One day I got a call from a woman, Mary, who wanted us to cater a luncheon for 500 people at the State House in Boston. I had been in business for about three years and was excited and nervous about this opportunity. It would definitely be the biggest job I had catered thus far. It was a high-profile event that could lead to more business, but there was a catch.
Our initial conversation went something like this:
Mary: “Hi, a colleague recommended your company to me. I need to organize a lunch next week for at least 500 people. Can you handle that size group?”
Me: “Absolutely,” I replied, hoping my tone didn’t betray the fear that had gripped every bone in my body.
So we began discussing the specifics – the day, place, time, budget, and menu. Then I asked, “When can you confirm the final number of people?”
Mary: “Well that’s the tricky part. I won’t know that for sure until the lunch actually gets going.”
Me: “Um…ahh…ok…I’m sorry, could you elaborate on that?”
Mary: “These lunches at The State House can be, well, unpredictable. We never know for certain how many people are going to show up. What I usually do is order and pay for 500, and about a half-hour into the lunch, I let you know if we will need more food.”
Me: “Umm…ok…could you give me a sense of how many more people you might need food for?”
Mary: “Anywhere from fifty to two-hundred.”
Me: “OK, getting you more food isn’t a problem. I can have my staff on stand-by, but if you end up needing a couple hundred more sandwiches, it’s gonna take some time to produce and deliver them.”
At this point I sensed that Mary was getting bored with our conversation. She gave a quick sigh and said, “I have been doing these lunches forever. They are a thorn in my side, and honestly, I’m not overly concerned about the details. I just want to get these savages (her word) fed, and move them along to their next event. The caterer that I usually order from gets whatever additional foods are needed over here pretty quickly. I don’t know how they do it, and quite frankly, I don’t care. I realize it’ll take more than five minutes, but it can’t take a half-hour. We may not even need any extra at all. But if it’s something you’d rather not deal with, I understand completely.”
She was a woman who knew what she wanted, and didn’t mince words expressing it.
Me: “We definitely want to cater this lunch for you, Mary.”
Mary: “Good, I have to run. Let’s talk at the end of the week.”
Before I could say goodbye, she hung up.
The next few days were spent working and worrying. How were we going to pull this off? It wasn’t so much the number of people that concerned me, but rather the “I’ll let you know half-way through lunch if we need a couple of hundred more sandwiches” part that was keeping me up at night.
There were three issues I needed to figure out.
First- how much backup/extra sandwich prep would we have on hand? (Sliced meats, cheeses, tuna and chicken salads, bread, condiments.) I decided on splitting her estimate and adding some. We would prep for an additional one hundred and fifty.
Second – how much staff was required if additional sandwiches were needed? We would be in the middle of the lunch rush – not exactly an ideal time to pull people off the floor. I decided to pad my lunch crew with extra staff who would be available to bang out up to two hundred sandwiches…quickly.
Third- how much personnel was needed to deliver and set-up round #1, and potentially round #2, to the State House? I contacted a temporary staffing agency and arranged for four servers to arrive at the restaurant a couple of hours before lunch was scheduled to begin.
Mary called as promised thirty minutes into the luncheon, needing food for “about a hundred more people” (= ten platters of sandwiches). I instructed two of the servers to high tail it back to the restaurant, which luckily was just around the corner. By the time they arrived, two of the ten platters were done.
Anxious to return, one of the servers, with more than a hint of panic in his voice asked, “How long’s it gonna be?”
“In fifteen minutes, we’ll be done,” a sandwich maker responded. “Take these for now,” handing off the two trays (= 20 sandwiches.)
“This it?” the server cried out, followed by the line that to this day, brings a smile to my face…“This is like feeding a tic-tac to a whale!”
There is nothing like a good, hearty group laugh to ease the tension of the moment.
I tell this story for two reasons. One: to share the tic-tac/whale line. And two: because it is a good example of an appropriate time to go for it, and hopefully take your catering business to the next level. I felt I had enough experience with this type of lunch to go beyond the usual comfort zone and pull it off. Granted, there were new challenges to get through, but all in all, it was a success. It gave me confidence to take on more jobs this size.