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Napa Valley caterers have been clobbered by COVID restrictions
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Napa Valley caterers have been clobbered by COVID restrictions

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Oak Avenue Catering art

Executive Chef Shannon and Patissiere Christina Kelly, photographed over the summer, pose with prepared food for the Fourth of July. The husband and wife pair and their staff send out emails with menus on certain Mondays, asking for reservations for the food they are preparing for their Sunday dinners. Still, the pivot has not been enough to make up for the losses the company has sustained, according to General Manager Angela Thompson.

In the summer, determined to face the challenge ahead of them head on, staff at Tre Posti wrote a standard operating procedure, describing in great detail how they would orchestrate a COVID-friendly event.

They never got to use it.

“We went all the way from how flowers get delivered, to what the reception looks like, to what the bar looks like – the whole thing,” Chef Nash Cognetti said. “(But) the state just came out and said you can’t do it.”

In the weeks before the Thanksgiving holiday, the California Department of Public Health released guidance allowing gatherings of three households or less. Less than a month afterward, though, the state reverted, implementing a new stay at home order similar to the one Gov. Gavin Newsom had issued in March. The current order prohibits gatherings of any kind.

“The issue is that people are still doing events. They’re still doing gatherings. They’re just doing it privately,” Cognetti said. Sonoma County has been host to something like two dozen under-the-radar weddings since the pandemic began, the San Francisco Chronicle reported in December.

Cognetti believes private events and multi-household gatherings — which public health officials in Napa and across California have said are driving the state’s most recent case spike — are more dangerous than ones coordinated by professionals.

Regulations around events — the bread and butter of Napa Valley caterers — have given way to sharp declines in business for most. Elaine Bell, who together with her husband John Merritt owns an eponymous catering company in Napa, said revenue is down something like 95% for the year.

“We usually have a really huge December, so that hit us really hard,” Bell said, citing repeat “big holiday clients” who typically employ her services at parties with guest lists that sometimes run as many as 3,000 people. Her company also secured a six-week contract to serve meals to AT&T crews repairing infrastructure after the season’s wildfires.

Still, they’ve been forced to make significant staff reductions, as have most businesses in the regional hospitality industry, and the downturn in business has been “flat out discouraging at times,” according to Merritt, who voiced frustration with the “draconian” nature of California’s shutdowns.

“We have a friend that has a big catering business in Ohio, and they can do events there up to 300 people so long as they have the space and obey the rules … like wearing masks,” Merritt said. “They don’t seem to be having any big problems.”

There have been media reports of several weddings in Ohio confirmed to be super-spreader events. One pair of Cincinnati newlyweds shared their story with a local television station after nearly 40% of their guest list tested positive for the virus and two elderly attendees were hospitalized with severe symptoms.

“The ones that we have seen survive are the ones that have effectively pivoted in trying to accommodate smaller group orders and things like that,” he said. “It’s still probably going to be several months before we start to see large group gatherings or corporate-type engagements, so I think they need to continue to prepare for some difficult months ahead.”

Even caterers that already focused on dropping off food for business or social gatherings — rather than providing full service at events — have suffered, according to Melissa Wilson, principal at research firm Technomic. In the spring, 49% of such businesses had declines in sales, with 31% of those that had experienced a decrease seeing a dropoff of more than 75%, according to Technomic.

Christine McEnery’s Monterey Peninsula-based catering business made the pivot to delivering prepared meals in an attempt to survive the lockdowns. But that endeavor has been far less profitable, she said, because she typically caters to high-income clientele in the Monterey and Carmel area who prefer a full-service feast.

“One of the bigger financial challenges in catering is, when you offer a full service, from bartenders to servers to people cleaning up, you are able to charge way more and make more profit than you ever can dream of,” she said. “When you’re dropping things off in Tupperware, there’s a huge change in the customer’s perception of value.”

“I would not be happy doing this kind of service forever because you’re working just as hard and you’re making half as much money,” she added.

Two months into California’s first lockdown, St. Helena’s Oak Avenue Catering began offering Sunday dinners to go, according to General Manager Angela Thompson. Owners Shannon and Christina Kelly have been grateful for support from the community, Thompson said, though like McEnery, the pivot to meals has not been as profitable as would be regular business.

Oak Avenue was also working with several area wineries to provide individually packaged cheese plates, Thompson said, though that ended once wineries closed again in mid-December.

“It’s been a huge hit for us,” she added. “We’re not a restaurant, so we’re not open every single day for takeout, and we don’t have the same clientele that would see us as a place to come every day.”

The company’s revenue is down about 70% over last year, according to Thompson.

Complicating things further for caterers, according to Bell, is the widespread uncertainty about exactly when events bearing some semblance of normal will be allowed to resume. 2021 is set to be an extremely busy year for her company, she said; a number of her clientele simply pushed their events a year forward, and she continues to receive interest from new customers.

“We’re hoping April or May,” Merritt said when asked when the pair were forecasting the green light. The pair have “a lot booked” for April already, Bell added.

James Bikales of CalMatters contributed to this report.

WATCH NOW: HOW TO HOST A VIRTUAL HOLIDAY PARTY

How to Host a Virtual Holiday Party . As COVID-19 cases continue to rise across the world, it’s no surprise that the holiday season will have to look a lot different this year. . If you plan to follow government guidelines and stay safe, here are five tips for hosting a virtual holiday party. 1. Use it as an opportunity to get creative. Families have likely logged hundreds of hours on video calls so far, so think of a virtual holiday as an opportunity to mix it up. . Work with your family members to organize an elaborate and fun online activity. 2. Center your celebration around food and wine. Eating dinner together is an obvious opportunity to bring friends and family closer. . If you want to keep it short, share one aspect of a meal together, such as dessert or a toast. 3. Incorporate entertainment into your party. Keep everyone excited and engaged by planning some form of entertainment. Whether it be your cousin showing off their musical talent or your aunt being put in charge of creating a Spotify playlist, entertainment adds to any celebration. . 4. Play virtual games together. There are plenty of virtual gaming options out there, whether it be through a phone app or a website. . You can even create your own trivia contest or play a game of charades. . 5. Allow yourselves some free time to just talk. No matter how structured you’d like your virtual holiday to be, it’s a good idea to allow some open time. Guests can use the unstructured time to mingle and interact however they’d like.

PHOTOS: CHECK OUT THE SNACK STATION THIS NAPA FAMILY MADE FOR DELIVERY DRIVERS AND ESSENTIAL WORKERS

THE YEAR IN CARTOONS, LISA BENSON

James Bikales is a reporter for CalMatters, a nonpartisan, non-profit news organization covering the major state issues in California.

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