The Food World’s Riskiest Business: Catering
Here’s a sneak peek at the new book ‘HotBox,’ from Half Full columnists Matt Lee and Ted Lee, which comes out Tuesday.
Long after the conversation dies and the valiant caterers have gone home, there’s a final act that truly signifies the party is over. A truck pulls up at the site in the middle of the night (or the next morning) to haul away the borrowed tables and chairs, dirty plates and linens, glasses and other hardware that helped transform an empty space into something resembling a restaurant. You’ve seen a truck like this, even if it escaped your notice. Those who live anywhere on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, between Portland, Maine, and Virginia Beach (and back a good two hundred miles inland from the coast), may in fact be familiar with this specific truck because the category killer in party rentals in that region is represented by a large cartoon hippopotamus a shade lighter than Pepto-Bismol. Written alongside the hippo is party rental ltd., an anodyne name that doesn’t even begin to reveal the encyclopedic range of things you can have dropped on your doorstep tomorrow. Need a cotton candy machine? How about white leather lounge seating for 250 people? A commercial refrigerator? Four—or four thousand—gilt forks? A fifty-foot extension cord, a coatrack, a FryDaddy? It’s got tablecloths and tables, platters and plates, in a riot of styles and colors, one hundred or more of each pattern.
Party Rental Ltd. has built its lending business to serve virtually everyone. For a generalist in such a giant business, there’s no approaching this halfway or even three-quarters: your stash of stuff has to be the Mount Everest of inventories, an old-school Amazon; you have to offer every damn thing a client would need—except tents, it doesn’t rent tents—in every possible color and quantity, deliverable in one order. Human nature favors single sources for the boring necessities like chairs, trash cans, and plates; there isn’t a party planner in the world who would prefer to make four phone calls, place four orders, if they could get it all affordably with one. Party Rental Ltd. is the leader in rentals in its lucrative chosen region, and has by its massive scale—built up steadily since 1972—prevented any meaningful competition. To recreate its inventory would require a capital investment too large to contemplate.
Another secret to its success is being warm and cuddly to clients—accommodating and personable, and permissive, willing to work with ridiculously last-minute orders and to overlook a lost ice lug or two. Customers spending $250,000 and up in a year represent 80 percent of its business, but Party Rental Ltd. is nevertheless more than happy to deliver to you, too, any of the more than ninety thousand separate SKUs (stock-keeping units) in its catalog. All it takes to rent from the company is to meet the minimum order of $325 and to pay the delivery-and-pickup fee—a flat $100 surcharge to most locations in the ten states serviced. To give you an idea of how much $325 represents in rental terms, let’s create an imaginary event: you’re cooking a special supper at home for a friend’s fortieth birthday. There will be sixteen diners (including you) and it’s a cocktail reception and dinner, with some easy hors d’oeuvres you’ve prepared, and four courses—a first course, a main course, a salad, and dessert. You’re serving sparkling wine with the hors d’oeuvres and there will be a choice of red and white wine on the tables, and water. For $394.06, you’ll have almost everything you need save the food and drink: two round tables for eight plus the tablecloths and matching overlay, all the chairs, the cloth napkins, the plates, the flatware, stemware (four glasses per person, including Champagne flute, water glass, and two wineglasses), and the paper cocktail napkins for the canapés you’re serving during the first hour. And the Champagne chiller, of course!
A total of $494.06 ($30.88 per person) gets you a lot of material hauled to your door, clean and ready for party time, and then picked up the next day. And if that sounds pricey for rentals—it’s not nothing, after all, and you don’t get to keep any of it (except any unused paper napkins)—bear in mind that the fact that you don’t means you also weren’t obligated to store it, either. And there’s this: you don’t need to clean any of it! You don’t even have to scrape the plates—although the drivers who pick up the rentals the day after your dinner (not to mention the warehouse team that receives those food-slickened plates) would very likely appreciate it.
“You talk about a dirty job?” Jim McManus bellowed, as he ushered us across the noisy receiving floor of PRL’s 275,000-square-foot warehouse in Teterboro, New Jersey—the company headquarters and the largest of the company’s five warehouses from D.C. to New England. It was late May 2016, spring gala season was mostly over, but as he waved his arm languidly across ten loading bays, half a dozen trucks were backed up, feasted upon by forklifts and warehouse workers, unloading the last of the previous day’s parties, pushing battered proofers and rolling round tables into the warehouse. “Everything needs to be cleaned. Everything,” he continued. “And you should see the caked-on dirty dishes—the shit!—that our people have to deal with, day after day. We clean it, pack it, count it, wrap it—those dishes gotta be ready to go again for tomorrow.”
McManus would be a shoo-in to play Santa Claus at the mall, but today he’s playing the role of salty warehouse guide and rentals ambassador, wearing a voluminous pink gingham shirt over his Falstaffian frame. His thirty-year career as a rentals salesman—eighteen of those with Party Rental Ltd.—has revealed to him the full contours, and every nook and cranny, of this invisible business. Moreover, as someone playing a supporting role to every caterer’s daily grind, and with an essential monopoly on party rentals in this part of the country, McManus knows virtually everything about everyone who caters. By processing their orders, he’s privy to caterers’ income and expenses. He knows who your clients are, and who your competitors’ clients are. And that’s just from the data in his phone; his gossip networks are unparalleled.
As the point person equipping the region’s largest parties since the 1980s, Jim McManus has met everyone: chefs, event designers, lighting designers, florists, the hosts and hostesses. He’s experienced every conceivable circumstance in catering— witnessed all the epic failures, all the bad behavior—and it doesn’t diminish his excitement about rentals one iota: he thrills to the minutiae and the splendor, fueling story upon story, which he offers up to us freely while cursing like a sailor.
In fact, McManus is a sailor, and spends most weekends piloting his twenty-eight-foot sloop, Sea Yanker, with his mutt, Rodney, and a crew of pals around Peconic and Gardiners Bays on the East End of Long Island. The son of a dentist, he grew up in West Hampton, where his first job as a kid was delivery boy for a gourmet grocer, ferrying caviar and prime meats to mansions in the Hamptons, kibbitzing at the kitchen door with the personal chefs for New York’s wealthiest. After studying ancient religions as a philosophy major at the University of Wisconsin, he moved to New Orleans and washed dishes in the kitchen of Paul Prudhomme at the fabled Commander’s Palace. With a letter of recommendation from Commander’s owners the Brennans, McManus attended the Cornell School of Hotel Administration. In 1990 he got his first job as a salesman in party rentals, working for Broadway Famous Party Rental, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Riding out the 1990 recession at Broadway Famous Party Rental, he learned an important lesson that would allow him to weather rough times—9/11, the collapse of Lehman Brothers—with relative peace of mind: because party rentals serves catering and events, primarily a luxury industry, it can endure rocky economic cycles more easily than businesses dependent upon a wider segment of the marketplace.
“When downturns happen, the mid-tier may taper off— the corporate stuff,” McManus said, “but the social business continues. People who have money are still getting married, they’re just much more private. In the Hamptons, they call it ‘behind the hedgerow.’ They’re cautious about being grossly rich in front of people who are struggling. But what happens behind that hedge? You. Don’t. Know.”
McManus worked for Broadway, the number two firm in the market at the time, doing roughly $1.4 million a year in sales, for ten years before being hired away by Party Rental Ltd. and witnessing the largest period of growth in the company, and in catering as a whole. Jim won’t quote exact figures—PRL is still privately held—but in 1999, PRL was doing close to $15 million a year in sales; today, it likely logs well over ten times that, every year.
That’s because, in addition to delivering the Champagne bucket and the rest of your needs for the hypothetical birthday dinner for sixteen, once that truck leaves your house, it’s throttling on to the next of literally hundreds of events PRL is supplying that night. There are approximately 170 trucks total in the company’s fleet, and while six or eight parties’ rentals may be packed onto the single truck that delivered your goods, there could also be one whopper on a given night—like the Robin Hood Benefit at the Javits Center, a cocktail reception and seated dinner for forty-four hundred, 440 round tables for ten— that alone requires twenty trucks’ worth of rentals, four of which will be tractor-trailers carrying nothing but chairs. (The right to sit down in one of those chairs starts at about $3,000, and the evening will raise in the neighborhood of $50 million.)
Our tour through PRL’s Teterboro warehouse began in the open office pen, where sales representatives guide customers through their orders and troubleshoot the balky ovens or cracked tureens that require a quick replacement—almost always at the witching hour, 4:30 p.m., when waiters and chefs show up at parties all over the city and begin to assess the rentals that were dropped off earlier that day.
The biggest change in the business in recent years, McManus pointed out, is that orders are coming in at the last minute instead of months ahead of time. As soon as he’d estimated that 60 percent of first order calls to PRL come in within three days of the event, a saleswoman overheard him and interrupted, pointing out that fully half of all orders come in just forty-eight hours before the equipment is needed. McManus acknowledged the role the company played in that reality.
“We created that need by being able to execute at that level, so now the industry just expects us to be there,” he said, putting his hand on his hip. “‘It’s New York, baby, I want what I want and I’m willing to pay for it.’ And that’s why we are all so haggard.”
Before passing into the working floor of the warehouse, we bumped into Franklin Brooks, the chief technician charged with overseeing heavy-duty items including ovens and refrigerators, the kinds of equipment that wasn’t available to rent for the evening until McManus made it a priority nearly fifteen years ago. McManus introduced us to Brooks and launched into a story, which he punctuated with repeated jabs at Brooks’s shoulder.
“Chefs are cooking a dinner, fifteen hundred people. They’ve got all the ovens, but ovens ain’t fucking working. The party’s in two hours, none of their food’s heated up yet. These chefs are losing their minds! So they give him a call.”
Brooks pointed out that the all-electric ovens ($425 to rent for a day; about $5,000 to purchase) are often the culprit, drawing too many amps—15—for the already overburdened electrical systems of ancient New York City buildings and household extension cords. Even the propane-powered ovens, deployed outside the city, require 6 amps just to power the fans and release the gas, which might be a tall order out in a cornfield, when the tent lights and the coffeemaker are sharing the same extension cord and breaker.
“They’re not even thinking about it until the line goes whoop!” Brooks said.
“That’s why even the greatest caterers, when they run into that, guess what they do?” McManus added. “They whip out the proofers and the Sterno and they cook it in the box, just like they used to. And the show goes on!”
The warehouse McManus led us through had no coherent sense of flow or scale—it was Wonkaesque, with narrower chambers at right angles to larger ones, open corrals set within truly gigantic spaces, and areas defined by walls of things, rather than actual walls. In one area a circular apparatus, a sheet-metal trough the size of an aboveground swimming pool, contained millions of silvery beads—it was a burnishing device that restores the glossy finish to tons of flatware every night. Just beyond was a room crisscrossed by poles, tracks, and sloped rods overhead, moving linens on hangers, essentially the largest dry cleaner you’ve ever seen. Some rooms were wide open—a cement football field with wooden chairs stacked twelve to fifteen feet high on the floor, most stacks sleeved in black cotton, some arcing slightly over the aisles. Other halls contained racks twenty or thirty feet up, holding cubes of palletized chair cushions of a single color (“Bengaline Cerise” read one container of 288 purply-pink cushions), each tightly bound in plastic wrap. A room the size of an aircraft hangar was a babel of tablecloths sheathed in plastic, row upon row, on racks four rows high. The only organization to the tablecloth storage was the one remembered by a computer server: each tablecloth has a radio frequency ID chip sewn in that can be scanned to transmit its location, size, and details to the system. The 120-inch blue tablecloths aren’t stored adjacent to each other, just where they happen to find an open spot on the way back into storage; the computer crafts a pick itinerary for the person assembling each outgoing order. On one long side of the same room are bolts of new cloth, tens of thousands of them, stacked to the ceiling, awaiting a custom cut and sew.
McManus paused for a moment, noting the sheer volume of options, and their insufficiency.
“As far as you can see, row after row after row. And even with all this shit, they want something different? That we have to make? We have all these other options that are right here in this warehouse, but nooooooooooo.”
By “make,” he meant custom tailor, which was the next stop on the tour, a room with a low ceiling and bright lights, where eighteen women were hunched over sewing machines, cutting and stitching up the hems of new tablecloths and napkins, to serve the clients for whom the selection of colors and patterns and weights and fabrics Party Rental Ltd. offers was simply not enough.
“I remember the meeting in 1989 where the question of the day was: can we introduce royal blue as a color in our cotton line?” McManus said. “The only options were white! And all square—we didn’t even have round tablecloths in 1989, because they only rented the square overlays.” Back then, he said, people who hosted grand parties owned their own antique tables, with beautiful wooden legs to show off. Today they’re renting tables with steel legs that need to be hidden, so the tablecloths drape all the way to the floor.
As we exited the sewing room, his tone turned more conciliatory.
“Look, if I’m doing an event that’s got fifty thousand dollars’ worth of rental equipment and they need one tablecloth specially made to fit a special table? We’re gonna do it. We’ll say yes, but it’ll cost you,” he said. “And they’ll say, Great! Because at the end of the day, the daughter only gets married once, and they happen to be very wealthy people, and they don’t care to compromise. They just want what they want.”
We passed the staging area where orders of chairs and crates of glasses were lined up and ready for loading onto trucks backed up to the twenty outgoing bays. “From three o’clock in the afternoon until six o’clock in the morning, we load, load, load,” McManus said, raising his voice to be heard above the forklift backup sirens. We saw bar stools and Martini glasses labeled for delivery to the Century Club in Midtown; Chiavari chairs and wineglasses for fashion designer Tory Burch’s apartment; there were orders for Vassar College, the New York Public Library, Tarrytown Music Hall, the NeueHouse museum. Hotboxes were headed to Neuman’s Kitchen’s headquarters in Queens, and to Great Performances’ exclusive site Caramoor, an estate in Westchester.
At one corner of the complex was something that felt like a country carpentry shop, where a man wearing a face respirator was sanding some age and rustication into a long, rectangular wood tabletop. Elsewhere, hundreds of spindly table bases, all stacked on each other, had their own room (the tops are stored elsewhere). A loft above us on the left held a thousand coatracks in their summer slumber.
Party Rentals Ltd. can’t rest on its inventory. Items disappear and depreciate, but most important, the customers drive a relentless quest for the next differentiating design that makes this party better than the last. So PRL has its own buyer who travels the globe, to factories in India and China and eastern Europe to source (and customize, if needed) furniture like the plastic mesh outdoor lounge seating that was so au courant in 2016. Moreover, Party Rental Ltd. also has its own in-house furniture fabrication department. To remain competitive, the company has to stay ahead of the latest trends in every element of event design—especially furniture—and the vogue in dining tables the summer we visited was rustic, long, farmhouse-style ones—a huge win for the company, because the tables are fairly inexpensive to make and look fantastic in the right setting. Since they’re so unwieldy (compared to a 72-inch plywood round table that can be rolled into place and covered with any linen), PRL can charge a premium for these: the rustic farmhouse-style table seating ten people doesn’t require a tablecloth, but it costs $225 to rent; a round table seating ten people is less than twenty bucks and the linens for it around $45 more. The day we visited, all of PRL’s farmhouse tables were out on delivery and it was clear there wouldn’t be enough coming back to supply the next day’s parties, so the carpentry department was building a half dozen more on the spot.
Immediately adjacent to the carpentry shop was the spray-paint booth, where ranks of white Chiavari chairs were stacked outside a curtained-off cube. A painter, partially obscured by the booth’s curtain, was turning white chairs a kelly green. What happens when a caterer rents eight hundred green chairs the same night as another event that’s already booked six hundred of the one thousand green chairs already in stock? No problem! The paint booth will convert white chairs to green. Or perhaps your event requires a tone of green so customized PRL doesn’t stock it? No worries! They’ll custom match it and paint it. “It’ll cost you, of course,” Jim said as we moved on to the heavy cooking equipment—propane-powered ovens, deep-fat fryers, and outdoor grills. “But we will do it.”
“I’m taking you to the brain,” McManus said, as we entered a low-ceilinged room with aggressive air-conditioning, a taxi company’s worth of CB radios, and an array of screens mounted high on the walls.
Every delivery truck on every route is plotted on a map, its location updated in real time via global positioning systems. The dispatch crew knows when a truck diverges from the route—the drivers generally favor Malecon Restaurant at 175th Street and Broadway, not far from the George Washington Bridge, for a lunch of rice and beans, mofongo, or maduros. A computer plans each truck’s route to minimize distance between stops, and each truck holds two helpers and one driver. On a typical day there are about a hundred routes; on a busy Saturday during high season ( June and October) there are twice that. It’s a twenty-four-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week operation, and the company’s trucks are served with over $600,000 worth of parking violations in a typical year. About 175 drivers and 450 employees overall work for Party Rental Ltd., but that expands to 1,700 during the busy months.
The hippo wasn’t always so big. Just a seventeen-minute drive from Party Rental Ltd.’s Teterboro warehouse is an unassuming liquor store, Oprandy’s, in Englewood, New Jersey. A squat, two-story stone-and-brick office building from the fifties with a period neon sign stretching over the facade, it looks like the kind of place Don Draper might score a fifth of vodka to drink in his car, his puffy mug illuminated by the sign’s flickery light. Almost forty years ago, Oprandy’s owner, responding to the demands of his customers, opened a sideline business, renting glasses and paper napkins to his customers for their cocktail parties. He soon added tables and chairs, filling a six-car garage on the site of the store with the rentals business. Demand was so strong that he couldn’t keep up. And he was a liquor guy first. A local couple, Sunny and Mike Halperin, saw that his rental business was brisk—and that he was struggling to keep up—so they bought the business and the inventory from Oprandy’s. Within a year, they’d left the garage and moved the rentals into a warehouse big enough to house a small fleet of school buses. The year was 1972, the same year the Telephone Chef was renamed Donald Bruce White Caterers.
By expanding upon the old Oprandy’s network of local clients and reaching out to Manhattan caterers like Donald Bruce White, Party Rental Ltd. was able to hitch its own success to the explosive growth the New York City catering business experienced in the seventies and eighties. PRL maintained its momentum by keeping trucking operations nimble and storage and maintenance facilities clean (“Look how clean this floor is,” McManus said. “Could you imagine what would happen if a cockroach crawled out of one of my orders? In somebody’s house?”), but especially by responding quickly to whatever needs caterers—and, as time went on, event planners—were demanding, whether it was elements of design (stemless wineglasses, Lucite “ghost” chairs, farmhouse tables) or restaurant-grade kitchen equipment. When McManus came on board with PRL in the late nineties, he knew that some catering chefs bristled at the limitations of the hotbox. They wanted to be liberated from rewarmed filet and salmon and to create fresher, brighter food—the kind restaurant chefs such as Rocco DiSpirito, Anita Lo, and Marcus Samuelsson were earning accolades for—which meant cooking proteins to order whenever possible. McManus responded by purchasing those energy-hogging electric and propane ovens, fabricating steel dollies for them with pneumatic wheelbarrow tires to make them mobile and wooden exoskeletons (painted pink!) to minimize dents and dings. They wouldn’t be the right equipment for every event because the size of these monsters isn’t well suited to the measly space typically designated for catering “kitchens.” (Remember propane’s forbidden indoors at any New York City venue.) But having an oven that could, say, roll across a gravel driveway in Bedford, New York, or the lawn in Greenwich, Connecticut, made it perfect for certain outdoor events, including the New York City Marathon, another PRL customer, which rents fifteen of them every year to serve ten thousand portions of lasagna in Central Park. The ovens don’t even come close to being the most expensive equipment depreciating in a PRL warehouse. Before the tour wrapped up, McManus collared a black-shirted employee with graying hair and a clipboard, Kevin Garlasco, the laundry manager. (Black shirts are for supervisors, red for upper management, pink for sales.)
In a building just down the street, Garlasco oversees the operation of a Pellerin Milnor Continuous Batch Washer, a million-dollar apparatus made in Louisiana that launders 1,600 pounds of dirty linens per hour, injecting solvents and rinses at just the right time as 130-pound loads inch through the machine, emerging damp and ready for ironing on the other side.
“Every dirty piece of linen from the East Coast that we have, from Delaware to Boston, all gets cleaned in that warehouse,” said Garlasco.
Sometimes other linens, chefs’ jackets, and even costumes make their way into the machine.
“Customers call us in a panic,” McManus said. “ They used Grandma’s Irish linen napkins that have sentimental value ’cause they were trying to save money, and then their caterer puts it in a bag with our linen and I get people crying to me on the phone: ‘You have Grandma’s stuff! We really want it back!’ ”
“We call it N.O.G.—not our goods,” Garlasco said, and explained they’re cleaned and hung on racks just as they would be in a dry cleaner. “And we do get a lot of items back to their owners. We have a good percentage.”
“But it’s a needle in a haystack,” McManus said. “I tell people all the time: Don’t use Grandma’s stuff! Please! Do yourself a favor, just pay for the rentals!”
Excerpted from HOTBOX: Inside Catering, the Food World’s Riskiest Business, published by Henry Holt and Company, April 9th 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Matt Lee & Ted Lee. All rights reserved.