It starts about a year out — first contact. There is inevitable compromising, conceding, and bargaining from the get, between the bride, groom, MILs, wedding planners, catering company. Everyone brings their ideas. Grandiose Pinterest dreams — queso fountains and ceviche! 200 mini creme brulees, torched onsite! — often clash with the patron’s budget. The chef asks for this, the sales team suggests that. The planner shakes her head.
“We spend approximately 24 hours on each event,” says Salthouse Catering owner/operator Tanya Gurrieri. “From first call, menu planning, to site visit, kitchen ordering, staffing, unloading, setting up, serving the event, break down, clean up, follow up. Our guest count for 2018 was 22,918 happy people.”
It’s no secret that the Holy City is a hotspot for weddings, not to mention all the private, corporate, and nonprofit events being held around town most every week (or every hour if you watch Southern Charm). The Wedding Report for Charleston and North Charleston for 2018 shows that 5,768 weddings took place in 2018. Nationally, Wedding Wire’s 2018 report says couples spent on average $6,600 on wedding catering. Venue, attire, music, and flowers aside — that’s a lot of moola.
From buffet stations to plated dinners to trucks and tableside service, you can get your food served just about any way you like when you say ‘I do.’ Gurrieri says that since she started working in Charleston’s catering industry 15 years ago, “wedding season just keeps getting longer.” Gurrieri estimates that about 75 percent of their business falls under the wedding category, and the demand for wedding vendors is high for good reason. “After being in Atlanta for seven years and watching our wedding industry grow over 15 years, Charleston does weddings as well if not better than anywhere in the country,” says Gurrieri.
Duvall Catering sales and marketing director Leigh Smalley says that the 41-year old company really saw a surge in Holy City weddings — especially down-to-the-place setting detail focused shindigs — in the past decade. “Events as experiences took off and Pinterest hit eight years ago. [Brides] were equally interested in decor and floral, so we started a small floral and decor division that has grown; for a quarter of events we do catering, bar, plus floral and decor.” In the middle of busy season, Smalley says Duvall will crank out 10 events on a Saturday, from a 50-person bridal brunch to a 300 person reception.
As wedding season extends — Gurrieri says she’s had clients getting married on a Monday — it can become increasingly difficult to find an open weekend where the dream venue and caterer are both available. Even though Charleston prices seem steep to a lot of us, comparatively, Gurrieri says that “venue rates are lower, photographers are lower” than other popular cities.
Wedding Wire’s 2018 report doesn’t even list Charleston in the top 25 most expensive markets, so don’t expect the Charleston as a destination wedding trend to fade any time soon. “People from New York are blown away,” says Smalley. “We’ll have 330 guests at the Hibernian, then an oyster roast for 200 — they get to experience Charleston, they’re blown away at the hospitality. Every wedding they’d been to in New York are in hotel ballrooms that are four to five times as expensive.”
Founded in 2000, Cru Catering says they catered 150 wedding related events last year, with almost as many tastings. That’s a lot of small plates. “I’ve been fortunate to have people who have stuck around,” says John Zucker, owner of Cru Catering, Cru Cafe, and Purlieu. “I tell them, ‘from March to May we’re going to be working a lot.'”
Between corporate events, wedding related events, lunches, cocktail hours, and nonprofit events, Cru served approximately 55,000 guests in 2018 with a culinary team of Zucker, executive chef Steve Boyer, pastry chef Andrea Pharris, and sous chefs Natalie Autry and Kellie Ross.
And that’s just part of back of house. “If we’re not busy in the field we’re busy in the office getting ready for the next season,” says operations director Chad Rhodes, noting that during busy season, the Cru crew will clock 1,000 kitchen hours a week, plus event time. “We have a sales and admin team of seven, plus 15 to 20 full-time kitchen employees. The servers we get from a long list we’ve put together, it’s all people who have had previous experience in the restaurant industry, a lot of peer to peer recommendations.”
Smalley says that Duvall has a whopping 12 chefs on payroll, with Culinary Institute of America grad Tom Donnelly at the helm. Duvall operates out of the huge Midtown Event Center on Azalea Drive in North Charleston, a state of the art facility featuring a show room, board room, production kitchen, and chef’s kitchen. From this facility Duvall’s pastry department alone used 2,800 pounds of butter for custom wedding cakes, biscuits, rolls, and varied desserts in 2018.
“Each week we sit around going over upcoming event details,” says Gurrieri of her team. While she handles marketing and operations, owner/operator and executive chef Todd Mazurek heads up the kitchen with the help of sous Jake Stone. They also employ a sales manager and operations manager. “We discuss the timing — what platter this goes on, how many vegetarians, what time the band needs to eat,” says Gurrieri. “We lay the groundwork for each division. Ideally I’m not executing, I want to be onsite to see the client.”
After the meetings are held and the hours are clocked and the thousands of dollars on chicken — 2,500 pounds and $8,000 worth for Salthouse in 2018 — are spent, the teams at Salthouse, Duvall, and Cru regroup, then gear up for the next event. It’s a constant grind, but to stay competitive in the ever-alluring market, it also has to be a constant passion project.
“We’re members of the Leading Caterers of America,” says Smalley of Duvall. “Every state has one member — we have these peers in other states and we’re one of the small guys.” In 1978, right as Spoleto was taking off and “tiny sparks of foodie and hospitality culture” were starting to emerge, two guys from New York — Peter “Stephen” Milewics and Dan “Duvall” Stephens — decided to create a catering company on East Bay. “It started as a sweet little company,” says Smalley. “They catered all the little artsy parties, they became known as avant garde. They were pushing the boundaries of Southern hospitality.”
Forty-one years later, Duvall has catered over 20,000 events. Smalley says the biggest change she’s seen, having worked with Duvall as a client or employee since 1993, is the education of the guests. “People know so much more about food, they appreciate fine details, guests are way more in tune, and everyone has really specific opinions, whether it’s corporate or wedding or social. In the ’90s we were the experts, you would pick “A, B, or C,” now each detail has a million options.”
Cru prides itself on its fully customizable menu — you want a pan-Asian cocktail hour with Indian inspired buffet stations during the reception? They can do it. You want all the food to pair up with the colors of your company? They’ve done it. (Looking at you, Google.) While shrimp and grits stations and biscuits by the barrel are still, and always will be, popular, the menus these upper echelon catering companies are creating are in line with the top restaurants in town.
“We had a fun event this past year where we painted the sauces and starches on the centerpiece display and served the protein and vegetables tableside,” says Rhodes. “It was a great way to present and discuss the food with the guests. All tables were served at the same time and each had their own chef serving them.” If that’s not a special dining experience — which most top tier can’t-get-a-reservation restaurants promise — than what is?
“We specifically focus on fresh seafood, we go out with on the farms with GrowFood,” says Smalley. “We’ll call Crosby’s and get fish right off the boat.”
“We really are in the Charleston hospitality field,” says Smalley. “Everyone who works fo Duvall has long hospitality careers, it’s like this drug, wanting to take care of people.”