Two years ago, James Varamo used to roll his eyes when a business wanted to book a holiday lunch rather than a dinner at Black-Eyed Sally's, or save money by avoiding an open bar.
Oh, how times have changed.
This year, the owner of the downtown Hartford restaurant says: "Oh, great! Let me send you some information right away."
Restaurants and caterers that host holiday parties have seen their revenues fall 10 percent to 30 percent for the season from a peak two years ago. Companies are often spending more per person on their seasonal soirées this year than they did during last year's panic, but because there are fewer people at the office these days, overall party spending is flat in 2009 compared with 2008.
Ann Howard @ the Bond, a Hartford caterer, will host 22 parties this December, about the same as last year. Owner Joe Howard said businesses aren't skimping as much as they did in 2008, when economizing and fewer bookings meant a 30 percent decline in the month's revenue compared to 2007.
Last year, Howard said, the mood was "the Earth is coming to the end. It was miserable." Where last year, parties had two-drink tickets per guest, now they're back to an open bar. Where last year, they did a pasta and a carving station, this year they're having sit-down dinners.
But even with the changes, revenue will be flat for the season, which accounts for 20 percent of the year's business, Howard said.
"A lot of reorgs. Tonight's party was 120 last year, and this year, it's 95," he said. Another recent party hosted 185 in 2008, and had 145 guests this year.
Black-Eyed Sally's is having 37 parties this December, about 20 percent more than last year. "When the whole financial meltdown happened, it really put a big damper on holiday parties," Varamo said.
And parties are crucial in December. Regular diners are out at the malls, not coming downtown.
But spending has not returned to 2007 levels, when companies would include an open bar and spend $45 a person on food. Now, it's more like $20 to $25 a head.
Laughter and talk echoed off the pressed tin walls and ceiling as the Connecticut Surety Association held its 50-person party at Black-Eyed Sally's last Thursday. A Christmas tree with a blue-and-green flashing star shared the stage with a drum kit, just off the restaurant's wide-plank wood floor.
Bette Botticello, president of the association, said the group — insurance and bonding agents, accountants and attorneys involved in commercial construction — has held its parties at Black-Eyed Sally's for the past three years, and this one should cost about $3,000. "It's a reasonable price," she said.
Guests had hors d'oeuvres, an open bar and a buffet of mini barbecue sandwiches and chicken-broccoli ziti, with cornbread and salad. Botticello, director of surety relations at Smith Brothers Insurance, chose the same package as last year, but had about 10 more attendees than she expected at the party, which served as a networking event.
"I think it's really nice to get everybody together, people you don't see a lot. Everybody provides information about our industry," she said.
"With the economy the way it is, it seems like you see more people at networking events, trying to drum up business," said Peter Strniste, the CSA vice president and an attorney at Robinson & Cole.
At Maneeley's reception hall and catering in South Windsor, 2008 business was hurt by snowstorms more than the economy, owner Bruce Maneeley said. He has seen the economic fallout this year.
Starting in October and November, companies that had put down deposits last December asked to cancel.
Maneeley is using those deposits toward trays of food he can bring to companies' offices instead of hosting a party at his center. Before the recession, he had 225 business holiday parties; this year, he has about 100.
"Two years ago, they were doing chocolate fountains, espresso tables," he said.
A party for about 125 to 150 people used to run $7,000 to $8,000. Now, by not including mixed drinks, or by using drink tickets or a cash bar, and by choosing less expensive dishes, companies are spending $4,500 to $5,500.
Businesses that used to have hot lunches brought to the office are asking to move to a hot breakfast, to save $6 a head, Maneeley said. Spouses are no longer invited to parties. Second-shift employees have to come in to eat with first shift's holiday lunch. Third shift is gone entirely. That used to be 6 percent of the season for Maneeley.
"We probably do 15, 20 car dealerships. None of them are doing functions this year," he said.
Where they used to need 50 to 60 staffers in a night, now he has enough work for only 30 or 35.
And while Maneeley is glad that many firms are still showing appreciation to their employees, even if they're cutting back, he has refused some requests. He's had some callers ask: "What have you got for $200?"
Aqua Turf in Southington, another large catering center, isn't heavily reliant on the Christmas season, which is only 10 percent of the year's business.
But where there used to be up to 20,000 guests a week in December at Aqua Turf, now there are 16,000, General Manager Tim Needham said. Spending dropped 10 percent to 12 percent from 2007 to 2008, and 2009 is flat.
"We're glad 2009 is behind us," Needham said. "We're kind of optimistic about 2010."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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