Skip Schwarzman

Man oh man, if I never hear the word “Republican” again it’ll be too soon. This isn’t a political statement, it’s just that the buildup has been mounting up for what seems an eternity, and it ain’t over yet. Next week will certainly be busy, with convention entertaining starting Sunday night for us. Yet even with the convention right on top of us, every special-events person in town is saying the same thing: The whole world’s known the convention was coming to Philadelphia for over a year, why are so many details not yet finalized? I’ve heard it was much the same in San Diego four years ago, but it’s unnerving not to have been able to make our plans well in advance when the opportunity was there. We’re off-premise caterers, producing meals (often complicated) at sites that don’t belong to our company and frequently not intended as entertaining spaces. What we do, creating a banquet hall for one night, contains so many chances for things to go wrong that like any good off-prem company our motto is “Planning Planning Planning.” We like to have time to work out the rough spots we can imagine … then we’ll have the time at the party to deal with rough spots that even the Lord’s own caterer couldn’t have imagined. Let me tell you about the time we found one of our filets in the host’s miniature collie’s mouth as the dog proudly pranced around the kitchen with his “kill” …

The caterer is the hospitality industry’s lightning rod for complaints: When something goes wrong we’re the ones the guests seek out, whether the glitch belongs to us or not. We’ve always wanted to put out cute little signs: “At this evening’s event, Feast Your Eyes is not responsible for the musicians. The musicians are not ready on time because your host scheduled them to arrive exactly seven and a half minutes before you wanted to start dancing. We’ll be happy to direct you to your hosts at Table 21.”

Ooh, if only we could do that! Or wear a discreet lapel pin with the appropriate disclaimer! But as much as we moan (for the show of it) we understand that smoothing out bumps in the road is part of our job, and we take pride in being good at it. Much of the magic of food service happens because guests are kept unaware of the work behind their meals; the food simply arrives, perfect and delicious. “Jeez, I work so hard when I cook at home.” Guests are especially kept unaware of the near disasters that come this close to happening right out on the dining-room floor. And the opportunity for near disasters is never greater than at an off-premise event.

At Sunday’s dinner we’ll feed 150 VIPs, guests of a congressman. Tables and chairs will already be in place, but only because the rental company chosen by the event planner just called us last Friday to arrange delivery. China, glassware, and flatware and the other particulars we’re using are being delivered this Friday and picked up at the end of the party ‘cause there’s a breakfast party in the same space the next morning, catered by a different caterer and supplied by a different party rental firm. We’ll supply names and descriptions of the staff working the job, have all of them arrive at the same time (hopefully), and load in our food and special equipment three hours before the party begins. Afterward the doors will be closed; we aren’t supposed to walk in and out of the building. The chandeliers in the room are fluorescent and all on one switch so they’ll be turned off, replaced by custom lighting. Don’t be concerned about how we’re going to see whether we’re grabbing filet or potato back in the kitchen: Work lights are being brought in just for us. And oh, one other thing, the food’s gotta be great, too …

So, here it is the Friday before the convention starts and potentially there’s a lunch next Wednesday for 100 that we think we’ll be doing, but no one’s told us whether or not we’re the caterer! If this is security’s attempt to keep us on our toes and always guessing, thereby thwarting any efforts to sabotage the event, it’s an extremely subtle and devious strategy.

The city’s fixated on protesters. Where the protesters will be protesting. And sleeping. Really. “Where the Protesters Will Be Sleeping.” Well, it was below the fold.

The possible disruption of the convention is an understandable concern, after Seattle got so much bad press. What’s not understandable is why there is so much anti-demonstrator sentiment in a heavily Democratic city like Philly. After all, the folks being demonstrated against are Republicans. It’s a funny thing, hearing people rail against the (unwashed!) tsunami of protesters coming to town when just yesterday the unions were brandishing their swords in negotiations with the city, threatening to close down the convention if need be. Go figure.

Another couple of days to tie up particulars, then the roller coaster sets off toward Wednesday, when we’ll be done. I generally start working at complicated parties by thinking, “Twelve hours and I’ll be home.” Sunday afternoon and the gun goes off. Eighty-four hours.