With holiday events canceled, Utah caterers offer treats to go, holiday foods and delicious themed meals

Caterers are being creative and trying to adapt, but also hope for more government support.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Emery Lortsher holds a box of locally grown mushrooms for a Japanese dish, at The Blended Table, on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020.

The December calendars of caterers and event planners are usually filled with weddings, celebrations and work and family holiday gatherings. But with the coronavirus pandemic this year, those calendars are empty.

Since Maxine Turner started her company, Cuisine Unlimited, in 1980, she’s seen the industry in Utah skyrocket — especially after the 2002 Winter Olympics — and also shrink slightly, after the recession in 2008. Still, nothing prepared her for this year.

“When the pandemic hit and we were all forced to just shutter, we really thought that this would be three, maybe four months and we’d be back to a normalcy,” said Turner.

In the first few days of the shutdown, she said, her company’s phones were ringing off the hook — with calls from one client after another, postponing or canceling events. “It was a domino effect that we absolutely never expected,” she said, “an insurmountable amount of business that was lost.”

When Cuisine Unlimited finally opened back up, it started selling takeout dinners for delivery and pickup. But for a caterer used to doing large scale events, a lot of takeout meals would be required to make up for the lost business, and “to this day, we are still well under 90% [of] our business in comparison to last year,” Turner said.

She applied for a federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, which helped the company stay open and keep some of its staff. But with no events on the horizon, she paid employees to help paint and remodel the kitchen.

And although the PPP loan was supposed to last eight weeks, she said, “we really had to stretch that, because as this pandemic continued, we could see that within a very short period of time we lost $2 million worth of business.”

As a member of the board of directors of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Turner sees how small businesses are faring. At a recent meeting, directors learned that 160,000 small businesses have closed in the last 60 days, she said, and of those, 100,000 will never reopen.

Ninety percent of small businesses have run out of PPP support, and 10 million people who worked for small businesses have lost their jobs, she said. “The statistics are deafening; they’re so loud.”

Those in the event industry “are all in survival mode,” Turner said. “We’re all in that same boat, rowing really fast upstream in a windstorm.”

‘Where does the community need us?’

Many catering company owners who spoke to The Salt Lake Tribune said they have lost all or nearly all of their business this year, due to pandemic limitations on occupancy numbers and restrictions on social gatherings.

Elizabeth’s Catering started the year with the best first quarter in its history. Then came March. “We had about 90 percent of our events just come right off the books,” said Ken Copeland, CEO and owner.

The company created a website to sell surplus inventory and offered no-contact groceries for curbside pickup or delivery. “Grocery stores were running out of all produce and everything. Meanwhile, the food service suppliers were literally just throwing away pallets and pallets of food,” Copeland said.

Elizabeth’s Catering also started selling meal kits, such as a lasagna dish that would feed a family, including salad and breadsticks, and offered a way for people to buy one for themselves and donate one to a health care worker.

“Our thought process is, ‘Where does the community need us?’ Instead of, ‘What do we want the community to buy from us?’” he said.

Recently, Elizabeth’s Catering launched a brand called Tastably, providing companies a safe way to feed their employees fresh-cooked meals and grab-and-go snacks. It has also partnered with the Red Cross during blood drives, providing meals to donors.

“We’re just trying to figure out where we are needed, and maybe we won’t be a special event caterer when we’re done with all of this,” Copeland said. “And that’s fine, but we’ll do whatever we can.”

‘People’s resilience has been inspiring’

After Culinary Crafts shut down earlier this year, it also started selling grocery items. “At one point when you couldn’t buy toilet paper at Costco, we sold toilet paper just because we could still get it,” said Ryan Crafts, president and COO.

Like other caterers, it started selling takeout meals. But it was hard to make a profit because the business is built for volume, cooking hundreds and even thousands of the same meal at once.

Culinary Crafts received a PPP loan early on, but with no events planned, Crafts paid his staff to do whatever he could think of, from cleaning the building to washing the vans and even volunteering at food kitchens.

Crafts hopes for a second PPP infusion for businesses that have been the hardest hit due to the pandemic. A second loan would save his business, he said.

A federal Restaurant Revitalization Fund, proposed as part of the $120 billion Restaurants Act introduced by Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., would provide a second round of stimulus for independent restaurants, caterers, bars and certain other small businesses.

“Perhaps the one bright spot in all this is to see my own staff and employees, and to see all my partners and fellow vendors in the event world, still getting out there and still working hard with a smile,” Crafts said. “... The money side is definitely discouraging, but people’s resilience has been inspiring.”

‘You become a family’

Kelly Lake, founder and managing partner at LUX Catering and Events, said the most difficult part of this tough year for her has been the rounds of furloughs and laying people off. “I think it is common in most kitchens that you become a family,” she said.

LUX Catering has kept doing events when it can. It also started an online retail shop with gift boxes and to-go meals, adding holiday food through the month of December, to keep staff working and employed.

Lake credits the aid and advocacy work of organizations such as Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association, Independent Restaurant Coalition and Live Events Coalition, which have helped caterers identify how to stay open and stay safe. With new protocols, Lake feels her company has been able to host gatherings safely. Software that helps design a layout for an event now has an added feature for distancing protocols and safety solutions.

“We’re still doing everything we can to stay safe and to protect our guests because that’s so important,” Lake said. “And at the end of the day, we’re all about hospitality and service and we want people to be able to feel good.”

‘Hanging in there’

The Blended Table closed for about four months when the pandemic hit. By summer, it’s typically busy catering galas for organizations such as The Children’s Center, the Natural History Museum of Utah and the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art.

This year, it held a few summer events outdoors, but with fall and winter coming, it had to reevaluate.

“With the holidays, we generally are doing 15 to 20 holiday events, and I think last year we might have even done more than that,” said co-owner Emery Lortsher. “And so to be looking at a calendar that is virtually empty for December, January ... some of that is our choosing, but most is not.”

The Blended Table has started providing charcuterie gift boxes for the holidays and to-go food for its clients and the community. All of the to-go packaging is eco-friendly, using recycled materials and Mason jars that can be reused.

And with people generally unable to travel right now, the company developed the idea of preparing travel-inspired to-go dishes. Lortsher believes food is one of the best parts of traveling, and for three years she had been planning a trip to Japan for April.

So staff created a meaty roasted pork and ginger shiitake broth ramen and a stir-fried carrot and burdock root salad for their first travel-inspired fare, which sold out. Spanish, Greek, French and Italian food will be on weekly to-go menus through the end of January.

Lortsher said she is hoping for additional government support for the industry, although she doesn’t like asking for help.

Instead, “I like to get things done, and caterers are scrappy little groups of people that know how to MacGyver things really well,” Lortsher said. “It’s been challenging but we’re hanging in there, day by day.”