Caterers bring expertise as well as food to the table

It’s an ordinary Thursday in September, but inside the spacious offices of UBS Financial Services there is a party in full swing.
Formerly known as PaineWebber, the company is celebrating its reopening as a branch of the United Bank of Switzerland conglomerate. About 150 clients, employees and guests are leisurely milling around, drinks in hand, chatting and helping themselves from an elegantly laid-out buffet of hors d’oeuvres.
“ I wanted a really nice presentation for this event,” says branch office administrator Chere Lampis, who hired Fresh Horizons Creative Catering for the occasion. “I told them we have high net-worth clients and we wanted a menu that is sophisticated and looks good. They have accommodated us in every way. They came out here to look at the rooms so that the linen would match the surroundings and made sure that we had everything we needed.”
That last statement pretty much sums up the caterer’s job: to make sure that the client has everything she needs. And matching the linen is the least of it. While the UBS guests are savoring stuffed mushrooms and grilled veggies, a catering staff of six is busy putting last-minute touches on the food, serving the drinks, collecting the dirty dishes and replenishing the platters.To make it all look effortless, they had to haul along 200 pounds of ice and 1,000 pounds of food and equipment, including such things as covered tray stands and covered waste baskets.The crew started setting up at 3:30 p.m. and won’t be done until 10 p.m., two hours after the last guests have departed for home.

Tomorrow the same people will start working on a wedding scheduled for Saturday. Sometimes there are several events on the same day. It can be stressful, but parties are the caterers’ bread and butter, and they will go the extra mile to make sure that everybody has a good time. As the holiday season approaches, that extra mile may get pretty long. “It’s very different from the rest of the year. We may do four times the number of events that we normally do in a month” says Fresh Horizons’ owner Caryn Hasslocher. “The busiest are the weekends, of course, especially the first and second weekend in December. Everyone wants to have a party those two weekends. People need to book well ahead if that’s what they want.” The typical home Christmas party is a gathering of 100 to 250 people, with drinks and heavy hors d’oeuvres served buffet style. Buffets are also preferred for annual corporate events, especially if the guest list runs into the thousands. Sometimes clients pick a special theme, such as Christmas-Around-the-World, Christmas-in-Hawaii or an all-American fest, with menus and decorations to match. While the holidays have always been a season for socializing, caterers say that San Antonians love to entertain year-round, largely because of the nice weather. Spring is big party time, too, with Fiesta, graduations and weddings galore. But while the desire to get together stays the same, in the past few years customs and habits have been a-changing. “People are downsizing, looking for less expensive ways to entertain,” explains Hasslocher. “Open house type parties have become popular, and executives are also entertaining more in their homes No one wants to be seen as doing lavish corporate entertaining any more. Also, in the past, there were lots of cocktail parties where alcoholic beverages were freely served. There’s much less of that now. People are concerned about alcohol-related liability.”

Greg Kowalski of the RK Group agrees. “The economy is essentially driving our business,” he says. “People can’t allocate as many dollars for entertainment as they did in the past, but they still need to entertain, which means we have to be more creative and do what we can for them with the budget they have.”
Besides monetary considerations, there are changes in people’s tastes and habits as well, he says. Everyone is more aware of healthy eating, vegetarians are getting more assertive, special diets must be accommodated, and people have gotten used to more diverse foods. While years ago, a caterer could get away with steak, baked potato and green beans, that’s no longer the case. Today if beef is the main course, one must also provide a chicken or fish option and maybe even a Pritikin diet option. Another newer tradition people like is watching the food being prepared in front of them, says Don Strange of Don Strange of Texas, one of San Antonio’s oldest catering businesses. It adds excitement and action to the party. When his company first introduced omelets made to order, the response was so enthusiastic that it gave rise to the now popular food stations, where a variety of dishes are prepared continuously as the guests come and go.
The diversity of cuisines is, of course, what makes eating so much more fun these days. Like the rest of the population, caterers have learned to take advantage of regional culinary riches which abound in and around the Alamo City. “It’s a confluence of several traditions — Mexican, Southwestern, Gulf Coast, German and Alsatian. And then there are influences from the North that were brought here by the folks returning from the cattle drives. They all blend right here,” says Strange. “You can travel to the various parts of Texas and discover great dishes that people make on a particular ranch or in a little town, something that’s their own local specialty. We use them all in our cooking: wild turkey, pork, deer, Alsatian sausage, fresh vegetables from South Texas, the Mexican dishes . . . We have a lot of original recipes we invented here by incorporating all that we have learned.”

Although Texas cuisine is in demand, Strange and the other pros we talked to all say that few in their field can afford to specialize. Versatility and flexibility are essential. True, they all have menus from which customers can make their choices, but they will try to rise to the occasion, should you desire something different. These folks will not only provide food for your party, but often everything else, too, from flowers and linens to entertainment. And they know the best places in town for frolicking and celebration. Depending on your style and type of event, you can choose to have your bash at the San Antonio Museum of Art, La Villita Assembly Hall, the San Antonio Garden Center, the Far West Rodeo, the Empire Theater and many other pretty places across the city. For smaller events there is the historic Cos House in La Villita and for a home ambiance with a 19th-century atmosphere you can pick the Koehler House on Ashby. Naturally, they will also set it up for you in your own offices, home or church. For those who are willing to go a little farther, there are several ranch properties that are available for private parties, such as Pedrotti’s, Rio Cibolo and the Don Strange Range near Welfare, where you can mingle with docile longhorns, enjoy hay rides, fish, and, of course, eat.

It Started with HemisFair
Catering has become such a competitive industry – the local chapter of the National Association of Catering Executives has 60 members — that it’s hard to imagine that only a few decades ago there were barely a few family businesses serving the entire city. Kowalski, who learned the business at his mother’s knee back when his mom, Rosemary Kowalski, did all the deliveries herself, remembers how things were and how they started changing. “The big change for our industry was HemisFair in 1968,” he says. “So many people from all over the world came to San Antonio, and so much had to be done for them, that we all learned a great deal at that time. Catering by Rosemary was in charge of at least 100 events at the fair. Tourism increased after that, more hotels were built, and the Convention Center was built soon after, and with that even more people came. Catering downtown for conventions and groups became a big part of our company’s business.” Other developments that had an impact on both demand and customers’ expectations were the growth of the South Texas Medical Center and the oil rebound of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. In the last decade, the numbers of caterers have again multiplied significantly. Hotels have joined the so-called off-site – or off-premises – business, and fancy grocery stores such as H-E-B’s Central Market have thrown their considerable resources into the game as well. It would seem a natural move for hotels, but nobody here thought of it until about 1990, when a guest staying at the Plaza Hotel asked food services manager Priscilla Kent if she could cater an event for his group at the Institute of Texan Cultures.

“We were stunned,” recalls Kent, now in charge of Premier Catering at the Adam’s Mark Hotel. “We closed ourselves in a room for eight hours to figure out how to do it, and it took us days to plan it. But afterwards, (chef) Mike Bomberg, the general manager, and I said, ‘Why shouldn’t we do it?’ and we simply went into the business.” Today, Premier Catering accounts for 30 percent of Adam’s Mark output, with a client list that includes local charities, companies, couples getting married and groups staying at the hotel that, like that first customer, want to enjoy other San Antonio environments at least once during their stay.
Central Market is a potentially formidable competitor as well, with food, wine and floral departments, all sitting under one roof, and a staff of 65 toiling in the store’s downstairs kitchens. According to food service director Bill Johnson, what the store brings to the table includes 600 varieties of produce, 600 types of cheese, 500 different deli meats and 100 to 150 seafood items No wonder that catering manager Mark Bentsen can boast that adaptability is their true specialty. Yet, there seems to be room left for an innovative, small business such as Cuisine of Note. Started in May by symphony musicians Warren Johnson and Jean Robinson, the outfit offers haute cuisine prepared in the client’s home and accompanied by haute music. For those who are seeking an intimate, deluxe evening, this may be the ultimate catered indulgence.

Memorable Parties
Like Holiday Inn, caterers believe that the best surprise is no surprise, but when you are in the party business the unexpected happens. Virtually every longtime pro has interesting stories to tell. At Don Strange of Texas, for instance, they still remember the day the elder George Bush stopped his motorcade to thank them for a great meal. Then a candidate for the presidency, Bush had made a brief fund-raising stop in San Antonio, but he liked the food so much he took the time to write Strange a letter promising to have him cater in the White House if, he, Bush, got elected. And he kept his word. In 1990, the Alamo City company loaded up two semis with foods and equipment to travel to Washington, D.C., where it regaled the diplomatic corps and congressional leaders with sumptuous Texas fare. “The president liked the gorditas the best. After the party was over, he sent a butler to collect all the leftover gorditas,” says Strange, still chuckling at the memory. For Kowalski and his mother, the most exciting moment came when they were asked to provide food for the pope and his personal guests. The meals were sent up to him at the Assumption Seminary, where he was staying during his brief San Antonio visit. On the second day of his stay, just before leaving the residence to preach to thousands in northwest Bexar County, John Paul II made a detour to the kitchen. “I heard that some Polish people have prepared our food,” he said. Kowalski was so overwhelmed, he managed only to kiss the pontiff’s ring. Compared to that, serving Lady Bird Johnson and her daughter Lucie – which Catering by Rosemary does regularly – is, well, more ordinary.

But Arturo Cerna of El Jarro de Arturo Mexican Restaurant faced probably the hardest challenge. Although he had cooked for many a glittering event and had his handiwork featured in the movie “All the Pretty Horses,” he was a bit nervous the day he had to cater the wedding of Andrew Weissman, the owner/chef of Le Reve Restaurant. “Talk about intimidation! Not only was the groom one of the best known chefs in Texas, but all the big chefs in town were there and also the groom’s mother-in-law, who is en event planner,” says Cerna, who passed this test with flying colors. “The bride was from Costa Rica, and she had her ideas of what she wanted, kind of upscale Latin food. I had to do some research.” Not all surprises are pleasant, though. One constant worry is the weather. Brides and their mothers get upset when the pros tell them that the wedding will have to be moved indoors. For many people a wedding is the only catered event they will have in their whole lifetime, and they may have their hearts set on an outdoor reception. “But we can’t jeopardize the quality of the food,” says Fresh Horizons’ director of operations Kevin Passmore. Another frequent problem is caused by folks who do not answer invitations in a timely fashion. Too often, hosts don’t know how many people will show up, which makes planning difficult. Excessively demanding clients and just plain accidents can also cause headaches. Especially if you are catering for the big boss. Central Market’s event coordinators Adria Hernandez and Gabriel Lira remember the time when they heard a big thump inside the truck as they were driving to the home of an H-E-B VP to set up for a party. When they looked, they found all the fancy foods they were carrying on the floor “in one big glob.”

And then, there are those bizarre situations that are so unique they stand out by themselves. Passmore once catered for a gathering of visitors at a local hotel which got out of hand. “They started breaking our glasses and dumping our liquor. They were so rowdy that we ended up getting a police escort out of there,” he says. Not something he wants to face again. The most colorful story, however, comes from Don Strange, who was asked to cater a bash in the Davis Mountains hosted by a wealthy California environmentalist. The woman had bought vast tracts of West Texas land in order to preserve it, and she wanted to have a celebration right there in the hills. The trouble was, there was neither running water nor electricity anywhere around.

“It was a logistical challenge. Everything had to be hauled up to 5,000 feet, including a generator and restrooms,” says Strange. “And just as we thought we had everything under control and the food was laid out, 1,000 bumblebees descended upon us. You can’t be mean to bumblebees, they make honey. So, we set out dishes of sweet stuff to attract them, but it didn’t work all that well. Eventually, people just got used to the bees. Fortunately, no one was stung,” Talk about the unexpected! We assume that particular hostess appreciated the exceptional effort. For at the end of the day, it is the client’s smiles and gratitude that make the caterer’s day. “What makes it all worthwhile,” says Cerna, “is when they write a note and say ‘thank you’”

By Jasmina Wellinghoff