For nearly 30 years, Alison Milwe Grace has been one of Fairfield County’s go-to caterers.
Weddings, fundraisers, corporate events, holiday parties, milestone birthdays, bar and bat mitzvahs — if it was big and fun, AMG Catering was on the scene.
In early March, Grace was scheduled through October 2021.
By mid-March, her books were wiped clean.
COVID devastated the catering industry. As the pandemic wore on, the situation worsened. Bookings were postponed to fall or spring. Then they were pushed back again, to the fall of 2021 — or spring 2022.
A great caterer must be creative and nimble. Grace — a native Westporter, and 1988 Staples High School graduate — is both. As soon as the pandemic hit, she asked her clients what they wanted.
Suggestions included cooking for families — including college students and 20-somethings now home — and offering curbside meals, with special soups and desserts. Clients also wanted her to teach their college-age kids how to prepare meals.
Grace cooked for frontline workers and food pantries. When the weather got better she helped clients entertain outside, in small groups. She catered intimate backyard weddings (“lots of people got married,” she reports).
She did backyard bar and bat mitzvahs too — tented, socially distanced, and with few guests.
Grace ran cooking camps at her Wilton kitchen — half indoors, half outside.
For someone used to handling hundreds of guests, the coronavirus brought big changes. But Grace adapted, and clients were — as always — thrilled.
Now the weather is turning cold again. Once again, Grace reassesses what it means to cater in the age of COVID.
“People are sick of cooking. They don’t want to sit outside at a restaurant, but they’re scared to be inside,” she says.
She’s back to preparing curbside meals. They’re available Tuesdays (after the weekend leftovers are gone) and Fridays (to provide a good weekend meal).
She’s found a niche with private family cooking classes, at their home or her kitchen. Together they design a menu, then prepare it. “People want an activity,” she notes.
She’s reopened her Wednesday night cooking classes, for no more than 10 people. Everyone is masked and socially distanced.
AMG’s event coordinator is “working magic with backyard tents and heating options,” and redesigning indoor rooms for safe entertaining.
As the holidays approach, Grace is preparing Thanksgiving and Christmas meals. But instead of 20 or 30 people, they may be for just 4. She’s also added holiday cooking classes.
“It’s a struggle,” the caterer admits. “It’s really sad that people can’t celebrate the way they envisioned.”
She feels bad for her staff too: cooks, servers, bartenders, event planners.
She thinks too of the many DJS, musicians and support people at all the venues she uses. “This industry has suffered tremendously,” Grace says. “I pray we’ll be able to recover.”
Grace is on frequent Zoom calls with colleagues, and reads blogs. “Everything is driven by numbers. No one knows when it will be safe to gather with others, especially indoors. And once it is, people still need to feel comfortable.”
Winters are always slow for caterers. This time, the months ahead are “really scary.”
Still, Grace is undaunted. “I’ve given everything to this business,” she says. “I love it. Seeing an event through from start to finish brings me such joy. I’ll do whatever it takes to employ my staff. Right now there’s a huge void in my life.”
Her fixed costs — rent, insurance, vans, workman’s compensation, cleaning, utilities — continue.
Despite sleepless nights, Alison Milwe Grace believes, “I’ll get to the other side. I just want people to enjoy entertaining, and enjoy my food, in these really bad times.”
(Search for AMGCatering on Instagram; email firstname.lastname@example.org, call 203-858-4635, or click here.)