By Emily Treadway Portraits by Ralph Yznaga
“March 2020 seems like a bad dream,” says Asia Gonczar, owner and executive chef of Apolonia Catering, referring to the worldwide shutdowns that began that month due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Food industries like Gonczar’s were hit particularly hard and, over a year later, many catering businesses and restaurants are still struggling. Some didn’t survive.
Leslie Moore, owner of Word of Mouth catering and an Austin institution in his own right, has been a caterer in Austin for 30 years — hosting presidents, governors and celebrities. “COVID was a most unusual event that affected all caterers in different ways,” he says. “Uncertainty and fear of the unknown were our daily companions,” he adds, as companies wrestled with the decision to stay open or close up shop.
Kristen Stacy, co-owner of Royal Fig Catering, agrees. “We couldn’t hold events until the beginning of June 2020 when we started to receive guidance on how to do so safely.” But by that time most people had already canceled or postponed their events.
Moore admits, “It’s pretty devastating when all of a sudden you’re told it’s not safe to do business.”
In an effort to keep their doors open, restaurants and catering companies everywhere scrambled to recreate or restructure their business models. But Kristin Stephens, director of Austin Catering, points out, “Caterers are known for thinking on their feet and for being creative, but 2020 challenged us to really think outside the box and find ways to keep moving forward.”
For many, this included selling takeout meals. Stephens says, “We used to believe food couldn’t be dropped off, but when that’s all you can do, you figure it out.”
Moore is confident that most of the catering companies will recover, though, and Stacy says, “Now that the world is opening up again, clients are wanting to reschedule their events. We’ve never been so booked!”
There are still challenges that remain, however, and one of them is a lack of staffing. During the pandemic many companies had to let employees go, and even those who didn’t struggled to keep their staff because there were no events for them to make money from. “A lot of them decided that the industry is too vulnerable,” Moore explains, “and they’ve moved on or will move on to other careers.”
Moore was one of the employers who was determined not to let any of his staff go, so he put them to work preparing takeout meals and his planning staff to work sorting out client contracts, finding new venue dates and arranging refunds. He and his team also established new company health and safety protocols.
While Word of Mouth was writing their own standards for health regulations and procedures, the rest of Austin’s catering companies were also adjusting their contracts to account for unforeseen circumstances like COVID-19. This, according to Stacy, speaks to the great relationship that Austin caterers have with one another and the open communication between them.
When Moore started Word of Mouth in 1987, there were only a handful of caterers in the Austin area. Today, there are many more catering companies, not to mention the restaurants that also cater. “Competition is a good thing in my eyes,” Moore says. “We learn from each other and there is so much more creativity. We have a much more vibrant food scene now.”
Moving forward, Stephens at Austin Catering says, “We’ve learned the value of meeting our client’s needs right where they are, whether it’s providing a roll of toilet paper with their meal delivery or executing a seated dinner for 300 from their backyard.”
Gonczar believes this past year, while difficult, provided her with new business opportunities and growth, from expanding her menu to acquiring a new kitchen. It also made her more likely to take chances she may have been afraid to take before.
The big takeaway, however, always remains the same. “As caterers, we’re participating in our client’s life moments. No matter how big or small, they all deserve the same level of attention,” says Stephens.
Austin’s caterers are open and ready to serve clients at their events, big or small.