When your meal is served at a wedding or when you grab a canapé at a cocktail reception, you do not often stop to think of what happened behind the scenes to put that food on your fork. Starting the day before the event, the kitchen is abuzz with chefs over their stoves, assistant chefs cutting and arranging food on plates and waiters lining up those plates on trays to be served to guests. Behind the kitchen staff are the various management teams working on the day-to-day operations and ensuring all is running smoothly. With almost 100 catering companies registered in the yellow pages, catering is big business in Lebanon.
Though there are no official figures regarding the industry’s total revenues, some experienced caterers estimate its total value at more than $1 billion annually. “When one considers how many weddings take place in the summer,” says Wael Lazani of Jai Catering, “and multiply it with how many guests are in each and knowing the minimum charge for catering is around $60 per person, then one can begin to get an idea of how big the catering business is in Lebanon”. This also does not count all the other events requiring catering, from store openings, company lunches to home dinners, as well as industrial and institutional catering for company cafeterias.
The catering business also generates a significant number of jobs as, depending on their size, catering companies can employ between five and 150 people, with additional staff, mainly waiters, hired during high seasons. “A high-end catering company usually handles between four to eight large events per week [meaning between 500 and 2,000 guests] and a few smaller ones such as home catering, cocktails or corporate meetings,” says Roger Zankoun, general manager of operations at Dream Holding, which owns Sofil Catering. Such an operation requires, according to Zankoun, 25 chefs and 20 permanent operations and logistics staff, with extra waiters hired when necessary.
Medi Resto, which Fleur De Lys catering is a part of, has 150 employees divided between administration, the sales team and those who handle and prepare the food, according to Michel Ferneini, chairman of Fleur De Lys Catering. Fleur De Lys had already catered 40 weddings between May and July this year. For his part, Hisham Saad, chief executive of Le Blanc Catering, employs 62 people and handles an average of 12 events per week during the high season.
Catering is not without its challenges, the biggest being competition as companies vie for clients, and sometimes corners get cut. Zankoun speaks of chefs and head waiters who leave the companies they were with to set up their own establishments, sometimes in under-equipped kitchens.
“When a chef with a kitchen designed to cook for around 50 people takes on an event of 200 people to make more money and serve more clients, thereby staying in the competition, he will not be able to maintain control of his output and the food’s hygiene might be sacrificed,” says Zankoun. Indeed, hostess Salma Mrad speaks of the time when, as a sign of support, she ordered salmon fillet from a chef who had recently started his own business. The fish she received stunk from afar. “I had planned it to be the main dish at the dinner I was hosting but when I smelled it, I knew there was no way I could serve it! I learned my lesson though and now only order from established caterers.”
Unlike restaurants in Lebanon, who get their operation licenses from the Ministry of Tourism, catering company licenses in Beirut fall under the jurisdiction of the office of the governor of Beirut and under the Classified Institutions Department. Inspectors are theoretically being sent to the kitchens of catering companies, but some caterers see this process as sporadic and are asking for more governmental oversight to separate the professional and hygienic companies from the ones who might be skimping on safety standards. However, all catering companies interviewed cited their health and safety certifications from Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), an international management system regarding food safety, to International Standards Organization (ISO) 22000, a food quality control system.
Food poisoning, however, can and does occur, especially at outdoor weddings where heat and humidity make it easy for food to go bad. At a buffet style wedding catered at an outdoor venue on a hill overlooking Jounieh in July 2009, a third of guests reported cases of food poisoning, some of which led to hospitalization. One of the guests humorously recalls being in the hospital emergency room and seeing people she recognized from the wedding walk in with expressions of pain on their faces.
Precautions some catering companies take to avoid such scenarios include displaying the food a maximum of 15 minutes before it is served and removing it an hour after the guests have visited the buffet. While this means you might not get second helpings, the risk of food spoiling is avoided.
Such precautions are costly. According to signature chef and caterer Hussein Hadid, outdoor weddings are more expensive due to the added cost of the cooled transport trucks and “stoves on the go”, as some of the food is prepared in the venue itself to guarantee freshness.
Michel Khalifat, general manager of Faqra Catering, believes that all measures should be taken in such cases to maintain quality but says a challenge they face is clients who want the same quality of food without the added cost. With basic costs rising (the foods and beverages supplies’ inflation index has risen 7.6 percent from last May according to the Consumer Price Index Report) such expensive extra measures put the squeeze on catering firms. Dream Holding’s Zankoun says they would rather refuse some outdoor weddings, especially those where the venues charge an operations percentage from them, as the cost of their investment is sometimes more than the return.
Hadid says that when wedding caterers stay competitive by lowering charges it necessarily means the quality of their food will suffer as they use the cheaper supplies. But, says Hadid, many couples care more about appearances than food, and so would be willing to cut corners on the catering and spend more on entertainment or display.
“No one will remember what the food was like at my wedding in years to come, but they will remember the superstar I am bringing to sing,” says Hala Baydoun, a bride-to-be planning her wedding for this September. “All I care about, regarding food at my wedding, is that no one gets poisoned.”
The price of a moving restaurant
Catering’s high season is the summer which, aside from the increased weddings, also sees a higher number of luncheons, with many people hosting company in their mountain homes. “Last year saw a trend of inviting out to restaurants rather than hosting at home, but this summer there is a high demand on home catering again,” says Khalifat. Most caterers agree hosting at home costs more than inviting guests to a restaurant (prices start from 65$, according to caterers interviewed). “At home, we are bringing the restaurant to the client which understandably costs more,” says Wissam Zeidan, managing partner of Socrates Catering. “We can even bring chefs for live cooking stations.”
During the winter, caterers generally rely on corporate and charity events, which increase around holidays. Some explore other catering avenues: Faqra Catering, for example, does industrial catering for schools and hospitals which Khalifat says helps them make up for the winter when less weddings and house parties take place.
The political events this summer seem to have affected the catering industry, with Zankoun reporting some 15 weddings being canceled and quoting planners who have told him they have had 50 weddings canceled. Catering companies are also complaining of weddings having shorter guest lists, due to less expats and Arab tourists coming to the country. The government-mandated wage increase has added to caterers’ costs, while Ferneini, of Fleur De Lys Catering, also talks about losing his talents to careers abroad, and indeed Hadid and Zankoun both speak about the difficulty of finding qualified staff and service people in Lebanon. “In a competitive business such as ours, one has to have presentable service people who know how to talk to and attract clients, and it is a challenge to find qualified people or even to train them here,” says Hadid.
While the catering industry undoubtedly faces challenges, by its nature it still retains its lucrative potential and massive market — among the oldest of human customs is to gather around food, and as long as this stays the case, there will always be a business to feed them.