly 3 years ago, Alison pivoted quickly. She offered curbside pick-up meals for families, and fed frontline workers.

Her flexibility paid off. AMG Catering survived.

When you grab some bruschetta, a spring roll or drink at your next event, you may simply be happy to be back celebrating.

That’s fine. You don’t need to know the back story — all the moving parts that caterers like Alison Milwe Grace navigate so you can feel good, and well fed.

But now you do.

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