The special events industry is revving up after a year’s slumber as large functions are permitted and more people feel comfortable gathering again.
And with the easing of restrictions come new players in the game: Restaurateurs, sensing this pent-up demand for socialization, are creating events venues far more elaborate than the private dining rooms of the past.
Catering — the weddings, the mitzvahs, the anniversary blowouts, the quinceañeras — can be smarter than operating a restaurant, which has its day-to-day ups and downs and uncertainties. In catering, many variables are eliminated, such as time, date, menu, number of guests, and number of staff. There is less food waste, and most times, the tabs are paid in advance.
Sometimes, the decision to enter the events business is organic. For years, Mike Solomonov and Steve Cook said they had to turn away most requests for large parties at their restaurants, especially their flagship, Zahav. On Tuesday, they got the keys to an 18,000-square-foot space in Fishtown and are opening Lilah, which will be able to host events for 250 people, along with the fourth location of their vegan falafel shop, Goldie.
Other restaurateurs are working with what they have. Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran are now using Lolita, their Mexican restaurant in Washington Square West, for events; this complements their private-events space above Barbuzzo. Michael Schulson added a glass-topped pergola to Graffiti Bar, behind his Washington Square West restaurant Sampan, for all-weather events; the bar is open daily to the public as well. Walnut Street Cafe in University City, which has access to the vast roof at Cira Center South, is doubling down on a longtime plan to launch an event company, including banquets, at more venues.
Sometimes, the move to events has an element of serendipity. Over the pandemic, brothers Benjamin and Robert Bynum converted their former Green Soul restaurant at 1412 Mount Vernon St. into the new home of Warmdaddy’s — a revival of the blues joint that closed in South Philadelphia in summer 2020.
“We’d completed the fit-out and done a soft opening, and — to be frank — it didn’t feel like Warmdaddy’s to us,” Robert Bynum said last week. “The food was good, but it just didn’t have the same pop to us. We didn’t think it was where it was to carry on the legacy.”
They quickly converted the space into SouthSide Events, a catering venue and events space seating 50 to 120 people, as an adjunct to South, their jazz-themed restaurant next door. The pandemic made the Bynums more flexible, “more open to pivoting,” Robert Bynum said. “We’re getting used to making changes on the fly.”
They will find a new location for Warmdaddy’s, he said
Meanwhile, the nation’s traditional caterers are climbing out of deep financial holes caused by the pandemic.
The number of weddings in the Philadelphia area, a solid barometer, fell by half in 2020, according to Wedding Report, which tracks spending and trends locally and nationally.
In 2019, Wedding Report recorded 32,616 weddings in the area, with an average tab of $38,142, for a total of $1.24 billion. In 2020, the number of weddings dropped to 16,110, with an average tab of $31,895, for a total of $513.8 million.
Wedding Report predicts only modest improvement for 2021, with 28,982 weddings, but a spike to 37,759 in 2022 as couples reschedule.
One major problem for caterers, said Joseph Volpe of the popular on-premises company Cescaphe, is that these rescheduled events are carrying old price tags, leaving caterers to cover higher costs, including food and labor. Conversely, caterers that book events now for 2022 and beyond now can charge current, higher prices.
Today’s events are also smaller, Volpe said. The average guest count is down from 177 before the pandemic to 112 now, though he sees that issue to be short term. Volpe said he and other caterers lowered their minimum guest counts.
“When we price these, there’s a 150-guest minimum,” Volpe said. “We waived that. We’re just happy that people are getting married.”