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Eat and Drink

A Summer Without Big Events Leaves Local Caterers Struggling

Selling frozen family meals and party kits are ways catering companies are staying in business during the pandemic.

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With weddings, conferences, corporate meetings, and most other social and business gatherings put on hold right now, local catering companies are being forced to shift gears. Many are selling their fare directly to consumers at home—where most of us are still spending the majority of our time—instead of providing it to companies and large events. But competing against restaurant takeout and the rise of home cooking has been a challenge for Colorado businesses like Catering by Design.

“I would be lying if I said we were doing even one-tenth of the business we are used to,” says general manager Syd Sexton.

A box lunch from Catering By Design. Photo courtesy of Catering by Design

Catering by Design changed its model pretty quickly as sales tanked in early March. In response, it started its Fill Your Freezer program, selling reheatable family-size meals like short rib stew, green chile enchilada bake, and lasagna for pick up or delivery. The company also offers mini happy hour kits and box lunches.

“We knew we had to pivot to keep our lights on and a portion of our team working,” Sexton says. “As the crisis continues and gatherings remain restricted to small guest counts, we are creating new concepts that offer what we do best, which is an experience. Even though we can’t be there right now to cook and serve, we can certainly create the ambiance and provide all the elements for a DIY party.”

Direct-to-consumer sales are a new road that many catering companies have taken: Occasions Catering started its own Stock the Freezer family meal campaign; Savory Cuisines Catering offers a different entrée each day of the week; and GB Culinary makes weekly deliveries of family feasts, meal kits, pantry items, and even flowers. GB Culinary is also giving back to the community by donating a meal to the young homeless residents of Attention Homes in Boulder for every family meal ordered.

“Our once-weekly rhythm is allowing us to stay home ourselves, while encouraging clients to do the same by stocking up on high-quality, hyper-local meals,” says Marisa Hallinan, booking and operations coordinator for GB Culinary. “The pivot is one we’re proud of, and we have felt so supported by past, current, and new clients.”

Lunch Wired Corporate Catery has taken the retail model one step further by trying a new aggregate home delivery service. In mid-April, the Centennial-based company launched its free community drop-off program that brings meals and groceries to pre-arranged residential pick-up locations. Neighbors can group together multiple orders to be dropped off at a set time and date, allowing Lunch Wired to avoid using a third-party delivery services—and their high commissions and fees—while getting food to those who need it.

A grilling experience meal kit from Footers Catering. Photo courtesy of Footers Catering

Footers Catering has been delivering seasonal “experiences,” like brunch, crafts, and dessert for Mother’s Day and grill-ready entrées, sides, cocktail mixers, and s’mores for summer barbecues. “The sale of these packages directly impact our ability as a small business to keep our people employed during this time, even though it’s a fraction of the sales we are accustomed to during our summer months,” says Anthony Lambatos, Footers’ CEO.

Footers also raised more than $25,000 via two matched donation campaigns to prepare and deliver hot meals to residents in need throughout the Denver area. “Even with all of this, we are just barely surviving, like most in our industry right now,” Lambatos says. “We have definitely been struggling with not being able to host gatherings and events.”

To help save the industry and aid those businessed in acute need, Catering by Design’s Sexton started the Colorado Event Alliance (CEA) in late March. The nonprofit raises money for laid-off event workers and is working with the governor’s and mayor’s offices to safely plan future events so everyone can get back to work.

“It’s a really challenging time for all of us right now, and to be honest, we don’t know when we will get back to doing what we love—producing parties,” Sexton says.

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