JACKSON — When the number of people expected at Cellular South’s 15th anniversary celebration event held earlier this month nearly doubled, caterer Jimmy Morton accommodated the larger crowd with ease.
“We planned for 300 to attend and ended up with about 500 people, but the caterer handled it wonderfully,” said Tanya Rankin, manager of public relations for Cellular South.
“Feeding 12 people at home will stress most people,” said Morton, owner of Chimneyville Smokehouse and Catering in Jackson. “Feeding 1,200 without a hitch takes tremendous experience and know-how. When everything’s right, catering is the easiest job in the world, but when you get on site and more people show up than planned or the weather turns ugly or something else throws a curve, then professional experience counts.”
Aven Whittington, catering coordinator for Bravo! restaurant and Broad Street Bakery in Jackson, said the worst nightmare for a caterer “is to run out of food halfway through an event.”
The mark of a good caterer, he said, is “someone who doesn’t get surprised.”
In 2002, business was brisk for Capital City caterers, and a robust year is anticipated in 2003.
“I don’t know that Jackson can handle more caterers at this point, but I don’t think the market is saturated yet,” said Whittington, who handles calls for a variety of food products, from breakfast pastries and boxed sandwich lunches to dinner entrees. “There’s definitely room for different styles of caterers.”
Morton, who has been specializing in barbecue, catfish and steaks for 14 years, said the catering side of his business was up 22% last year. Because of construction on High Street that impeded traffic to his facility, the restaurant side of the business was down slightly.
“There’s plenty of business out there,” he said. “Party planners generally stick with a caterer they know because there are so many horror stories out there. They like reliability.”
The horror stories usually involve illegal caterers, many of whom prepare food at their home, do not charge sales tax and lack food service permits, business licenses and/or proper training.
“Caterers operating without health department approval are a risk to public health,” said Mike Cashion, executive director of the Mississippi Restaurant Association. “Inadequate cooking and cooling equipment can lead to outbreaks of food-borne illnesses. The health department requires food safety training of every person that holds a health permit. Illegal caterers typically do not have that professional training and certification.”
Because many “illegals” do not carry liability insurance, it creates a case of “buyer beware,” said Cashion.
“Get sick and you have no recourse,” he said.
Because many illegal caterers do not have a business license and do not charge sales tax, the state is deprived of much needed tax revenue. Also, an uneven playing field is created when an illegal caterer can quote a rate anywhere from 7% to 9% lower because they don’t charge the tax, said Cashion.
“The restaurant industry welcomes competition,” he said. “It is what drives the industry and makes everyone better at what they do. Competition must take place on a level playing field that protects the health of the public. Individuals can cater out of their homes if the health department approves of their facility.”
Charlene Bruce, director of the food protection division with the Mississippi State Department of Health, said the 45 environmentalists who inspect restaurants and catering services in Mississippi’s nine districts usually catch 18 to 27 illegal caterers every year.
“Most of the illegal caterers are catering parties and similar events,” said Bruce. “They are getting paid to either transport food to the event or make it at the event, which is illegal. If they don’t advertise, we have trouble tracking them down because we are short-staffed. Also, some of the environmentalists work closely with the tax commission and some don’t. It just depends on the relationship between the two agencies in a particular area.”
A few years ago, some illegal caterers were serving food from their car trunks at industrial sites around the state, said Bruce. “We had a real problem with that,” she said. “Sometimes, individuals would take it upon themselves to fix sandwiches and sit at factory gates and sell to factory workers.”
In Jackson, reputable caterers network to keep others informed of illegal catering activity, loan equipment to each other for large events, and share leads.
“At the Mistletoe Marketplace Gala, we worked with four others (The Yacht Club, Nick’s, Dennery’s, and The Steamroom Grill) and had a wonderful time,” said Whittington. “I think we did a great job working together to pull off an event that large.”
If a caterer cannot accommodate a client’s request, or doesn’t specialize in a particular food, networking plays a vital role.
“You can damage the relationship between a client and those he’s serving by taking on something you shouldn’t, but if you make a good recommendation to another qualified caterer that best fits their needs, you build credibility with them down the road,” said Morton.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org</a.