COVID-19: How the Catering Industry is Managing to Stay Afloat

Joe Volpe, 0wner of Cescaphe (Courtesy Cescaphe)

Large events have been postponed or canceled across the region due to COVID-19 restrictions. Business has slowed severely. Weddings with large guest lists are the core of a catering business, but social distance guidelines ban large gatherings. 

Peter Loevy has been president of Catering by Design for 28 years. The business was created in 1991 with the mission to bring innovative cuisine and design together for clients seeking an extraordinary event experience, according to Loevy. Joe Volpe is the owner of Cescaphe, which prides itself on classic cuisine fit for any event, he said. Both companies have seen a sharp decline in business over the past five months.

Loevy and his team cater over 125 weddings a year at venues like the Bolingbroke Mansion, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Michener Art Museum, and ONE North Broad

Volpe’s company hosts about 800 weddings and events a year across six venues: Vie, Tendenza, Cescaphe Ballroom, Downtown Club, The Lucy, and Waterworks.

Setup of a wedding at Volpe’s largest venue, Vie. (Courtesy Cescaphe)

Loevy and Volpe discuss the possible future of catering in Philadelphia, including what they have been doing to prepare to offer a safe and sanitary environment for their clients when restrictions on gatherings finally lift.

Overall, how has the coronavirus affected the entire catering industry?

Loevy: I’m one of 16 caterers that is part of a consortium that we’ve been working to try and deal with the effects of the coronavirus on the industry. We’re the hardest hit industry of everyone right at the center because it really comes down to the dance floors. That seems to be the focus of the issue because that’s when everybody gets up, gets together, and is jumping around it has the greatest COVID risk.

The first goal is to separate ourselves in the government’s mind from restaurants, bars, and dive bars. Especially the wedding industry, with that kind of association, but we’re not. We’re a very specific industry and what separates us is that we’re able to control the guest count differently than restaurants and every part of the event is controllable. Granted, the dance floors are an issue. 

But if you want overall numbers, I would say that almost every caterer is down anywhere from 80% to 90% of their business.

Volpe: We usually do about 800 weddings a year, but since March 15 we have not done a single event. It’s been devastating for the entire catering industry and food service hospitality industry. We are at the end of July and it seems like we’re making some progress. But nothing that we could set a date for and say, “We’re going to be open for business once again.”

With the new guidelines being implemented what changes should bride and grooms expect to see?

Loevy: There are numerous COVID-19 guidelines. The first thing is that everyone has to wear a mask, including the guests when they enter the building, just like any other building right now. And they are urged to wear a mask throughout the location, except when they’re sitting down to eat. The staff has to wear a mask and gloves. The building is sanitized on a regular basis, whatever site that happens to be. 

One thing they need to do: everyone needs to sign a waiver to not hold the caterer, the facility, or the host liable for coming down with the coronavirus. So, that is something that every bride, groom, and every guest has to do. 

Every guest fills out a form with their contact tracing information. There are signs everywhere. When you walk in, there’s a sign for the waiver, of what we do, what the venue does, and what the guests need to do. The seating is spaced 6 feet apart. But we group the guests in bubbles, that is, people that are comfortable sitting together. Whether it’s a family or a work unit, they can all be together. That’s how we seat people following the mandated up to 10 people per table.

Volpe: Most of our work and preparations will be done prior to the guests seeing these big changes. The changes will include a variety of sanitation right after each wedding or event. The cleaning of tables, chairs, and high touch surfaces every night. 

The major change in the industry is the planning and preparation prior to each event, nothing that they will see. Things that they will see include social distancing between tables, spread apart 6 feet, multiple sanitizing stations in several areas, and all employees will be wearing masks. These giant changes will keep people safe.

There’ll be a health certification and there’ll be telling their guests what to expect when they come to the weddings. Bride and groom will take people’s names and gather contact tracing information. We will keep the entire guest list 30-days prior to the wedding, noting their names, where they’re from, and where they were two weeks prior to the event. God forbid there is an outbreak, but we can notify everybody and trace if back to where it came from.

What has your company been doing for the past several months during shutdown?

Loevy: We’ve been fortunate! We have been working with Step Up to the Plate where we feed the food insecure in Center City and Kensington. At one point we were delivering up to 8,000 meals a week. We’re down to about 6,000 a week now. 

Developing a COVID guide is what we’ve done to be prepared and communicate with all of our brides and grooms. Very few have canceled, most have deferred and moved to other dates, sometimes more than once. We have encouraged that and made it easy to do. We want to be as lenient as much as possible for everybody. We are ready to go once we get the cue!

Volpe: While we were shut down and waiting to flatten the curve, we thought being proactive would be the best way to go. We created sanitation training videos that we had our entire team go through online. We worked with a professional company called MBB Hospitality, and they helped us create new safety sanitation online training programs. Also, working with our couples to reschedule their weddings and helping them make good decisions as to when and where they should be looking at it. Some were able to push it off a year, some 18 months, and others needed to get married now to move on with their lives.

What do you expect to do with guests coming from out of state?

Loevy: Nothing, because the mandate will determine what is allowed. I thankfully do not have to be the judge and jury on this. That means a lot of families and friends coming from different states, if there is a mandate, it’s up to the guest and the host to regulate that. They are expected to follow the same protocols and fill out the same paperwork as everyone else.

Volpe: I think initially, in the beginning there will be not a lot of guests coming from out of state to attend weddings. Brides and grooms are starting to realize now that it’s probably not a good idea to do so at the moment. I do believe by the first and second quarter of next year that things will go back to the way they were.

What do you expect in the next year? What does the future of catering look like to you?

Loevy: I’m carrying on next year coming back online to some capacity. There’s a lot of conversation going on about this, but people feel that until there’s a vaccine or proper testing, that we’re not going to come back online at all. It’s going to just keep perpetuating, especially given the behavior of our citizens. 

The challenge for us is how do we persevere through the first quarter, which I believe will be pretty much dead. As will the fall, which is going to be very sparse. If the spring doesn’t happen for all of us, then without government intervention and more grants, I just don’t see how we persevere through that. And we are in better shape than many, so I would see a lot of businesses going out. 

If the spring happens, then I think we pick up where we left off and have a decent year.

Volpe: Well, I think the good news is that there’s a demand for people wanting to celebrate their new marriage and come together with their families. I think now, more than ever, they want to have a celebration since they haven’t been able to do that. 

So, I believe there’s a huge demand for large weddings. Unfortunately, we will not be able to do that, probably until the first quarter of next year, 2021, when there’s a vaccine out and people will get back to living their lives. People will be extremely happy and have an reinforced sense of how lucky we are to be able to do weddings.

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