Sub Rosa

Let’s get one thing out of the way. Honest people need not apply for catering jobs. It’s not like waiting tables. It’s my impression that the machinery of the service industry enforces a sort of honesty system on waiters, who have to tip out to the bussers, bartenders, hostesses, and others. A vast network of symbiotic parasites who keep the customers just as happy as the well-tipped waiter. A waiter has to be up front about what they’re receiving (to a degree) and make sure everyone’s taken care of. A cog in the great wheel that makes your night out a good time.

In catering, there are no tips. It’s built into the contract the client signs, and caterers are paid well anyway. The responsibility in catering is less to the client and more to the almighty glory of the company, which must crank out dozens of events a week in what can best be described as a free-for-all money grab. A waiter, in the catering world, is basically a person being paid $15-$25 an hour to serve leftovers. But that’s just for a small portion of the event. Their real job is breaking down and setting up the travelling show. Turning the blank slate of a venue into the client’s vision, and then leaving it in the condition they found it. The average four hour wedding event requires just as much time for set up and break down. The food is made days in advance by anonymous, second tier chefs. The cakes are not really meant to be edible. The bartenders are not specialists at their trade. Catering is about show, not craftsmanship. A strange, wicked step sister of the service industry proper.

The client, ultimately, decides the path. It’s the client’s show, really. Many are bullied to accept certain restrictions, but, in the end, caterers will do anything as long as they’re paid. The client picks the food, the drinks, the way the event plays out and where everything is positioned. When an event goes wrong, when the food at a wedding is terrible, when things are uncomfortable, when you’re standing in the rain during the ceremony, it’s always the client’s fault.

At least, in my world. I only associate with the top tier caterers in the DC area. Arguably the best caterers in the nation. But, even when in the hands of masters, the client will only get what they pay for.

It’s a mystery to me when I watch people who have paid in excess of $30,000 for their event cut corners. They get the cheap food, they do beer and wine only at the bar, they hamstring their own event for the sake of a few bucks. It’s not like going just one step better will double the price or anything. We’re talking maybe 10 grand more. If you’re going to dump 30 grand for four hours, then why not make it 40 grand and make the event memorable? Because what do the guests really remember? The food. The drinks. The music. No one really has a good time just watching you have your special day. Hey, I love you Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So but, fuck you, I could run a marathon wearing these steaks.

It doesn’t take much more to do it right.

This, I think, leads to a certain level of bitterness amongst caterers. The whole special day mentality of a wedding or some similar event loses its luster when seen from behind the mask. We see the absurd DJ paid $1000 to plug in an iPod, or the overpaid band that badmouths the client behind closed doors. We writhe with the knowledge that the food is sub-standard both because the client decided to go with cheap and simple and because it was made three days ago, stored poorly, and then heated up. Weddings become a tired joke once you’re intimate with the mechanics of the industry and, because, you’ve seen it all a thousand times. The same cheapskate decisions made over and over. The rare event where someone does something different is cause for celebration.

Caterers don’t usually last long. Like waiting, it’s a profession for the young. Those who do make a career out of it and do not graduate to the supervisor level are always tired, treat happy occasions as sad jokes, and are only still around because they’re master thieves.

These days, it’s becoming commonplace to tip caterers. The standard – much to the dismay of high brow, old school catering companies – is to give $100 to the supervisor (or, by the end of the night, just the captain, since the supervisor always fucks off after service), $50 to the chef and, if applicable, the chef’s helper. This is the person who heats up the old soup and food. Then $20 to each server. A $20 tip for broken backs setting up tables and hauling shit around, serving 100+ drunken, entitled assholes, and then breaking everything down under the crack of the venue’s whips, jamming it into the back of a truck, driving god knows how far, unpacking everything, cleaning it, then napping for two hours till the next shift.

Even though there’s also a tip coming from the contract, and that $20 is basically play money, it’s still an insult. You should tip each of them $100.

I’m torn. Should the caterer be tipped in addition to the 15-20% enforced by the contract? If so, should they be tipped better? Or is any tip just not appropriate?

Most catering companies are torn, as well. The average caterer, per eight hour shift, will work harder than the average server over the same period of time. However, the two jobs are very different and require different skill sets. A server must know what he or she is serving, and play nice for a constant cycle of customers. Always fresh, always happy. A caterer is a mule. A laborer.

And here’s the important difference – a caterer is also a thief.

I don’t say that with the intent to condemn them. I’m one of them. I’m a thief. I’ve stolen everything from six packs of beer to cell phones. I’m worse than the worst.

Catering encourages theft by…well, let’s call it attrition. It starts out simple. Opened bottles of wine and beer and liquor that would, otherwise, go into the trash or down the sink simply find themselves capped by tin foil and secreted into backpacks. Nothing big. The best man and good friends of the family are doing the same.

But then there’s the mountain of unused liquor. A wise party planner always orders more than they need. In most cases, it can be returned for a refund. So no problem.

This spare alcohol is rarely stored under lock and key, and it’s never really counted. It might be counted on delivery, but how can you possibly keep track of what’s happening when 100+ people are taking advantage of a free bar and placing demands on a staff of 15 caterers who are all fulfilling random orders in a frenzied rush?

Throughout the night, the caterers all quietly help themselves. A bottle of vodka here, a six pack there, a case of wine there. They slide under bushes, into cabinets, down trousers, under skirts, and into backpacks, and are carted out into cars in the wee hours of the morning after break down is complete. I know many caterers who have turned it into a game. I have turned it into a game. A challenge in a job without challenges.

The game may be to absolve us of our sins, and is also a defense against the natural criminal instinct to take everything you can lay your hands on. To go absolutely nuts like some 19th Century pirate.

Here is this wall of booze. You can take it all. It would take many car loads between the venue and your house, but you have the power and freedom to do so.

But, despite such freedom, it would be pushing the envelope. We all have to do it at least once. I once filled a spare bedroom with stolen booze. That was in 1998. Today, September of 2011, and I still have some bottles of whiskey left from that haul. In one night, I stole enough booze to fuel me and my friends for well over a decade.

I’ve seen caterers spend two hours hiding booze in the tree line, and watched them return with an empty truck at 2am to fill it up.

Once that nonsense is out of your system, the game is to steal only certain amounts of booze. $150 worth a night, for example. Setting a ceiling and trying to get it down to within a few dollars is great fun. I watch caterers mutter over smart phones all night, pricing out what they’re going to steal. Some folks go for collections. A bottle of each type of liquor, a bar setup as outlined in any of the various bartender guides. Most folks, like me, grab whatever their fingers stick to, toss the bottles into the bushes, then pick them up on the way out.

In catering, there’s so much waste. It’s hard to tell which is the greater crime – dropping food and booze in your backpack, or the amount of shit that gets thrown away. Enough to feed an army of homeless. Even when you take the food, it’s too much. A few trays will feed me for a week. So, of course, food goes out the service entrance all the time.

And god forbid you lose any of your personal items. There is no lost and found. Shoes, jackets, phones, wallets, even eyeglasses are secreted away as soon as they’re found. I know caterers whose whole wardrobes are made up of stolen clothes. Ensembles that have been years in the making, worn not to save money (though that’s part of it), but as a trophy. It’s all about trophies.

So by the time that sweat-soaked $20 makes its way to you as you break down the tables and chairs sometime after midnight, you’ve stolen just about everything that’s not nailed down. The tips are accepted wordlessly, pocketed, dull eyes focused on getting the job done and getting out as soon as possible.

It’s a hard job. The theft makes the caterers look bad but, really, it’s deserved booty. Let’s call it breakage. These people have just plowed through an eight, ten, or twelve hour shift without a break, mopping up vomit, wolfing down a dinner while standing in a corner, lifting a few hundred pounds of equipment and hauling it through darkened back entrances onto unreliable trucks. And they’ll do that two or three times a weekend, and several times during the week.

From my time on the floor, I can tell you that the bad outweighs the good. You have to love the job. When you finally crawl home at night, it takes hours to come down from the high. A shower to wash off the food and filth and booze. You go through pairs of shoes in the space of a couple months. People are filthy. Cram a couple hundred of them into some old house and feed them free booze for two hours and then give them fancy, messy, rich food and the results are always horrifying.

Customers at restaurants can be assholes, but they have nothing on the entitled wedding guest. The line in catering is clear – the clients are the masters and we are the servants. There’s no etiquette. No common ground. It’s old school serfdom, and all done with a desperate sort of mania to keep up the mask, to keep everything moving smoothly. After the last guests have left, and a dizzyingly hurried break-down is finished, it feels like you haven’t drawn a breath for the entire shift. The body and mind slowly unwinds as you work your way home in the early AM and you sit there, dead to the world, waiting for your muscles to relax, your pulse pounding in your blistered feet, psyching yourself up for the next day’s shift. You can do it. You can make it.


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