in college I worked for a restaurant that did catering. Out on a wedding job in the horse country of Batesville, Va., we were ready to go. The food looked gorgeous, the wine bottles were arrayed artfully, we stood spiffy in our black bow ties and cummerbunds. Then, as the first guest arrived, we realized. No corkscrew. Kicking up a plume of dust, one of us drove Andretti-style to the nearest neighbor 15 miles away to borrow a wine opener.
"Every job has something that takes your breath away — until you can fix it," says Rita Carlino, who has been catering in Tampa since she was 14, nearly 50 years ago.
Her worst catering blooper? One Thanksgiving she was asked to do the family holiday dinner for "someone very famous in the city of Tampa." It's the evening before, all the pies are prepped, the side dishes ready for oven time, and the client called saying, "Rita, where are you? You were supposed to be here 15 minutes ago."
Ah, Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving Eve. The customer's ultimatum: "Rita, I don't care if it's pizza, just get here." Going into overdrive, she sent a cook to the party with a cheese ball and crackers, then quickly made a deal with Publix to borrow two cooked turkeys, which she would replace with ones she cooked later that night. Everything else in the oven, it was all about triage.
Says Carlino wryly, "In this business, you just keep going and work through it. It always works out."
Ed Shamas, owner of Orange Blossom Catering, which has been in St. Petersburg for more than 50 years, has a similar litany of crises narrowly averted: The wedding cakes that have been dropped, waiters who have tumbled into the pool, fire alarms going off. But, he says, "Guests are usually oblivious to small mistakes. The hosts are the ones who realize that something isn't perfect."
So if perfection isn't a reasonable goal, how can a customer maximize potential success from a catered event?
"You need to make sure there's something for everyone," Carlino says. "We're seeing more people looking for lighter fare and vegetarian dishes. But even if we do vegetarian, we make sure it is hearty and has the substance to satisfy meat-eaters."
Says Shamas, "The most general rule, of course, is picking food that is apropos to the guests themselves, so that the sophistication of the food matches that of the guests."
The biggest mistake he sees clients making is underestimating the number of guests or how much they might eat. He urges clients not to schedule too much time before food is served (time spent drinking on an empty stomach has consequences), and to be careful about drinking and driving (a reputable bartender is worth his weight in gold, keeping an eye on heavy drinkers and verifying underage people aren't partaking).
For Carlino, one of the biggest pitfalls she sees clients fall into is expecting too many dishes. A buffet table with 10 or 15 items looks overly busy and stretches a caterer too much. She prefers to see more like seven dishes, with "anchor" items like ahi tuna, salmon and beef tenderloin (things most people eat), augmented by other dishes that are a little different: "Each item needs a reason for being there."
In choosing a caterer, the most important question to ask yourself is how does this caterer's style mesh with your own; how simpatico are you?
To this end, you need to have a rough idea of what your dream party would look like. Sit down or buffet? Heavy hors d'oeuvres? Do you want a cash bar or an open bar, premium beverages or something more budget-conscious? What do you want on the tables — flower centerpieces, linens, silverware, china, etc.? At the core of many of these variables is one word: Price.
"There is so much good information out there," Carlino says. "On the Web, in food magazines or on the Food Network — have some idea of what pleases you. And just like in every other relationship, the key is communication."
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293.