Many catering businesses rely heavily on galas and banquets for a major portion of their income. So what happens when a crisis like COVID-19 makes large gatherings impossible? Many nonprofits have moved their fundraising events online, and catering outfits have responded by cooking up creative ways to serve gala guests at home.
the four seasons hotel
Kristen Swidrak, director of catering and conference services for the hotel, says putting meals in the hands of virtual guests has been a challenge, but it is working well so far. “We launched our Gala To-Go program to offer remote attendees the same delicious cuisine they would expect at an in-person event,” she notes.
Clients order their Gala To-Go meals at least three weeks ahead, and custom-printed boxes are available with advance notice. Catering staff brings the food to a central location on the day of the event, and the nonprofit’s employees or volunteers can take care of delivery or have guests pick it up themselves. “We are glad to be a lifeline for St. Louis nonprofits,” Swidrak says.
She notes several area organizations have used the service so far, and the hotel has been able to accommodate a variety of needs. “One group wanted individually packaged, traditional dinners for two; another needed entrées and pasta for small groups,” she says. “Yet another wanted hors d’oeuvres and cocktails. We enjoy meeting all of these needs for fun and memorable in-home events.”
Wine pairings are available as well, and Swidrak says hotel staff can create special cocktails to match an event’s motif. “For one with a starry night theme, our mixologists added edible glitter and a starfruit garnish to a mixed drink,” she says. The company even live-streamed a video showing guests how to make it at home.
Coleen Donovan, director of sales, says the company has embraced remote gala catering as an opportunity to innovate. “We already had a division called Butler’s Boardroom with its own fleet of vehicles, so we didn’t have to completely reinvent the wheel,” she notes. “However, it does take some planning to arrange delivery to guests’ homes on the day of a virtual event. So far, the smallest one we’ve catered was four people, and the largest was about 200.”
Donovan says the staff has given careful thought to the differences between serving an in-person event and a remote one. “As an example, we normally wouldn’t recommend chicken for a delivered meal because it tends to dry out when reheated,” she says. “We have done a lot of testing to determine which foods hold up well and what types of containers work best.”
The company provides a delivery window when guests can expect their meals, and potential delays like traffic and construction are taken into account. “Logistics can be challenging, but we look at the process as a fun balancing act,” Donovan explains. “Normally with an in-person event, I am there and can see what’s happening, but we don’t have that control with virtual events. Still, the feedback has been great. We don’t know how long these services will be necessary, but we have a slew of virtual events scheduled this fall and are enjoying the opportunity to create wonderful experiences for guests. The celebration doesn’t have to stop just because they aren’t in a ballroom together.”
Photos courtesy of The Four Seasons Hotel and Butler’s Pantry