Thursday, January 29, 2015

Reminiscences of Max & Me Catering. Part V.

Picking up the story on Sunday July 30th, the night before the convention itself opens, and our biggest night of the week in terms of numbers and the prestige of the events. We would be catering breakfast, lunch and dinner on the Union Pacific trains, the Texas delegation opening party for over 1000 guests and the State of Utah's boat party in the Delaware River boat parade of all 50 states.

Curtis Center Atrium. Dramatic event space for the Texas delegation welcome party.
I assigned myself to oversee the Texas delegation welcome party at The Curtis Center. The Curtis Center, located only a block from Independence hall, is a very cool event space, but fairly difficult to work in for catering. It's probably much easier now as Philadelphia's preeminent wedding caterer, Cescaphe, has made some nice changes to allow them to execute events easier, but in 2000 we had to work out of the loading dock for our ovens and the mail room and adjacent hallway for hors d'ouevres assembly and rental set up and breakdown. The event went very well, from our standpoint as were ready to go on time (which to me is probably 20% of the grade if you were evaluating a caterers success), there was plenty of food (15%?), food was delicious and hot items were hot (another 40%) service went well (25% of the grade?), but the event got completely over crowded so passing hors and restocking stations became extremely difficult. All in all, a big success, our client Dani DeLay was very happy and this cornerstone event really set the stage for the continued mastery of our RNC catering domain.
Dream Garden at the Curtis Center. Maxfield Parrish's Tiffany glass mural.
Truly awe inspiring, worth the trip to see if you are in Philly.
While the Texas event was going on, I got a call (or maybe an annoying Nextel walkie message) saying that I needed to bring more ice and booze to the Utah boat, located approximately a mile away on the Delaware river, near Dave and Buster's. Loading the product onto the boat was just enough of a workout in the sticky Philly summer air to insure that I would be soaked with sweat for the rest of the evening at the Curtis shindig. Oh well. The whole week was typical Philly summer swamp weather, 90 degrees plus, with hazy sky and big humidity. Yuck. Why did I ever move back east? I'll save that for another blog post, maybe.
This is me at our RNC command post. Sweaty Eddie.
After the events of Sunday, we all reconvened at base camp, in the parking lot near the FU Center where I got my 2-3 hours of sleep in our RV with the barely working air conditioning. By the time Monday rolled around, I was already on event cruise control, most of my operational RNC job was done, the next 4 days had very repetitive events, 4 nights of a similar party for Tom DeLay in the tent adjacent to our base camp, about 700 each night, same format, changing menu, each night's theme and menu played to a different sector of the country and a Republican President from that part of the U.S. Trying to remember the President's honored, I believe it was Reagan for the West, Bush for the South, Lincoln for Midwest and either TR or Bush 41 for the east? Dani DeLay, do you remember? 
I know. I used this in the last post. Makes more sense now.
The Union Pacific events on the antique trains, were actually the same exact menu every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with the same staff so it became very routine and the only major challenge was getting staff there in time for breakfast to avoid the dreaded 5am calls from our very hands on clients. 
Yeah, I used this before too, but this is the train setup we served.
The crew feed in the tent on the walkway next to the FU Center, was like riding a bucking bronco, waves of hungry workers would descend with very little notice and our numbers would swell from 300 to 600 with no advance notice. We had plenty of extra food around and the menu became "Chef's choice" so as long as there was enough to eat and it was tasty, we got no complaints. And we got to up the bill with every extra head passing through the line. This was not high end catering but feed the masses.
The crew feed tent was right under the Comcast sign
As the RNC went on cruise control for me, others were working their asses off, putting in twenty hour days and performing admirably. I would name some names, but then I'd upset people I didn't name. You know who you are, and many have told me this was one of the most exciting weeks of work they ever had. Cruise control for me was not only necessary but planned as Max and I had to pull away to have time to plan the final and most illustrious piece of this whole production, catering the Bush Campaign Train which would be leaving from Pittsburg at noon on Friday August 5th, about 12 hours after we wrapped the last party in Philly. We had to pull a couple chefs off of RNC prep/execution and turn to prep for the trip west which would end on Sunday the 7th in St. Louis. I had finally gotten an agreement in place on menu and price (including the all important deposit), so Max and I planned the details of the 3 days and 4 meals we were to serve. First up, staffing. EVERBODY wanted to go but we decided to take 12 hand picked staff that we felt were the best we had, other than a couple who couldn't do it for family reasons. Max and his culinary team planned the very high end menu and placed all the orders as everything had to be provisioned ahead of time. I will cover the last planning aspects in the next post which will cover the train trip in depth.
The Electric Factory wasn't quite this crowded for the RNC events, only had
about 1500 each night, this picture would be a sellout night, over 2300.
Besides the three main clients and repeating events of Union Pacific, DeLay tent, and RNC crew feed, we had two outstanding events left, these were the Tuesday and Wednesday late night concerts at the Electric Factory with Blues Traveler and Lynyrd Skynyrd. These were planned and produced by the Republicans chosen hip, younger event/fundraisng team, headed up by Rob Jennings. Evening events for the RNC (and DNC too) are either pre-session or post session, which means they have to end by 7p (pre) and not start until after 10p (post), this is because all the people that you want at your party and allow you to raise the money you need are all at the convention. Senators, Governors, Congressmen, Cabinet Members, etc. are the big ticket draws that the big lobbyists want to cozy up to for obvious reasons. The late night parties can be quite raucous and there are plenty of them. Our events featured what Rob referred to as "late night stoner food", lots of cheesesteaks, pigs in blankets, messy fried foods and our ever popular cheap menu extender: crunchy snacks.
What Philly catered event would be complete without these luscious, and oh so
healthy morsels of goodness?
One of my main duties for Max & Me Catering was to look to the future for business development opportunities. In prepping for the RNC, I realized we had some pretty newsworthy events, so I invited Philadelphia Inquirer writer Michael Klein to the Electric Factory events. He did write about it, but even better, he took the coming Bush Campaign Train story to his editor and it got assigned to a feature writer for a coming feature article in the food section of the Inky. Eureka!
Bubba's reign was almost over. The epic campaign and hanging
chad election was on it's way...
Next up. Wrapping up in Philly with Jon & his merry band of wingnuts.  Pittsburgh to St. Louis with W. Fat steaks, expensive wine & international media kudos in Chicago.

Thanks for reading and a Happy Birthday to Betsy & Steph!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Reminiscences of Max & Me Catering. Part IV.

W. in Philly. Always a good sport.
The stage was set, the contracts were signed, food was ordered, staff was booked, and our home base RV was rented. It was just about showtime in Philly for tens of thousands of Republicans, press, protesters and little old Max & Me Catering from rural Bucks County, was smack in the middle of the whole shebang.
Wish I could have catered this Republican party! Well, Bully!!!
The weight of anxiety and the fear of failure; I find helps me make sure to go over all preparations and work extra hard to help create successful events. I find that for almost every major event I take part in there comes a few hour period where my fear of failure dominates my thinking. I will go over any potential weak points in the execution plan and then mostly pace around, eat too much food, worry some more and then eventually the feeling fades. What if the staff and deliveries can’t get through security in a timely manner? This was perhaps my overriding anxiety touch point leading up to the RNC. How to solve it? Move up call times by an hour or more and take the financial hit of paying out for extra labor hours. Look to cut staff early when possible to help defray additional labor, or try and bill extra labor to client whenever possible. Another huge initiative we undertook to get our people where they needed to be was the “Feed Everybody” concept, especially anyone who guarded an entry point, and any nearby security, plus any Secret Service, Capitol Police, FBI, etc. Feed them all and let them know it was Max & Me doing the honors so any staff saying Max & Me hopefully would be expedited in their travels to our home base.
Union Pacific luxury trains in position for the RNC, one of our trucks is on the left.
As Friday July 28th approached, the day of our first feedings for the Union Pacific Railroad, a couple big curve balls were thrown that would challenge not just our operation, but every single event that would take place during the RNC. First, Local 8 of the Carpenter’s Union was able to get the event organizers to agree that they would be the ones to put up and take down every single tent in every venue and locale. This seriously slowed down the installation of all tents. We ended up being all right, but Brother Jon almost engaged in fisticuffs with one particularly slow moving and ornery union guy.
They said "go get this much booze" so I did.

The other major issue we had to deal with was liquor. The Committee on Arrangements (COA) along with the local organizing committee decided last minute to grant all parties one day liquor licenses. Sounds like a good thing, right? Not. It was too late to put together beverage packages with mark-up. Contracts were signed, budgets were set. I couldn’t go back to a client who was expecting to pay $100  per person all in for their event and tell them now it’s another $30 per person because we now have a liquor license two days before the convention starts. The big effect on us (especially me) was now all liquor had to be legally purchased only from the Pennsylvania “State Store” (now Fine Wine & Good Spirits) system, and we were told to expect inspection proving all booze was purchased in state. This was  a HUGE problem for the Union Pacific Railroad as they had loaded their antique railroad cars with more than enough for the convention uses. Now they had to rely on me and my team to go buy everything they needed at local State Stores that are usually not very well stocked. I believe we had to visit six stores to get everything needed. The extra 12 hours of work came at a time when we could least afford it.
The Tom Delay train set up. Cold storage building in background.
This site is now Lincoln Financial Field.
We had already been catering for the crew building the RNC stage and sets as well as the TV production crews for almost 2 weeks. This was very similar to our backstage concert catering in terms of menu, pricing and style of service. High quality food served on a budget with minimal fanfare. On the Saturday before the convention starting, the high end parties started. It was just a breakfast, lunch and dinner served on the Union Pacific trains, but starting with perfection was our goal. Our clients for UP were very hands on and any little misstep would be relayed to Max & myself on walkie talkie immediately. It was such a relief to see our staff arrive on time and we often heard tales of great resourcefulness in how they found us. This was back in the times when only about 30% of our staff had cell phones and GPS was not in use yet. All catered events back then had to have very explicit typed and emailed directions to make sure all staff arrived. Many staff weren't on email, so they had to either pick up printed directions in the office, or have them told to them over the phone. 
Our industry, like many, has been very favorably improved  and streamlined with technology.
This was our technology for RNC 2000. The most annoying Nextel walkie talkie cell.
I had been intending to cover all of the RNC events in this post, but I have been listening to the blogging gurus and it's already getting too long, even after substantial edits. So I'm going to close this one out and pick up the next post on Sunday July 30th, the night before the convention starts and more parties than any other night.
Important question. When do you stop saying Happy New Year to people you see
for the first time in 2015?
I wish you all the very best in 2015, I have a feeling it's going to be a great year.