Sunday, June 24, 2018
Politics

Official RNC caterers initiate plans to feed thousands of delegates, media

TAMPA

For an ordinary catering job, Kim Bailey's biggest nightmare may be the mother of the bride. As one of the local caterers for the Republican National Convention, there are scarier things keeping him up at night.

For one, the Secret Service. Add to that the FDA, the Republican ethics committee and possibly the biggest party planners of all, the RNC Committee on Arrangements. And then there's the matter of the food. He would like it to taste good.

Of the more than 6,000 meals he will serve during the convention, from quick breakfasts to fancy sit-down dinners, most have to include vegetarian food, gluten-free options, sustainable and local efforts and other constraints that fall into the "food as politics" category.

Each of Bailey's 110 catering employees must undergo a Secret Service background check. And in this time of economic austerity, nobody wants to look like a big spender: For all his convention-related clients, there are budgetary considerations.

So why do it? Because the payoff is huge. Bailey estimates that the profits from his RNC contract will equal what Bailey's, his 125-seat Davis Islands restaurant, might bring in over a year and a half.

But first, Bailey and his fellow official RNC caterers — Fitlife Foods, Puff 'n Stuff, Catering by the Family, Good Food Catering and Spotlight Catering, as well as the in-house catering companies at the Tampa Bay Times Forum and Tampa Convention Center — have unprecedented challenges and logistical hurdles to overcome. They must balance their desire to make a high-profile splash at the convention this month with the regulations of a group attempting to take the White House.

Doing their homework

Bailey sits at a long empty table on a recent rainy Tuesday at his restaurant, peering up at huge sheets of white paper, each marked with a date from Aug. 23 to Aug. 30. Some of the pages are virtually blank; others have been filled in by hand. Responsible for the food in many suites at the Times Forum, Bailey's has contracted to service U.S. governors, PBS, congressional leaders and others, while simultaneously catering off-site parties for Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, the Wyoming delegation and a large communications company for which he has signed a nondisclosure agreement.

Not far away, Fitlife Foods owner David Osterweil is plotting his own strategy with an Excel spreadsheet, as his program and logistics manager work in concert with a number of individual contract managers. His company will serve 12,000 meals at the convention center and Times Forum, much of it for news groups like NBC and MSNBC.

"Once you're named an official RNC caterer," Osterweil explains, "then the groups that go into Times Forum and convention center contract with you directly. We'll be doing a lot of snacks and healthy grab-and-go."

To get the job done, Osterweil has rented a mobile kitchen to place at the convention center, the kind often employed at disaster recovery sites. He says he anticipates that the biggest logistical challenges will be getting in and out of the convention perimeter.

Bailey agrees but thinks that even within the venues, moving around will be tough. While right now it's possible to navigate the Times Forum within minutes, he anticipates it could take five times longer or more because of security checks and busy elevators during the convention.

"What happens when a suite needs another dozen sandwiches or more ice? It could take an hour to get them what they need," Bailey says.

a size advantage

Kenneth Heidt, general manager of Puff 'n Stuff Tampa, estimates that his company will feed 3,000 to 5,000 people a day, counting the Times Forum, convention center and off-site jobs. He says the suites at the Times Forum will be serviced primarily during the convention's evening hours, whereas breakfast, lunch and dinner will be provided for the media at the convention center.

Puff 'n Stuff's advantage is its large permanent staff, much of it based in Orlando, he says.

"We have a staff of 450. We can bring the whole Orlando operation over, and it's a quiet time in Orlando. We're fortunate because we have such a huge infrastructure with equipment and staffing, so we're in a good position to feed multiple groups at the same time. We've also put in a bid for the first-responders group, but that hasn't been decided. It is a huge contract and it will probably be divided up between those who put in bids."

Bailey says that although he is honored to have been chosen from an initial pool of 30 prospective caterers who auditioned at 14 tastings held from March 29 and May 2, he has declined more requests for events related to the convention.

"PBS chased us, and Gov. Scott's office chased us. We've had to turn down a lot. We just had to turn down Rep. Eric Cantor's office."

Many of the RNC event contacts, Bailey says, have been eager to have him source sustainable and local ingredients, including craft beers. And he has been surprised by some of the health-conscious and "green" requests from the groups.

"We have one group that wants all green packaging and compostables," Bailey says. "I've been researching biodegradable cutlery made of cornstarch."

Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293.

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