Thursday, November 20, 2014

Reminiscences of Max & Me Catering. Part Three.

The previous two parts of my story are very good prep for this episode, either read them now, or after you read this post. Or don't. This post will mostly cover planning our participation in catering over 25,000 meals in the two week period before, during and after the Republican National Convention of 2000 that took place in Philadelphia, based at The First Union Center.
Headquarters of the Union Pacific Railroad. Their history is great stuff.

The first client we had for the RNC was the Union Pacific Railroad and by mid May or so most of the menus and pricing had been settled on and contracted. Max had actually been flown out to Omaha to UP headquarters to see the antique rail cars we would be serving on and meet many of the folks we would be interacting with ahead of time.

The Electric Factory. Republicans once stampeded here.

I'm not sure of the exact date, but our second client for the RNC came to us through our Electric Factory connection. Rob Jennings, who was the defacto "hip" event planner for younger Republicans, was planning two events at the Factory. One event was with Lynyrd Skynrd as the headliner, the other featured Blues Traveler. The special event person for the Factory, Drew Pompilio, referred Rob to Max & Me for his catering needs and I was nominated to be the client contact and planner. We developed what Rob referred to as a "late night stoner" menu, with a VIP area for both. I believe both events were for about 1500 people each, and since they both started after the convention sessions (11pm), it wasn't yet becoming a situation where we had to assess whether we could pull it off or not, and since we were the in-house caterer for the Factory, we had to take the business anyway.
Veterans Stadium, The Spectrum and First Union Center all in a row, top to bottom.
Just to the right of the FUC is a huge parking lot where we would be set up for the RNC.

All the Union Pacific work was breakfast, lunch and pre-session, which would be over by 7pm. This is fairly constant when you cater for the political conventions. Unlike corporate and association conventions which almost always take place during business hours with parties at night, the RNCs and DNCs hold their sessions during prime time (TV's) and the parties are pre and post those time frames. From catering management standpoint it becomes very interesting to see how many guests you actually get for your events as there are dozens of others all over town, happening at the same time, vying for the same political heavyweights that your party is promoting. We found that consumption is way below what a typical party would have with the same guest count as many are hitting 5 to 10 events and may only have a bite and a quick drink at each stop. Kind of getting ahead of myself here as I'm still covering the planning stages of the RNC for Max & Me.
Tom and Dani Delay. They were great to work with, very professional.

The next client for the RNC came through Rob Jennings. He liked working with us and felt our menus and pricing were fair, so he referred to us one of his main clients, a man by the name of Tom Delay. Yes, that Tom Delay. The event planner for House Majority Leader Delay was his daughter Dani. She had been planning to use Ridgewells, the largest caterer in DC for all their events, but the pricing was astronomical (or so I heard). The next step was for me to give Dani menu proposals for 5 different events, the opening night party for the Texas Delegation to be held at The Curtis Center and 4 nights in a row at a special tent that would be erected in the same lot that the Union Pacific trains would be parked adjacent to the First Union Center, where Lincoln Financial Field now stands. So now we come to the point where we (Max, Jon and myself) would start evaluating whether we could handle all this business. A major factor that convinced us to proceed was that the Delay events were in the same location as the Union Pacific events and that we could use the same tent and equipment for all jobs. Also, since deliveries would be an issue and heavily influenced by last minute Secret Service dictates, we had no extra stops to add by taking on this client. In addition, the money was really good. The Texas delegation event was for over 1000 guests and each of the 4 nights at the convention were around 700 guests.
FU Center as the tents were going up for the RNC 2000, our crew feeding area was in a
small tent directly below the Comcast sign on the building. This picture was taken
close to where our encampent was. 
The next client(s) that we decided to take on, came via Jon and his stellar reputation for crew catering and especially feeding the members of IATSE, the stage worker's union. The clients were the producer of the Convention show itself, who's name escapes me, my remaining files, and my Google search; and the other client was Comcast, who was producing the TV feed of the event. This catering contract actually started two weeks before the Convention and lasted until one week after the Convention. It actually gave us a leg up on starting for the huge days of catering that were to come as we got to known the access points early and we were able to befriend the gatekeepers and all the many security folks from Secret Service to Capitol Police to local law enforcement and private security. The layout of our encampment for servicing the Union Pacific Trains and the Tom DeLay tent and train was right next to the main entry point for access to the First Union Center that not only was where all attendees had to pass security, but was also where our fleet of golf carts and our 'Gator" would have to pass dozens of times a day to service the crew feeding. Pre-convention most of the meals where served inside the FU Center, but as time got closer to opening and the meal numbers grew to 200+ for breakfast, lunch, dinner and late night meal, the powers that were, decided to put up a crew feeding tent on the walkway on the north side of the building, which made our job much easier.
One of the Union Pacific Trains on site. Shows proximity to FU Center

There actually was one more client that we bid on a number of events for but only ended up getting one, which was the state of Utah's boat party in the Sunday night opening 50 state boat regatta on the Delaware river. So, the stage was set, we had done an exhaustive job in advancing the entire schedule of events. We planned to utilize our kitchens in Gardenville, at the E-Centre in Camden and our kitchen tent on-site to prep and finish the food. We rented two large trailers to park on-site, one refrigerated, one for dry storage. The biggest task was to round up enough staff to work all the events and we spent the prior two months getting commitments from folks who worked for other catering companies and restaurants that were slow that time of year. One advantage of catering the largest political events are that the conventions (August) and the inaugurals (January) are at slow times for the hospitality industry in many areas and thus part time/seasonal staff availability is highest. Many of the folks we hired for RNC would go on to be key employees in the years to come.
Two of our top chefs that started with us that summer. Bruce Migden and
Sunny Sampson. Bruce still works with us sometimes. Where are you Sunny?

A final phone call I received before the Convention, I believe it was on the Friday, came from a consultant to the Bush Campaign. He had been given our information by the folks at Union Pacific Railroad. Their experience with us so far had led them to recommend us for the most high profile important job of the whole Convention time frame. They wanted us to cater high end meals and bar service for the Campaign Train which would be leaving from Pittsburgh on Friday, the day after the Convention ended and traveling through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and ending up in St. Louis Missouri on Sunday. We would have to bid on 4 meals over 3 days and figure out how to get everything on the train before leaving Pittsburg. So in the midst of all of our last minute preparations, now we had to first decide if we could do it, then decide if we wanted to do it, then bid on it and figure out how the hell to do it! As Max, Jon and I discussed this, the viewpoint changed from "how can we do this?" to "how can we NOT do this?" Wow, this would be the real big time, on a national stage...

Thanks for reading. I'll try and get the next post done real soon.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Reminiscences of Max & Me Catering. Part Two.

In Part One I started the story with what led up to my employment at Max & Me Catering. This post will start with my first day and lead up to about the beginning of the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 2000. 

Some of you have asked why I am doing this, and there are a number of reasons. One is that when I started blogging a few years back I had always planned to tell the story of the best job I have ever had, my years as GM then partner at Max & Me Catering. I think many of the stories over those years are very interesting and make a good read, many of you have told me that it is in fact nice to read. I also plan on writing at least one book some day, so this is practice, and also maybe advance work that I can cut and paste later into a manuscript. Another reason is that for those of you in the catering business these stories can also be educational, with many things you can learn both to do and not to do. Finally, I love history, and this stuff is history. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. 

Saint Patrick's Day 2000. Instead of heading southeast to Manayunk and Arroyo Grille, I head northeast to Carversville and the home office for Max & Me Catering. We had not yet leased office space next to the kitchen and warehouse in Gardenville, so there were four desks in a converted bedroom at Max's house in Carversville. A small rectangular room, if all of us were there at one time you would hit someone else if you pushed your chair back too far. The noise level when all of us were on the phone could get ridiculous, luckily more than two at a time in the office was rare.
Driving to Bucks County every day instead of Manayunk was a nice change of scenery

As a signing bonus, Jon & Max purchased me a laptop (my first) a few months prior, and I already had many documents and spreadsheets pertaining to the business as I started that day. Before I began on that Monday, I had focused on digesting their financial statements which were virtually non-existent; and on developing the proposals for Union Pacific Railroad for the upcoming Republican National Convention.Max & Jon had already won the business for a full week of catering for UP in a competitive tasting and exhaustive company examination. They had gone up against two of the top catering firms in the area and won. Max & Me was brought into consideration by PGI, who at the time was one of the dominant Destination Management Companies (DMCs) in Philly. Union Pacific was going to hire PGI to run their programming but in the end they used many of PGI's connections and vendors but did all the events without a DMC. What Union Pacific did was bring in antique train cars from their headquarters in Omaha, following rail lines the whole way until they would end up in front of the then First Union Center where they would reside for the whole convention. We would be serving 3 meals a day, often to more than one group at a time in these old time railroad cars. To save money, UP wanted essentially the same menu for each meal every day, so one breakfast menu, one lunch menu and one dinner menu. This was okay as each party was an entirely different group of folks so there was no worry as to feeding the same group the same meal.
Union Pacific Railroad was heading for Philly, with a date for our destiny
Another of my tasks as I started my new catering career was to write the proposal for us to get the catering contract at the then Blockbuster Sony Entertainment Center in Camden NJ. Brother Jon had been busting his ass and was getting more and more of the backstage catering jobs from Electric Factory Concerts over the preceding 4 years. However, the prize jewel he wanted was the "E Center" as they had many of the biggest acts compressed over the summer season. In addition to the backstage catering, we got to do the VIP catering for sponsor parties in the two large tents that were in place for the concert season. We also would get the special event business when they would rent the building for a private event. We weren't bidding against anyone else, but we had to define what we would do at the Center from F&B standards to sanitation to sponsorship commitment. We also had to define pricing for backstage catering. Another nice aspect of the contract at this amphitheater was that we would have our own kitchen on site. This became a big part of the expansion of our catering business in the Philadelphia area.
A Jimmy Buffet VIP party on the Ben side. Tents were Ben side or Walt side, depending on which bridge they viewed.
We won the E-Center bid and by mid-May we were gearing up for a very busy summer in Camden. Jon's function as the operations guy was to outfit the kitchen with equipment and inventory. Jon also by that time was already acknowledged as one of the top backstage catering managers in the business. Acts actually looked forward to coming to Philly and eating our food and enjoying the services we provided. This was Jon's world and we followed his lead. He would "advance" the show with someone from the tour and the promoter getting menus and pricing okay'd as well as dealing with the ever popular rider. As an army travels on it's stomach, catering is a very important component in the traveling tour world, and you need to start the day strong to get off on the right foot. This entails having a hot breakfast ready as early as 6am, which means staff has to arrive one to two hours in advance of that. It's ultra important for Jon to have reliable people for the am shift or else he ends up doing all the work himself, as it's almost impossible to request back up at six in the morning, afternoon and nights are not as hard to call in replacements. Jon recruited and trained a great crew of young kids, mostly from Bucks County to be his team. A few have gone on to great success in the rock and roll concert business. A few others still work with Jon in his latest venture, Fuge Catering.
Looking down on the E-Centre, now the Susquehanna Bank Center, and the Camden Waterfront
Below is my actual staffing projection schedule for the E-Centre for the month of June 2000.

E-Centre Schedule
June 2000
Friday 2   Joni Mitchell Backstage only 2 Servers 1 Bus

Saturday 3 WXTU Backstage only, 4 Servers 1 Bus

Sunday 4   Q102 Backstage only, 2 Servers 1 Bus
Tuesday 6   Buffet Rehearsal  Backstage only

Thursday 8    Jimmy Buffet   Backstage + 2 Parties

Coke 130 BF Tent; Burger Grill and Stations 2 Chefs; 3-4 Servers

Seagrams 200 WW Tent; Burger Grill, Passed Hds, “Key West in Camden”,3 Chefs; Liz + 10 Servers

Saturday 10   Jimmy Buffet      Backstage + 2-3 Parties                                                                                                          

Coke 130 BF Tent Burger Grill and Stations 2 Chefs; 3-4 Servers                                           Bud  230 WW Tent Burger Grill and BBQ 2-3 Chefs; Liz + 7 Servers

Other 50 see Stacy

Friday 16   Kiss  Backstage only    

Saturday 17   WJJZ Jazzfest     Backstage + VIP Party
WJJZ 250-300 Blackbox Passed HDs; Stations; Hawaiian Theme 2 Chefs, 2 Captains, 8 Servers

Sunday 18  Cure  Backstage only

Friday 23  Opsail Dinner Party 170; RCA Pier for WWCC 3 Chefs, 2 Captains, 6 Servers, 2 Bartenders

Saturday 24   Sting   Backstage + 4 Parties
Compaq 30 Green Room Very High End 2-3 Servers
Wolf, Block, etc. 40 on BF Second Stage Nice Stations,1 Chef, 1 Captain, 2 Servers
Horizon Blue Cross 150 WW Tent, Menu and Staff TBD
American Airlines 40 BF Tent Menu and Staff  TBD

Wednesday 28 Y-100 Fezztival   Backstage + VIP Party
Y-100 500+ Blackbox and WW Tent 3 Chefs, 2 Captains, 8 Servers

The shows where we did backstage only were nice events and were profitable for us, but when we had VIP parties at the same time, the profitability increased dramatically. The Jimmy Buffet concerts every year where always the best and we would be bummed the years he only played one date. The radio shows were also excellent for us, and as you can see, this first year we only did the VIP parties for 2 of the 4 radio shows. Since we took over the catering at the E-Centre sometime in May, WXTU and Q-102 had already made their deals and contracted for catering at their shows. We would get to work with both stations the following year.
Just a few of the artists we served the summer of 2000

While Jon did the backstage, the VIP parties where more my responsibility. I would meet with the clients, write the proposals and oversee the parties. I would also recruit staff, mostly from my restaurant connections in Philly. The client connections I made that summer, kicked off my entry into corporate catering sales in Philly. In addition to doing the parties, we had our own VIP box, close to the stage with six tickets for every show. To me, these were gold, and I could entertain potential clients, and then wine and dine them in the Black Box area where we fed VIPs and sponsors attending the show on their own, rather than as a group party in one of the tents.

Watching Tiger Woods win the US Open with Kenny G was a highlight. Not because I'm a Kenny G fan, but he is a really nice guy and an excellent golfer, and golf analyst.

The RNC planning and E-Center work probably took up 80% of my time the first four months of my new job. The rest of the time was spent booking some smaller parties in Bucks, working events, and helping change over to a new book keeper who would hopefully be able to generate real financial statements.

The crazy days at the E-Center helped warm us up for the insanity that would be the RNC. Coming in the next part of this opus, please stay tuned. As always comments are very much appreciated. And if by chance you have pictures from any of our history, please share with me, almost all the pictures we had are no longer available to me.

Thanks for reading!