The Accidental Caterer

John Liu
February 21, 2019

Has anyone here done catering?

SWMBO and her friend Marcie are catering three breakfasts and a lunch for a group of 35 this week. This isn't a regular occurrence here; another friend is putting on a small multi day meeting and couldn't find an affordable caterer. Marcie used to own a restaurant and she and SWMBO said they'd do it. They've done stuff like this before and work well together.

It seems like a ton of work. My house has been a bedlam of shopping, prepping, baking, cooking, packing, and cleaning. There are chafing dishes, hotel trays, platters, and dishracks everywhere. It smells like Baking and Frying - which sounds nice but gets less so after a while.

None but the two ladies are permitted to cook anything, because they have every implement and surface in use. The household has been grazing on random leftovers. I get up early every meeting and make them multiple espressos, in the evening they drink wine and cocktails while prepping the next day's food.

I don't know exactly what they've been serving but it sounds fairly sumptuous. The meeting attendees are being stuffed like turkeys.

Fortunately the reviews have been rave and tomorrow is the last breakfast. Then the cleanup begins. My Hobart dishwasher has been working hard, although I guess it's still just a vacation compared to what it was designed for.

I'm curious to see what they net from this. Their fee is $20 per person per meal, then there's the food cost and the time. I'm thinking it probably translates to about $25/hour.

The cool thing is that I've been introduced to the wonders of Cash 'n Carry and similar places where restaurants buy food. Wow, the prices are great - if you can use the large quantities. Earlier in the week I picked up their smallest available quantity of pork tenderloins and made these (below, before roasting) before I was excluded from the kitchen. Yes, I realize they look kind of like maggots in bondage.

Marcie has spent her life in spacious commercial kitchens, but she still claims to love my cramped kitchen. She's very nice. One thing she and I agree on is that the sink is frustrating. It is the standard divided kitchen sink, where neither side is big enough for a half sheet pan which really is the minimum size object that a kitchen sink should accommodate in my view.

She and I have been talking about darkroom sinks. Like this (random internet photo):

It seems to us one could have a darkroom sink almost the full length of a counter run, then weld rails along the front and rear inner walls. Whatever working surface you want could slide on these rails. Cutting surfaces, kneading surfaces, slotted drip surfaces, shallow tray surfaces, dishrack surfaces, like a linear game of Tetris. There'd always be a sink below to catch spills and debris and a long spray nozzle to get every corner. Very industrial but apparently that's kind of chic in some circles.

Well, back to reality. I do not have a cool sink, my kitchen is a freaking disaster and my house smells like Danish and sausage. Sigh. But the ladies are having fun!

Comments (20)

  • seagrass_gw

    You may not have a cool sink, but you are a cool guy.

  • Martha Scott

    I've done catering from weddings to large parties to 9 course dinners for 12 to 30 plus teas and luncheons in my home. Plus for 20 years I fixed all the food for a Rotary Oktoberfest for 100. My kitchen is tiny but if you are organized, it all works. As to how much I made, I was satisfied with my net.

    But not having a restaurant and doing catering occasionally, there were some cost issues -- I figured I could serve 8 guests comfortably but if I had two more, then I needed to hire a server. The two meals didn't totally pay for the server. Plus for some dishes, one will do 8 but not 10 so you need to make TWO recipes which again eats into your net. (desserts, individual rolls, etc.)

    I enjoyed it and still do luncheons and teas at my house because I don't want to schlep food anywhere anymore.

    But I think cooking for people is one of those instant gratification jobs -- you know immediately where you stand from the guests comments!

    $20 is more than a fair price per meal -- it's way more than any caterer would get here.

  • John Liu

    I could make a bunch of dcarch's cool COB lights (see Sun Will Come Out thread) and hang them over the cool sink!

  • John Liu

    I think catering is just expensive here.

    Our friend couldn't get a bid from any professional caterer for anywhere close to $20. SWMBO and Marcie are saving her bacon, if you will.

    We put on a 120 person event as a fundraiser for the historic district effort, back in November 2017. It was standup comedians - we have friends who are professional standup performers, who did it for cheap - and heavy hors d'oeuvres with wine and beer. We tried to hire a caterer but the bids were unaffordable, for us. Even with us renting all the linens and ware and supplying all the beverages, I think (?) the bids were around $30/guest for a good not great menu.

    (SWMBO decided to do it herself. She bought all the linens and ware, Marcie and DD also cooked. So we have linens and glasses for a 100 person event sitting in the basement. You know, in case someone gets married.)

    My theory is that our professional caterers in my area must get heavily fee'd and taxed, which probably drives up prices. There are a lot of talented and hard working food service people around here, and they're not making excess money, that's for sure.

    We are lucky because Marcie is a veteran restaurant owner-manager-cook-bottlewasher, she's done it all, worked the 16 hour days seven days a week when the kitchen was slammed and shorthanded, nothing fazes her. I love watching professional cooks work, they are fast and precise, buzz through multiple complicated dishes at once, always in control with timers in their heads. DD is like that in the kitchen, she's also worked the 16 hour days in hot slammed kitchens - in fact she started doing it at only 15 years old, it wasn't even legal. Marcie and SWMBO are friends from childhood so they have a good time. I just stay out of their way.

    Oh, this conference is of improv comedians - so the ladies are getting laughs too.

  • annie1992

    I've also done a little catering, cooked for a several weddings and owned a bar/restaurant for many years, about a million years ago. Heck, even family holiday parties were 35 or 40 people. I started working in a local sub shop/chicken joint after school when I was 14, so I've spent pretty much my whole life in some kitchen or another and can still turn a whole chicken into 9 pieces in less than 2 minutes. (grin) I've also baked some wedding cakes, given canning classes and sold baked goods and bread "by order", which is allowed here under the Cottage Food Law. The real problem I've run into is that you always need more hands than you have, and more people than you can get to show up, if you can hire them in the first place. And no one wants to work weekends, which is when many of those things happen. Wedding cakes are the worst, I spent hours fiddling with them and never made anything close to minimum wage. After just a few I started making them for family and friends only and I do it for free and don't worry about what I'm making, it's much more fun that way. Elery and I talked about doing some catering when we retired, but a few weddings and we decided we didn't want to do it after all!

    I think $20 is pretty reasonable for a breakfast that includes meat and average cost for a catered meal here runs from $16 as a low to pretty much as much as you want to spend. I really don't think SWMBO is going to make a whole lot after her time is factored in, along with transportation of the prepared food, serving and clean up. You'll eat really well for a while, though and she gets the added bonus of a comedian that she isn't paying for, so that's worth something.

    I like the sink idea. A lot. I have two deep sinks but as you say, a half sheet pan won't fit in either side. In my prior house I had one big deep sink and I liked that, but always used the dishwasher because it was impossible to wash/rinse/dry in a single sink. A long one like that, though, I'd have plenty of room.

    Good luck to your wife, I think those attendees are going to be very lucky AND very well fed.


  • Olychick

    Your dream sink reminded me of some that I've seen (online)...you might not have to reinvent the wheel...

    Stainless steel sink with colander, cutting board, dish rack, and integrated strainer


  • plllog

    I think a lot of us have done some form of catering, whether for weddings or church functions or whatnot, as have I. It's a different thing from restaurant experience. Even though it's not nearly as well equipped--like different planets--the commercial style kitchen at our congregation is much better suited to feed 125 people than my home kitchen. I haven't done it recently, but given some papergoods and staples left over from other meals, I used to be able to churn out a buffet dairy lunch for $100 (volunteer labor). The largesse of $20 per plate makes it so much harder! One gets ambitious and reaches for perfection, I think, borne out by the wonderful smells and exhausted ladies you described.

    Congratulations to them for helping their friend and getting it done.

    Your darkroom sink is a great idea as a way to get the latest trend for a reasonable price. Check out The Galley for ideas.

  • Islay Corbel

    Love the sink idea!

  • moosemac

    I too have done some catering. For the most part, I did catering for real estate agent Broker Open houses. That's where the listing agent holds an open house to show off a new listing to 15 to 50 other real estate agents. Budgets were all over the place depending on the property. The vast majority of these were weekday luncheons with a few weekday cocktail parties. It worked out great because it gave me family time most nights and weekends. In addition, many times I was able to use the stove or oven at the listing for any last minute items.

    I had all the work I could handle as a one person operation. Might be something to look into. Keep in mind that every luncheon is also a marketing opportunity for your catering business as every good listing agent will usually hold several luncheons each year.

    As a whole, I found real estate agents to be very budget conscious and presentation was as important as the quality of the food. It's all about perceived value.

  • CA Kate z9

    Olychick: I LOVE the sink idea. (Maybe my next house.)

  • annie1992

    Oh, BTW, John, the "maggots" look good to me! I think the grandkids would LOVE those, something about bacon....


  • 2ManyDiversions

    John, you have quite the way with words, and you often crack me up! After I got past the “maggots in bondage” I had two primary thoughts: That is the neatest bacon and butcher string wrapping I’ve seen in a while; Yumm, bacon!!!

    I never considered myself as being in the catering business, but in a way I was, as I prepared desserts for special occasions. I think the largest turnout was somewhere in the vicinity of 25 though… so not many. It was only me, and I didn’t serve unless it was an elaborate cake and I had to be the one to cut into it after the petit fours were gone.

    Love the idea of a long SS sink… you definitely should install more than one faucet : )

    …and here I envisioned SWMBO as drinking cappuccinos 24/7, brought to her by a budding barista, whilst lounging in bed… ; ) My hat is off to your SO for doing that much cooking for so many! I’m very impressed.

  • John Liu

    I asked a work colleague, whose husband is executive chef of a local restaurant but has done some catering in his time, why catering is so expensive. She told me about taxes, fees, server wages, etc but also mentioned something I hadn't thought about. It wasn't terribly uncommon for clients to receive the service, pay by check, then stop the check, knowing the caterer doesn't have the time or resources to pursue a a few thousand dollar collection. So her husband had to build that into his prices. Crazy.

  • Sooz

    Had to laugh at the "maggots in bondage" -- a picture is worth a thousand words, but three words do it here! They also kinda reminded of the worms in the novel "Dune."

  • John Liu

    Ahh well I like to play up SWMBO's pampered moments but she is actually the hardest working person in the house. She grew up cleaning toilets for the family janitorial biz so the girl isn't a stranger to work...

  • Feathers11

    I haven't catered but have prepared food for gatherings ranging from 30-50. The key, I have found, is having access to adequate pieces for serving/entertaining such large groups. In the past few years, I've prepared food for showers about 40 attendees, and a neighbor is a former caterer who has numerous platters, pitchers, glassware, vases, linens and so on that were so helpful. So much of this process, for me, was having pieces to store food that was prepped, and then later that was in line for serving. I can work in small kitchens as long as I have adequate storage and serving pieces. I can't speak to costs, as I do this for friends and family who chip in or for whom I'm doing this as a gift.

    I love the darkroom sink! I'm very picky about sinks, and find those little island prep sinks a complete waste of space. I have a single big sink now that can hold a sheet pan. My next kitchen will have a massive sink like that darkroom sink, and there will be 2 faucets in lieu of a main sink and prep sink.

  • 2ManyDiversions

    John, I am pretty sure you knew my comment about SWMBO lounging and drinking caps all day, followed by a wink, was in jest, but just thought I'd reaffirm that : ) I don't believe anyone here or their SO's do much lounging... perhaps while asleep! BTW, I cleaned chalets (rental houses). I honestly enjoyed the physical part of it. Not so much digging cigar butts from overflowed commodes, though : \

  • John Liu

    As are mine, of course!

    <he said nervously>

  • John Liu

    SWMBO packed up the leftover food from her catering: bread, jam, bagels, cream cheese, cereal, etc. Added peanut butter, jelly, milk. Took it down to the nearby homeless shelter. This is an overnight shelter (also daytime during freezing weather) that volunteers run at a neighborhood church. They are always happy to get donations. Opened or unpackaged food makes them nervous (risk of food contamination or even foul play) but we know one of the people who runs the shelter so they took it and made sandwiches and breakfasts.

  • annie1992

    John, I'm happy that your shelter could use it. Here they are also reticent about taking opened or unpackaged food, but will often take items from restaurants or food service companies. It's a shame when people go hungry while we throw away so much. (sigh)


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