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Local caterers dreaming of a holiday splurge
by Jessica Garcia
Nov 21, 2008 | 1209 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
<a href=>Tribune/Debra Reid</a> - Rutherford's Catering chef Joel Johnson demonstrates a mushroom flambe for a catered gourmet meal.
Tribune/Debra Reid - Rutherford's Catering chef Joel Johnson demonstrates a mushroom flambe for a catered gourmet meal.
Joel Johnson says times are tough, but that won’t stop him from helping to fulfill one of man’s “most primal needs” – the need for good food.

Johnson, the executive chef of Rutherford’s Catering in Sparks, has been in the culinary business for 20 years and in the Sparks area for three years. He said he feels fortunate Rutherford’s has been staying afloat in spite of a significant decrease in demand for a caterer for hosting or entertaining, especially during the holiday season.

Three local caterers are marching on despite slower business this holiday season because there are still parties to put on and hungry mouths to feed — mouths that crave the taste of a juicy turkey on Thanksgiving. Whether in Sparks, Reno or Truckee, the fast-approaching Thanksgiving holiday is just one of many winter parties and gatherings expected to be put on for friends, family or business associates.

Johnson said the culinary industry has been hit pretty hard this holiday season.

“We have noticed a decline, basically the final two quarters of ’08,” Johnson said. “We’re finding a lot of corporate accounts and companies are really scaling back on their company parties and events that directly affect our business. Because we’re a corporate caterer, we’re not getting anywhere near the volume we had.”

Rutherford’s is down 30 percent from last year, according to Johnson, but they’re not completely down and out. The company has saved some extra “padding” to cushion itself from the blow of fewer corporate clients. Johnson said about 60 percent of its revenues come from companies that put on office parties while the other 40 percent comes from private parties and special occasions, such as weddings.

It’s still the busiest month of the year for businesses that prepare food and some hosting services. Jeannine Higgins, owner of Voila! Catering in Reno, said she’s noticed that her clients are slower to book this year than in previous holiday seasons.

“It’s kind of the nature of the business,” Higgins said. “We just have to make it happen. December is generally the busiest month of the year and we’re used to that. There are extra hours and long days before the holidays.”

Higgins said the trends of entertaining are changing and not just because of finances but because of different tastes among guests. Such changes are affecting how catering companies prepare their menus.

Higgins said cocktail parties are becoming the entertainment venue of choice.

“People want to have more people in their homes they can seat,” she said, which is more difficult to do with large holiday banquet spreads.

Also, when it comes to Thanksgiving or Christmas, many people still enjoy the tradition of preparing their own turkey or want to follow their own budget, Higgins said. But that’s the easy part, because then there’s the cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, sweet potato pie, yams, green bean casserole … the list goes on with the varying tastes among guests.

And who has time to do all that if the responsibility falls on one host?

Higgins said the pressure to host and entertain nowadays is becoming too great, which is why they’re in business.

Holly Verbeck of HeyChef! agrees. Verbeck and her husband, Grog, an accomplished chef from Manhattan, found their niche in Truckee, Calif. and do it all, from food preparation to entertainment in the privacy of their clients’ homes from San Francisco to Reno.

HeyChef! sends in chefs to manage all facets of the kitchen so the host can attend to their guests without worrying about taking out the trash or setting up the dishes, table or food.

“I think a service like this sells itself,” Verbeck said. “There are occasions that happen once in a lifetime and there are no other appropriate venues to celebrate than to use an avenue like this.”

While all three are experiencing some slow business, Rutherford’s, Voila and HeyChef! all have something else in common: they all sell by “taste of mouth,” as Verbeck said. The three companies have scaled back on their traditional advertising or have gone to alternative means, such as Internet advertising or fax or e-mail blasts, like what Johnson uses now. Of course, word of mouth never hurts.

“We’ve started a little bit of Internet marketing, which we normally don’t do,” Johnson said. “Normally, we’ve been A-OK with the telephone book.”

The 20-year chef also started a holiday package this year and, for $18 to $22 per person, a family can buy a slow-roasted turkey, ham or prime rib with all the “fixings,” including the popular rice pilaf, ginger cranberry sauce and pumpkin cheesecake.

Higgins said they don’t focus on the high-profile turkey because she’s found most of her clients prefer to use their own recipes but will provide an array of side dishes and the silverware or dishware.

“We’re trying to work with a menu that’s a little more cost-conscious,” she said. “A lot of our customers are repeat customers. They are looking for ways they can watch their costs but they’re realizing the service we provide for them in the end allows them to enjoy their guests and parties.”

Although some scaling back is occurring to help save money, they don’t want to completely diminish their holiday celebrations, Higgins said.

Verbeck said her company does prepare turkeys and finds her clientele loves the convenience of the service staff willing to shop for the groceries they want before the meal and washing dishes after the meal.

“It’s a great solution,” she said of her service, which caters just about anything from Sunday brunches to Friday night rehearsal dinners.

Even though it would seem catering is geared for the affluent, especially in these challenging financial times, Johnson said his industry appeals to special moments in life with many options that help people celebrate their special occasion.

“Catering is an over-the-top expenditure; it’s not bread and butter,” he said. “There are special life moments that people of all economic backgrounds pony up and do what they have to do.”
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