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Catering to a Pandemic: How Food Services Survived

Saying the food service industry struggled through the pandemic is an understatement. Many barely survived the closures and other restrictions that plagued most of 2020 and the early part of 2021. More than 11,000 restaurants closed nationwide, according to the National Restaurant Association, and the food service industry did not fare much better locally. Caterers were among those fighting for their survival.

When Gov. Tom Wolf ordered the first two-week closure of nonessential businesses in March 2020, Bistro to Go was in the middle of an almost record-breaking week, with $94,000 in sales. Owner Nikki Heckman said the bistro was fully stocked with all the food and supplies it needed to fulfill that week’s orders when the closure came down.

“I was sick. I was really in trouble because it was so much money on the table,” she said. “We had to pull cash reserves out of everywhere we didn’t have. March was horrible. We came up like a rocket just like we went down like a rocket.”

Bistro to Go caters roughly 200 weddings each year. “Brides were my biggest concern, so we started calling all of them,” said Heckman, adding that she had to lay off staff members who were like family to her. Of those who stayed, their hours were reduced to part-time.

Roy Mazzoleni, the owner of Remo’s Catering, said he was worried to death for his 20 employees. Like many others in the local food service industry, Mazzoleni was forced to lay off some of his workers to ride out the closures and other mitigation restrictions.

“We did whatever was necessary to keep operating,” he said. “We spent our own money and did our best to hang in there.”

Adapting to Survive

Both Bistro to Go and Remo’s were forced to close their on-site operations. Bistro to Go was unable to serve customers in their eat-in café for most of 2020, and Remo’s was unable to host private parties in its Tivoli Room, which accommodates up to 100 people for events. However, both came up with some creative ideas to keep business flowing while still adhering to the strict mitigation efforts mandated by the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Allegheny County Health Department.

One of the first things Heckman did was to move all weddings outside of Allegheny County where COVID mitigation restrictions were not as strict. Outdoor venues were favored, and all COVID restrictions were followed to the letter.

“We had the COVID health department team here five times doing spot checks,” she said.

This workaround both solved and created problems. It allowed Bistro to Go to keep its commitments to brides and others who had booked their services, but it cost the caterer more in transportation and food storage costs to go so far outside Allegheny County.

Remo’s began operating a roadside barbecue pick-up site to help pick up the slack from lost catering sales. “We were hustling. We were working hard trying to stay alive,” said Mazzoleni.

The roadside barbecue was such a hit that it is still in operation. Remo’s also offered to-go meals to help keep their doors open but has since stopped that service now that Pennsylvania has lifted all COVID mitigation restrictions.

Meeting the Challenges Head-on

The biggest problem for both Bistro to Go and Remo’s Catering was the constant back-and-forth in what was permitted and what was not permitted for business operation. It made it difficult to know how much food and supplies to order and how much staff to keep available.

Even now, as things begin to return to some semblance of normalcy, challenges continue. For Mazzoleni, hiring adequate staffing remains an issue. He is down to eight full-time staffers from the 20 he usually has on hand, and he is desperately trying to fill open positions for food preparation, cooks, event coordinators, and dishwashers.

He has resorted to recruiting family members to help fill the void. “We don’t like letting people down, so we’re doing what we have to do to make sure we can fulfill orders,” he said.

Mazzoleni adds that he has had to turn down bookings for the first time in the catering businesses’ history due to staffing shortages. He noted he is willing to pay higher wages to help secure staff, but that so far, it has not helped.

Heckman counts herself lucky in that she has adequate staffing. All 54 employees returned to their positions, even the ones who were temporarily laid off. For Heckman personally, 2020 has delayed her plans for early retirement from the business.

“At 63, I was ready to scale back, but now with all the money I’ve invested and equipment I’ve purchased, I am right back in it,” she said.

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