On a recent Saturday, petite lobster rolls on toasted brioche and coconut shrimp with mango aioli were to be passed among the guests at a 210-person wedding. A bar mitzvah party for 180 was going to conclude with torched s'mores and a chocolate fountain.
For David Cingari of David's Soundview Catering in Stamford, Conn., the events, along with food for an anniversary party, should have brought in roughly $6,600 in profits.
Instead, he was dashing about, serving lobster rolls, blackened mahi-mahi tacos and smashburgers alongside cocktails like the Painkiller to socially distanced diners at a pop-up restaurant he opened in mid-June.
His take? About $600.
The restaurant, David's at the Landing, is the third iteration of Cingari's business since the coronavirus pandemic struck, bringing his $7 million-a-year company to a sudden stop.
"We were going to do $300,000 in graduation parties this spring," he said. "That's just gone."
The pandemic has the nation's caterers — roughly 12,000 people or companies with annual revenue of more than $60 billion — reeling. Many caterers say they expect their business to be down 80 to 90% this year. Corporate cafeterias that they provide food and staff to remain closed. Events like graduation and anniversary parties have been canceled or pushed into next year.
And the ones that took place were on a decidedly smaller scale.
"We did one 50-person wedding," Cingari said. "It was a clambake in the backyard. That was supposed to be a 250-person wedding."
The collapse of the catering industry this year affects bartenders, wait staff and others who typically work these events as part-time employees.
The industry — a collection of large corporations like Aramark and Compass Group and thousands of smaller companies owned by individuals — is not tracking how many caterers have permanently closed because of the pandemic, but they say it will happen.
While caterers say they are taking a financial beating, many feel better situated than those in the restaurant business. Instead of paying often expensive rent in desirable locations like most restaurants, caterers typically pay less for large kitchens that can be off the beaten track.
Moreover, caterers tend to be a nimble group of entrepreneurs, adept at providing finicky couples with their every heart's whim and overcoming the oddest of logistical challenges. Those traits have helped them during the pandemic.
The first inkling Cingari received that this year was going to be anything but normal came in late February when he was notified that the employees of a Japanese-based company in one of the buildings where he managed the cafeteria would be working from home as part of an emergency response trial. A week later, a large international bank said it would be doing the same thing.
"It was like wildfire," he said. "Within three weeks, every one of the cafeterias were closed and any event we had on the books was canceled."
Cingari said money from the federal Paycheck Protection Program covered around 80 of his employees.
As companies shut down and people began staying at home in mid-March, Cingari shifted his business.
"Since we had this large commissary kitchen, we could do huge numbers of meals," he said, though he made no profit from it. "So we started making a few thousand meals a day for several weeks to feed hospital workers and others."
That effort dried up as coronavirus cases declined in Connecticut in the late spring. Cingari's been shifting ever since. In early July, he opened his pop-up restaurant in a corporate office park where he manages the cafeteria in one of the buildings.
"I can't believe I'm back in the restaurant business," Cingari said. "Shoot me. Still, the business is covering costs and making a little bit of money for the eight people who are working there."