Caterers across the Delta are meeting the challenge
By mark h. stowers & Angela Rogalski
The Bolivar Bullet
The pandemic put a permanent spin on how many businesses operate. Now with an eye and focus on sanitizing and keeping workers safe, but the food industry has always led the way in that regard. Stringent procedures mandated by federal, state and local governments have long kept the “food chain” safe as possible. The pandemic hit the catering industry in different ways. With social events being shut down such as weddings, reunions and other get together, that business was cancelled and off the books. But, a small fraction of business exploded for some during the downturn. Now that the pandemic and its restrictions have been lifted, the catering business is in overdrive there are new challenges to overcome.
Stafford Shurden is a farmer by trade; however, his Drew restaurant, Stafford’s Market and Deli, has kept busy with its curbside service during the pandemic and catering jobs for local businesses. The problem he and others in the catering business are faced with—a huge increase in prices for the needed materials.
“Everything is about 25% more expensive now,” said Shurden. “Some stuff has doubled—cooking oil has doubled, chicken has more than doubled. It’s going to trickle into everything.”
He noted the problem is the higher demand and the supply chain has been revamped and needs revamping again.
“Before the pandemic, Americans ate roughly half their meals at home and half were eaten out,” he says. “When the pandemic hit, grocery stores couldn’t get anything. So, they went from producing stuff for restaurants to producing stuff strictly for grocery stores. That went from 50/50 to almost 90/10.”
That has led to increased prices for restaurants to find supplies needed and smaller operators like Shurden are frequenting grocery stores to stock their own restaurant catering needs.
“I see a lot of restaurant people in the grocery store because it’s cheaper than we can normally get it in our own supply chain. Hamburger meat is a good example. It’s roughly the same price in the grocery store that it was three or four months ago. But, for restaurants, it has doubled because they are not making those restaurant packs the way they used to. People are starting to eat back out and that’s creating a strain on the system. Part of it is workers, you can’t get workers. I think there is plenty of raw product out there. You just can’t get it processed.”
His catering before the pandemic included plenty of large gatherings and events such as working the Grammy Museum Mississippi events among others. He’s seeing an uptick in business these days.
“It’s coming back. It’s not back to normal. Yet but it’s getting there,” said Shurden. “People are having weddings again but it’s the thirty-five people business lunches that’s always been our bread and butter. That doesn’t sound like much money but when you’re doing ten of those every couple of weeks, they start to add up.”
With food safety always at the top of the priority list, individual servings in boxes or individually wrapped have become key as well as more and more higher quality disposable items such as plates and silverware.
“We’re still taking precautions. If people want it individually packed instead of self-serve, we show up and drop it off in individually packaged containers,” he says. “We used to bring a stack of paper plates and bulk silverware, we bring individually wrapped forks. Other folks still want the buffet and that’s fine too. We’re doing it step by step.”
Another caterer filling that needed small business lunches and meetings is Lenny’s Subs in Cleveland, owned and operated by Will Bradham.
“There’s not much we could have changed during the pandemic. If you’re a clean restaurant, you’re a clean restaurant and should be that way all of the time,” said Bradham. “Most everyone I know who does catering uses disposable products. We did a lot during the pandemic. It’s tapered off a little. Large employers aren’t having to feed their staff in house anymore. But, now we’re seeing more of the ten to 20 folks for an office meeting. You’re starting to see a lot more gatherings and social events. That has definitely picked up for us.”
Bradham is experiencing plenty of supply chain problems, but is working to overcome each one.
“The availability of product is slim and demand is out the roof but we’re rocking and rolling every day,” he said.
Eddie Vaughn, co-owner of Mississippi Grounds in Cleveland had curbside service during the shutdown and literally no catering.
“What we’ve seen, post-pandemic, people are coming back to catering for parties and events and weddings. It absolutely died and went to nothing during COVID,” said Vaughn. “We started making casseroles to fill up the freezers and just adapted.”
His catering came back to life this past March and is “back to wide open. Food safety comes first, always. We’re back to working like we did. We never closed and Cleveland and the community really supported us.”
Vaughn noted he’s worked events for over 300 people and is comfortable working events as small as ten people.
Tara Herrin of Catfish Cabin and her newest location in Rosedale, Catfish Cabin on the River has been busy keeping up with her catering business.
“Catering is back on its feet,” said Herrin. “The new location has led to getting a few new calls about catering. During COVID, we didn’t do nearly as much but it’s picking back up.”
She noted she’s made very few changes to her protocols and continues to fill the need for various social occasions.
Herrin’s customers run the gamut and she uses her full menu to create the perfect pairings of food to the occasion. And she serves them up either individually or some prefer buffet style.
“We’ve done some corporate events and served box lunches out of the trailer. We’ll do it however they want it. We do more than catfish. We can do finger foods and a variety of foods. We can do meat and vegetables or pretty much whatever,” she says.
With the flooding in June, Herrin’s skills and crew were called on to help those afflicted.
“We made 5,600 sandwiches over the course of three days for the American Red Cross to hand out,” she said. “We can literally do anything—a sack lunch with a sandwich and bag of potato chips or catfish or anything.”
Shurden summed up the catering and food business post pandemic.
“It’s kind of getting back to normal, but we’re in a weird world. I don’t think anyone knows what normal is right now.”
Owner Desira Warrington said, “Cleveland Fresh is a one-stop shop when it comes to floral arrangements, bakery items, such as our petit fours, and gift items. We also do charcuterie boards that are great additions to any event. And, I think more so today than ever, people are in the mindset of being kind. During the pandemic, people seem more conscious of being kind to their neighbor. We see people going out of their way to do small gestures for people that they didn’t do before, and that’s really my whole premise behind the business. When people come in to order something special for someone else, that’s what it’s all about.”
Chef and Owner Cole Ellis said, “At Delta Meat Market we’re still doing our catering. I do have a party coming up that we’re looking forward to. However, it’s been a really long time since we’ve had a schedule like we used to. But, today we’re still booking events and ready to do what the customer wants.”
Owner Allie Horne of Our Delta Table said, “Our Delta Table is a takery that specializes in fresh, thoughtful, wholesome and handmade foods that are already prepared and ready to be served at your table. So our catering is just that. We prepare the foods and you come and pick it up. So, we don’t have to come to your event or to your home or host any events here, which has made it better for us during this pandemic. We have already prepared casseroles, salads and other grab-and-go items that people can get and our cupcakes as well. We opened in March and once people realized we do catering, it’s been going really good.”