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Making it Happen 

How to hire a caterer

"We will make it happen" are the assuring words many caterers use when discussing an event with a client. But hiring a caterer for an event is somewhat like developing a relationship with a hairstylist. As the relationship develops, trust develops.

Fund-raisers and wedding receptions are typically where you run into caterers, but more people are turning to caterers to fill the need for other events such as holiday and birthday parties, cocktail and dinner parties, bar mitzvah and showers.

One of Charlotte's most trusted word-of-mouth caterers is Porcupine Provisions owned by Bruce and Leslie Schlernitzauer. But they didn't start as a catering company. Originally they owned Porcupine Provisions, a restaurant (on the site of the old Drum restaurant, now City Tavern) on East Boulevard in Dilworth. Bruce Schlernitzauer is a graduate of Johnson & Wales University culinary program in Providence, R.I., and also attended the University of Massachusetts, Amherst School of Hotel Restaurant Management. Leslie, a (rare) native Charlottean and daughter of well-known local radio broadcasters and Charlotte Weekly newspaper publishers Stan and Sis Kaplan, earned her MBA from Boston University.

Leslie Schlernitzauer reports that their catering business was prompted by a loyal customer. "Our last night in the restaurant was New Year's Eve 1998, but by January a customer called and asked us to make dinner at her house. That started our catering business." Today their catering range includes a variety of events -- from high-end fund-raisers to low-key barbecues.

Schlernitzauer says that her regular customers let her handle the event. One customer prefers not choosing the holiday party menu until days before the event since Porcupine also caters for the client's friends. "They wait so their menu can either be all new or new with some of that season's favorites thrown in."

Schlernitzauer suggests that during the initial meeting, budget and outcomes should be covered. She notes that, having been in the business for so long, she can generally come up with a financial ball-park picture from a discussion of what the customer wants to achieve. Other factors to consider are the number of guests -- not invited, but attending -- whether the event is social or business, and where the event will take place.

Home events are increasing in popularity. "More people enjoy entertaining at home and a lot have really nice homes and it would be a shame not to entertain. The Food Network has made home entertaining more accessible," Schlernitzauer says.

Some of the other catering considerations are booking as far in advance as possible. Porcupine Provisions booked most of their December 2006 events last January. Saturday wedding dates fill quickly -- as much as a year in advance. But Schlernitzauer noted that Sunday, when venues are often discounted, is becoming a popular alternative for a wedding date.

Schlernitzauer also suggests being able to fully describe the type of party you envision. Is it a seated dinner or a buffet? Do you want heavy hors d'oeuvres (more than one bite pieces)? Do you want a combination of passed and stationary food stations?

One of the biggest mistakes clients make is using the home bar. While some home bars are quite extensive, generally they do not allow a bartender to get behind it and thus he will have his back to the guests. "It's better to relocate the bar to a place where the bartender can face the guests. I like to use an out of the way area, since people will make it a point to go to the bar," Schlernitzauer says.

Another mistake people make is not letting the caterer handle beverages. "We always keep plenty of extras in the van. Besides, what is a client going to do with a dozen bottles of leftover club soda? We don't mark up wine and beer very much, we don't charge an hourly fee, and the client will not run out." The rule of thumb is four to five drinks per person per event.

"People assume they need more space than they do for catering. But everyone ends up in one place anyway. Space is more important for a seated dinner since you need two feet clearance on all sides in order to have good service. So a five-foot round is really a nine-foot space." She noted that a 40-person cocktail party in a two-bedroom condo is common and comfortable.

If planning the event in your home, you need to let the caterer know what is available in the kitchen. "Some caterers bring everything ready. We don't. We make everything fresh on site. So the question to the caterer is, 'Do you need a kitchen?' And then be able to tell the caterer if you have a four-eye or six cooktop. Is there a laundry room to stack extras? Or a garage? I spend a lot of time in people's garages." She adds, "A caterer is someone you should form a relationship with and someone you feel comfortable having in your home."

For Porcupine Provisions, the cost for most events range from $22 per person to "the sky's the limit." Schlernitzauer also notes many clients forget to figure into the budget Charlotte's 8 1/2 percent tax on prepared food.

The Schlernitzauers discovered what many other former restaurateurs have: owning and operating a hands-on restaurant precludes having a decent family life. Catering allows the Schlernitzauers to spend more time with their children and take worry-free vacations. "Now if we want to take a vacation we just don't schedule events," says Schlernitzauer. "And we don't schedule Thanksgiving -- that's my favorite holiday."

To contact Tricia regarding tips, compliments or complaints or to send notice of a food or wine event (at least 12 days in advance, please), opening, closing or menu change, fax Eaters' Digest at 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail at 704-522-8334, ext. 136.

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