California’s catering businesses were booming. Then the pandemic hit. One caterer who stages high-end parties says she has lost more than 75% of her revenue.

Christine McEnery hasn’t “cracked the code” on how to get her business back amid a global pandemic. 

After losing every gig she had on the calendar for 2020, the Monterey Peninsula caterer thought she had found a solution in delivering prepared meals to her clients’ doors during the initial lockdown. But as soon as restaurants and country clubs began to reopen for takeout, most of those orders disappeared, too. 

“If I were to add up the money I’ve made since March, I think, at best, I’ve lost 75%,” she said. “It’s really been quite enormous.” 

R.J. Hottovy, an analyst at food industry consulting group Aaron Allen, said the catering business was booming in the years leading up to 2020, outpacing the broader restaurant industry.

He said the impact of the restrictions has hit both small, independent caterers and large catering companies that make corporate deliveries, such as Panera. 

“The ones that we have seen survive are the ones that have effectively pivoted in trying to accommodate smaller group orders and things like that,” he said. “It’s still probably going to be several months before we start to see large group gatherings or corporate-type engagements, so I think they need to continue to prepare for some difficult months ahead.”

Even caterers that already focused on dropping off food for business or social gatherings — rather than providing full service at events — have suffered, according to Melissa Wilson, principal at research firm Technomic. In the spring, 49% of such businesses had declines in sales, with 31% of those that had experienced a decrease seeing a dropoff of more than 75%, according to Technomic.

Caterer Christine McEnery wears a mask while putting the finishing touches on a dessert. Photo courtesy of Christine McEnery
Caterer Christine McEnery wears a mask while putting the finishing touches on a dessert. Photo courtesy of Christine McEnery

McEnery said her pivot to delivering prepared meals has been far less profitable because she typically caters to high-income clientele in the Monterey and Carmel area who prefer a full-service feast. 

“One of the bigger financial challenges in catering is, when you offer a full service, from bartenders to servers to people cleaning up, you are able to charge way more and make more profit than you ever can dream of,” she said. “When you’re dropping things off in Tupperware, there’s a huge change in the customer’s perception of value.”

“I would not be happy doing this kind of service forever because you’re working just as hard and you’re making half as much money,” she added. 

These days, McEnery doesn’t even have enough delivery business to work full-time — three days a week has been the maximum. She said she’s glad her husband doesn’t work in hospitality and has maintained a steady income. Her hopes that her customers would hire her to cater for small, outdoor gatherings this year did not pan out, as “we’ve kind of trained ourselves out of gathering,” and she can only hope business will return in 2021.

“It almost doesn’t matter how successful you were, then, because now it’s a completely different playing field,” she said. “And I haven’t cracked the code for how to gain back the income that I’ve lost.”

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James is a health intern at CalMatters. He is a junior at Harvard University studying government and East Asian Studies. Prior to joining CalMatters, James was an intern on The Hill’s healthcare team....