Catering Industry, Left Reeling After 2020, Finds Itself Still Stuck In Limbo

A single catered event at a Hamptons home can involve a dozen companies and hundreds of employees and generate thousands, or millions, of dollars in revenue for the local economy.

While there has been a much attention given to the trials the restaurant industry has gone through during the coronavirus pandemic, the owners of businesses that put on the hundreds of catered events in the Hamptons each summer say their industry has been hit even harder.

And while restaurants and large commercial venues are starting to see some relief from capacity limitations as the state has eased restrictions on gatherings, lingering restrictions on private events is threatening a second-straight season that many business owners say they wouldn’t be able to survive.

“If you are having a wedding in the backyard of a 5-acre estate, you can only have 25 people, but you can have 500 people at the baseball field next door,” John Kowalenko, the owner of Art of Eating catering company in Bridgehampton, said of the current state rules. “Splish Splash is going to be open, but you can’t have a clambake with a few dozen people on a beach.”

As the winter holiday surge in COVID-19 cases has eased, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive orders have allowed special event “venues” to welcome up to 150 people for events, as long as they can show they’ve tested negative for the virus. But the cap on private events has remained at no more than 25.

Caterers say that they understand the reasoning, but insist that the state is failing to fully understand the extent to which catered events are like those held at commercial venues.

“They restricted private parties to 25 people because they didn’t want college keggers or someone’s graduation party or family reunion turning into 100 people in a house and nobody’s social distancing, which made sense,” said Steve Clarke, owner of Sperry Tents in Water Mill. “But what the state hasn’t realized is that backyard catering events are managed just as much as an event at a venue. There is permitting and code enforcement and the caterer has to follow all the health department rules. Basically, we’re turning a backyard into a temporary venue. And, often, we’re safer than an event at a venue because we’re essentially outdoors with two sides of the tent up and 25-foot ceilings.”

Mr. Sperry and Mr. Kowaleko also noted that the state may not be realizing the extent to which the catering industry permeates the local economy — and pours tax revenues into state coffers.

The catering industry in a typical Hamptons summer would employ thousands of people, generate tens of millions in revenues and supports a network of businesses far beyond the folks a party guest might see opening clams or topping off champaign glasses.

“When I put up a tent, it’s not just me, we’re usually coordinating with a dozen other vendors,” Mr. Clarke said.

Tent companies, rental companies that supply linens and dish ware, flower arrangers, lighting and sound system technicians, portable generators, photographers, portable bathroom units — right down to the delivery of firewood for beach parties, the list of businesses is sprawling for which the dollars spent when someone decides to throw a graduation party, wedding or fundraiser trickles down to.

Unlike the restaurant business, which managed to survive (and, in some cases, thrive) through last summer on expanded outdoor seating and mountains of take-out orders, the demand for catering companies’ services was almost entirely erased in 2020. With large benefits canceled, weddings either postponed or slashed from 100 people or more down to just a handful, clambakes on public beaches largely foregone, fewer house parties for generally smaller numbers of guests — with some notable exceptions, like fundraisers for President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign — most catering companies reported being down at least 60 to 70 percent from the prior year, and some said they were off 90 percent. A second summer even close to that would be financially devastating.

“We’re having a little bit of an existential crisis in this industry” said Christina DiSanti, whose family runs Dreesen’s Catering in East Hampton. “The state has not raised the residential gathering to more than 25 people for outdoors. We’re still not allowed to make applications for beach events in East Hampton even though we can in Southampton, so we’re not booking those. It’s getting late and we’re looking at another lost summer and people are kind of starting to panic.”

Millions of vaccinations, the return of outdoor dining and pent up yearn for “going out” has many in the restaurant business expecting that 2021 will be a robust summer. But someone who is going to be able to safely go out to dinner in May needs not make any previous arrangements to do so. Getting the ball rolling on a major gathering like a wedding requires extensive advance planning, from permits to reservations of the myriad logistical needs, and with each passing week, caterers say, more party throwers are choosing to cancel events.

“Some of the May and June weddings are already canceling,” Ms. DeSantis said.

A coalition of catering companies took their concerns to state Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and the East End Supervisors and Mayor’s Association, which have appealed to the governor’s office for new guidance. Mr. Thiele said he has arranged a conference call with representatives of the industry and the governor’s office on Wednesday.

“I think the executive order right now is the definition of arbitrary because it doesn’t take into account anything like the size of the property,” Mr. Thiele said. “What they are asking for is a rational approach, and I hope the governor responds to it.”

Mr. Kowalenko has pledged that a new direction is forthcoming, but has offered no hints as to when or to what extent restrictions will be lifted. And while everyone is fairly confident that gatherings will be safe in the months to come, caterers need the rules to change now so that they can start their intricate choreography to make sure parties months from now can go off without a hitch.

Mr. Clarke said that if the rational fairness of changing the rule doesn’t convince the governor, maybe the financial impact on the state’s coffers will. With 30 tented events planned for May and June alone, he noted that the estimated budgets for just those events would generate $500,000 in sales tax revenue.

As the season looms, caterers said their employees and their customers are growing nervous about the coming season. Office staff and laborers who have been brought back onto payrolls in anticipation of things getting back to normal are meeting uncertainty with new doubts about their plans. Those trying to plan for their own celebrations — many being milestone events postponed from a year ago — are left wringing their hands over whether they’ll be left in limbo again.

“You have the financial cost, but there’s also the emotional cost for these people who are trying to schedule their weddings,” Mr. Clarke said. “They’re wrecked right now.”