Hearing the buzz of the 2022 holiday season picking up, and with COVID-19 on the wane or rendered less severe due to vaccines and boosters, party and event catering companies welcome the return to something resembling pre-pandemic normal.
The calls for annual catered gatherings and medium-size holiday parties are gaining momentum and volume, to the point that several Bay Area companies contacted during September reported being close to fully booked during November and December.
If an annual party or gala were back on the calendar this year, unlike in 2019 and 2020, caterers said timing was getting tight months in advance of the holidays. Clients who were flexible or had events large enough to pencil out were most likely to hop aboard and book the professionals to deliver high-end hors d’oeuvres, entrées, sides, desserts and beverages.
Springing for event extras, such as music, decor, lighting, or marvelous entertainers like acrobats, servers on roller skates or Nutcracker snow scene ballerinas, and top-tier staffing and service? All things were possible in the “new normal.” But this year more than ever before, everything came with a price. An increased price, that is.
Even so, after a couple of years that made possible only stiff, socially distanced outdoor gatherings; or indoor parties with surreptitious mask removals for eating and drinking; or “virtual visits,” the caterers we spoke to say their clients are expressing profound joy in actual, face-to-face celebrating.
To get an accurate picture of the holiday catering scene in late 2022 and learn the top tips for party planning now and next year, we turned especially to two well-established, successful Bay Area experts for more extended interviews: Hugh Groman, founder in 2001 of the Hugh Groman Group, and Jane Hammond, owner/founder since 1975 of Jane Hammond Events.
The Hugh Groman Group is a full-service catering and event planning company that has grown to include Greenleaf Platters, an online service launched in 2007 that creates, delivers and sets up high-quality party platters at events throughout the Bay Area. Phil’s Sliders was added in 2011. The outdoor pop-up restaurant specializes in beef, chicken and vegan sliders and homemade tater tots made on-site and served buffet style. The Hugh Groman Group is green certified by Alameda County and applies sustainable—and importantly, equitable—practices to all sectors of the company.
“Equitability does matter to our customers and their guests,” Groman says in an interview. “We think about it a lot. We are committed on a long term basis to it as a value. It goes well beyond just lip service or a trend; it’s about being inclusive. Hospitality as an industry is all about being inclusive. These things, environmental sustainability and equitable hiring, are interconnected. We’re certified as an LGBTQ-owned business and have been green certified for 15 years. We sort trash carefully. Our catering kitchen has new light fixtures and water-saving devices. Even the oil from our deep fryers gets strained and then picked up and recycled or reused for biodiesel fuel.”
Groman was born in Lafayette in the East Bay, where his parents and three siblings built a family ethos centered on food and entertainment. From his father, he witnessed lessons in how to put guests at ease—a dinner guest who toppled the contents of a wine glass onto a pristine white tablecloth was instantly made comfortable when Groman’s father intentionally upturned his own as if “red wine dyeing” were the “in thing” to do with fine linens.
Groman recalls his mother was equally concerned with putting people at ease, but also with making sure the host was taken care of. “She loved to entertain, but she also had four children and a full-time job and was not a martyr. One time, the guests were arriving and she said, ‘I have to go for a run.’ She put on her running clothes and headed out. People arriving saw her and waved. When she got back, the guests were having drinks, and she said she’d clean up and return. I remember she ran a bath—she was not going to take a quick shower. She was not going to be rushed. That’s my mother, and no one was surprised.” Or bothered, he suggested. What mattered was his mother’s terrific food, the relaxed atmosphere, the sincere desire to please everyone, which included herself.
The same approach brought to his business means Groman, when former president Barack Obama wandered into the kitchen during a fundraising event, knew exactly how to handle it. “It was a fundraiser in San Francisco held before he was officially nominated to run for president. He walked through the kitchen and was very dynamic. I could feel his charisma. I asked if he’d had anything to eat and he said, ‘No, what should I try?’ I offered the cheesecake and said it was delicious. He popped a piece of pumpkin pecan cheesecake into his mouth and said, ‘That is delicious,’ then took off.”
Less famously, Groman is pleased with a recent event in Lodi, at which he and his staff simultaneously served a plated dinner for 200 and a buffet for 625 guests. The large event after two years of smaller gatherings was a stretch, he admits—which hardly seems possible for a company that regularly fields and deftly handles all manner of unusual challenges.
Asked about the most popular services and food requests for holiday catering this season, Groman says oysters are hugely in favor and sushi stations are always in demand. “People also want a mix of food stations for larger events because it’s festive, casual, lively. We cater a huge variety of events, and at all of them, especially after the pandemic, delicious comfort food is in style. People always love an upscale macaroni and cheese, a grilled filet mignon, a variation on a Margarita. Why that cocktail? Because it’s easy to play with a Margarita, using different fruit juices and spices and aromatics.”
Another big hit that makes a splash at parties is made-on-the-spot donuts. “We own a fabulous donut machine, and they get made right in front of the guests. You can smell the donuts and watch them getting made; it’s like a Rube Goldberg machine. You can watch the donuts float down a lazy river of hot bubbling oil.”
Groman says the entire company is pleased to have moved beyond the “hygiene theater” of recent years. Guests, he says, have let go of the unnecessary safety obsessions, and masks are worn according to preference of the hosts and guests.
“We ask our customers if they want our staff to wear masks during set up and during the event, or should it be optional. We are absolutely getting people who say they are tired of wearing masks. It varied during the past few years, but certainly as time goes by, more people are not wearing masks.”
If hosts forget to ask about whether or not the organic yogurt is vegan, the Israeli couscous comes with pine nuts, the chocolate caramel ganache bars are decorated or the smoked salmon musubi on sticky rice is dressed with wasabi cream and tamari, Groman’s best advice is that those oversights are harmless, but they should never forget to ask about costs for holiday catering. With food, labor and rental equipment all having gone up 10 to 20%, all caterers have had to adjust their prices accordingly.
“People need to prepare for sticker shock if they want full-service catering for small groups. Even more so on Christmas Eve, Christmas or New Year’s Eve. It might easily be not $85-$100 per person; it’s likely to be $300 or more per person.” One economical choice is to engage the company’s Greenleaf Platter service. The high-end food is set out on white porcelain platters, making for sophisticated presentation and easy clean up. This choice might even leave enough in the budget to add a magical wall. “The guests ring a bell, and a hand holding a beverage or hors d’oeuvres tray pops out of a hole in the wall. It might be a black velvet wall or a green wall like a big tree, or there’s a bell you ring, and a hand with a white glove pops out with a fancy cocktail.”
Jane Hammond Events has for 47 years served a variety of private and public clients at events including corporate celebrations, product launches, gamer parties, gallery and store openings, wedding receptions, graduations, conferences, school and nonprofit fundraisers, and more. When she is not wearing multiple hats as the owner of a catering and events company, Hammond these days is most often found at Boxcar Flower Farm, a flower-growing company located in an urban setting at the 16th Street train station in West Oakland. She and co-owner Linh Becker use sustainable, organic growing practices, and the floral and plant-based arrangements from Boxcar supply vivid, seasonal, custom floral designs at JHE events. For the holidays, Hammond anticipates Boxcar’s holiday wreaths that feature dried flowers and foraged pine cones will be in high demand.
In an interview, Hammond explains why she plans to bring the catering kitchen and operations to a close at the end of the year—she will pivot that branch of the company to consultation only—although HJE’s other events services will continue. “It’s getting very difficult to run a business with the enormous increase in prices. It’s time for me to consult and run my Boxcar Flower Farm. Jane Hammond Events will continue as a corporation and shift to supplying events.”
As the company approaches its final holiday season as a catering company, she offers wise advice and keen predictions to hosts of in-home parties based on decades of experience. “If you are doing a small event and choosing a caterer, you can trust your gut feeling about whether or not it’s someone you’d want to have inside your house. You want an innovative menu, and make sure you are getting the real staff, not agency staff or temporarily hired help. They—hired help—won’t be as invested as regular staff will be in your event, so it matters immensely.”
If a client wants traditional holiday fare, Hammond says, “So be it.” But with the expense of a catered meal, she suggests doing something more unique, like a Swedish Christmas Eve with herring or a meal with an Asian flair that for example offers Vietnamese noodles with char siu pork. For large corporate gatherings, anything from 75 guests and higher, Hammond recommends having all rentals, food and staff covered by the catering company, so nothing falls through the cracks. “If they want lighting or DJs and other things, we do it all ourselves to guarantee the client looks good.”
Speaking about the trends she sees that will extend beyond this season and are welcome and she hopes permanent, Hammond says, “We’ve definitely had to do more outdoor events, which will shift somewhat during the late year months but will continue. For the holidays and menus specifically, it’s obvious that there’s no Christmas anymore. People are asking for a modern Indian cuisine station, or other less traditional menus are being requested because they have more diverse guests. There’s also less alcohol consumed and more non-alcoholic solutions, such as mocktails and non-alcoholic wines. A seedlip cocktail we’re offering is non-alcoholic and tastes more interesting than juice. It’s part of the trend to keep guests safe. Using Ubers and van transports is also more common, and valet parking is almost non-existent.”
What hasn’t changed during the pandemic years are the caterers, it seems. Groman and Hammond, as their companies flex to meet new demands, still maintain core principles and practices that have made their companies successful. While accepting and adjusting to COVID and economic realities, the longtime professionals have not dropped their passion for terrific food, well-executed entertainment and creating warm, welcoming environments extended to diverse guests. Hammond says she will miss access to great food and then finds comfort: “I know a few chefs who might pop in and cook something up in my kitchen now and then, so I’ll be ok.”