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Austin Catering Companies Are Stepping In to Feed the City

Struggling under COVID-19 safety measures, the city’s caterers pivoted to selling meals to the public in order to stay open

Dishes from El Camaron
Dishes from El Camaron
Mackenzie Kelley Smith

After the one-two hit of the novel coronavirus pandemic and the cancellation of South by Southwest (SXSW), Austin catering companies have decided to open up their for-hire services to the public in order to earn some revenue and help feed the city at the same time.

It hasn’t been easy in this socially distanced world where gatherings have been banned to flatten the COVID-19 curve. Caterers have lost the bulk of their income almost overnight, since none of these companies’ traditional revenue streams— weddings, corporate events, birthday parties, and the like— are still happening.

“We did zero business in March, when we were expecting between $400 to $500,000,” explained Leslie LaSorsa, the general manager of Crave Catering, which focuses on weddings and large corporate events. The company also lost events booked through June.

“We’re going to go broke,” LaSora answered when asked about these far-reaching cancellations. She let out an exhausted laugh: “It’s a very slim, and difficult time, and we’re literally taking it week by week.”

Caterers are typically hired well in advance to create, provide, and serve food for private and large-scale events, offering anything from six-course meals to massive buffets to sprawling grazing tables. Now, these companies have been faced with two choices: privoting to some sort of available service fast or closing temporarily during the unknown length of the pandemic.

“If we shut down, that’s a hard thing to come back from,” said LaSorsa. Big events are often planned at least a year in advance, and caterers can’t afford to miss out on securing that business.

“This won’t be over until there’s a vaccine,” LaSorsa said. “It’s not a fear, I’m just a realist.”

Thus, LaSorsa and her colleagues across the city have found themselves “flipping on a dime” to adjust to an unprecedented challenge. “Everything that you normally plan for a new business over a few months or even a year,” she said, “we’ve done that in a few days.”

Catering companies already have access to large quantities of produce and food, as well as commercial kitchens. Switching to selling a la carte dishes and meals made sense. Crave introduced meal packages for upcoming holidays like Cinco de Mayo and Mother’s Day, in addition to family-style meals through its newly launched curbside branch. It’s a mix of American and European-style dishes, like hearty casseroles, pot pies, and grilled whole chicken. Everything is available for curbside pickups and deliveries.

Though LaSorsa hopes the the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) will help cover the costs of labor and utilities, it won’t aid with the company’s groceries or other fixed costs. “We’re not making enough to cover that right now, and we’re going into our savings,” she said.

A take-and-bake item from Crave Catering
A take-and-bake item from Crave Catering
Crave Catering/Facebook

For La Pera, the Latin-tinged catering and events company, SXSW’s cancellation meant an immediate revenue loss of $150,000 in March. And the cancellations kept coming. “It is one of the scariest things I have ever been through as a small business owner,” said Beth DiBaggio, CEO and creative director of the company.

DiBaggio was actually just days away from signing a lease on the company’s first physical space. It was a commercial kitchen that would help expand operations, and perhaps even host small pop-ups, dinner parties, and cooking classes. That lease fell through, but she’s hoping to find another space in the future.

In order to stay open at this time, DiBaggio decided to do something new. She opened a take-and-bake taco delivery service, El Camaron. People can order Veracruzana-style tacos by-the-dozen, along with ceviche, guacamole, salsas, margarita mixes, and sides. It’s also selling holiday meals, curated grocery boxes with recipes, and grocery deliveries.

The original format of the El Camaron concept was supposed to be a food truck, but she decided to launch as pop-up delivery service for the time being. She hopes to open that truck or even a physical location whenever the pandemic is over.

For others, the effects of the pandemic have been too great. Both Dagar’s Catering and 512 Boutique Catering — two companies that focus on weddings and corporate/personal events — made the decision to furlough their teams.

“I have some of the most loyal employees out there, and it is important to me that I take care of them,” said Kathryn Albarado, owner of Dagar’s. “I know that sounds contradictory,” she continued, but that way, her staff would be able to file for unemployment. (Over 760,000 Texans have applied for unemployment insurance in the last month, more than the total number of applicants in 2019.)

Becky McMillian, CEO of 512 Boutique, agreed. She checks in with her furloughed employees about once a week. “They are comfortable and doing fine on unemployment,” she explained. Those checks are more than what the company would’ve been able to provide if it had stayed open, since its workload has been greatly reduced. “I know I made the right decision,” she added. (While 512 Boutique has completely shuttered for now, Dagar’s is offering limited grocery packages.)

LaSorsa sees a long recovery time for caterers, especially compared to restaurants and bars. “People are going to be pent up and they’ll want to go out,” she said. “But caterers are a totally different thing. People are going to be skittish about gathering in large groups.” She foresees smaller weddings, and reduced corporate catering contracts, as people re-adjust to life after the pandemic, whenever that is.

“As for the future, we have no idea,” DiBaggio said, “but does anyone right now?”

Read on to find out what other Austin catering companies are offering during the novel coronavirus pandemic, listed in alphabetical order.

  • Austin Catering: The catering company is selling packaged reheatable meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Entrees range from strawberry French toast strata to pecan-crusted trout with orange-thyme butter, plus there are appetizers and cheese plates for two. Everything is available for pickups and deliveries, including beer, wine, and spirits, available through its web store. (2700 West Anderson Lane, Suite 313, North Shoal Creek)
  • Catering With a Twist: The Round Rock company quickly launched a premade take-and-bake meal service. Twisted Provisions offers generous plates such as gumbo, pulled pork, Texas toast, and biscuits, in addition to house-made provisions (think bacon jam and jalapeno ranch, pizza, and cookie-decorating kits). Margaritas are available by the pitcher, as well as mimosa and bloody mary kits. Groceries, paper goods are currently in stock, with cleaning supplies to come. Everything is available for pickup and delivery. (602 McNeil Road, Suite 106, Round Rock)
  • Contigo Catering: In less than a day, the catering arm of Contigo’s evolved into Contigo Dispatch, which operates as a separate entity from the MLK restaurant. It was one of the first catering companies to offer delivery food services in the city, alongside a weekly meal subscription. Keep track of their rotating menus through its Instagram account or order meals, wine, beer, and grocery staples through its web store. Pickups and deliveries are available. (3709 Promontory Point Drive, Suite B201, Southeast Austin)
  • Crave Catering: The catering team has pivoted to offer take-and-bake family-style meals that run the gamut from healthy quinoa tabbouleh to decadent lobster mac and cheese. These, along with kids meals, beer, wine, and margaritas are all available for pickup, as well as pantry and grocery items too. Orders can be placed online. (14611 North Mopac Expressway, Suite 104, near Wells Branch)
  • Dagar’s Catering: The catering company is offering six grocery packages: deli meats, breakfast supplies, fresh produce, pasta dinner, snacks, and condiments. It’s available for pickup or delivery through its website. (834 Kramer Lane, North Austin)
  • La Pera: The catering company launched taco delivery service El Camaron to weather the storm. It offers delivery-only platters of Veracruzana-style tacos and the fixings, (including margarita mixes. It’s going to launch curated grocery deliveries soon. Orders can be placed online. (502 Thompson Lane, Far Southeast Austin)
  • Pink Avocado: The downtown catering company is selling Head to Sabine Street to pick up individual soups, salads, heat-and-eat meals, and desserts. The beer and wine selection is one of the most comprehensive around, with almost thirty options to choose from, including six packs of Texas beers. For an additional $10, people can donate meals to hospital workers. Everything is available for pickup and orders can be placed online. (401 Sabine Street, Suite B, Downtown)
  • Primizie Catering: The catering company originally began as a personal chef service. Now it’s returning to those roots by offering single-serving meals, alongside pizza kits, salad-and-sandwich combinations, and kid-friendly dishes. The company is also still offering health insurance to its furloughed staffers during this time. Weekly menus are found online, and and orders can be placed over the phone or through email. Deliveries are available by appointment only. (4601 Southwest Parkway, Suite 102, East Oak Hill)
  • Royal Fig: In addition to curbside pickup meals like smoked brisket, orange-rosemary roasted chicken, and braised boneless short ribs, the farm-to-table catering company is offering desserts, produce, and cleaning supplies. Delivery is available within Austin for orders of $50 and above, otherwise pickups are available at the kitchen. For an additional $9, people can send soup to health care workers. Orders can be placed online. (2100 West William Cannon Drive, Suite H, South Austin)
  • Word of Mouth: This downtown caterer has shifted to provide a weekly menu of family-style meals, grilled chicken, beef loin, sides, holiday menus, and specialty cakes (which are available for customized orders through the bakery). There are also have brunch packages available, which can include mimosas. Curbside pickup and delivery are available, orders can be placed through the phone or email. (5002 Burleson Road, Southeast Austin)