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THE CATERING RACE : The Catering Race

March 25, 1993|KATHIE JENKINS

He's a caterer. Which, I suppose, explains why he's constantly cheek-to-jowl with Liz and Dick and the Beatles and the rest of that fast crowd.

--The Partygoer, Los Angeles Times West Magazine, 1968

As Los Angeles' most famous valet parker (he even has secret service clearance), Chuck Pick has seen more than his share of parties in this town. Hot parties. Dull parties. Parties where one or more of the guests ends up in the pool. And he knows, though he doesn't like to say, exactly who's in and who's out in the catering biz. "I work with all of them," he says, "so I can't bad-mouth any of them."

But that doesn't stop caterers from bad-mouthing each other. "Randy Fur Ball" is one name some caterers have bestowed upon long-time party planner Randy Fuhrman. (He's not technically a caterer, but takes business away from other full-service companies.) "The Bar Mitzvah Queen," is how some dismiss caterer Gai Klass.

"This is a highly competitive business," says Ray Henderson of Rococo catering. "We bid against each other all the time."

"We all need to be respectful toward each other," says Mary Micucci of Along Came Mary, who bristles at the backbiting--and even the notion of competition. "Competitors?" she says, "I don't like that word. I think we're all just in a similar business."

"Oh, Mary would stand on her head just like Cal Worthington to keep Rococo from getting a job," Henderson says.

The competition has become so cutthroat that Fuhrman--he boasts he was once given as a gift to Barbra Streisand--was thrown out of a party he'd been invited to a while back because the caterer was afraid he would steal their ideas. "I am flattered," says Fuhrman. "They think I am that big of a threat."

Catering is big business in Southern California: Corporate lunches. Charity benefits. Wrap parties after the shooting of a movie. Film premieres. Of course, weddings, anniversaries and bar mitzvahs. And clients pay dearly. A party for 1,000 guests can easily run $100,000 or more.

Even with the recession, forecasters predict that in 1993, catering sales will reach $2.7 billion, up 4% from last year.

"The problem," says Hallee Gould of the catering company Somerset, "is that the market is saturated with caterers."

It wasn't always this way. "I remember when there was really just one caterer," Pick says. That would be Casserole Catering's Bob Leberman, who went into the party business in 1946. Before Leberman, the stars and society party-givers just called their favorite restaurant--usually Chasen's or Perino's--and had food sent over.

"Leberman was really the one who took catering to a different level," Pick says. He provided not just food, but the silver and the servers--the ambience. He was L.A.'s first full-service caterer. Then, in 1953, the legendary Milton Williams entered the scene. He supplied glamour and elegance for his Hollywood customers, and was so chic he had an unlisted telephone number.

Through most of the '80s the L.A. party market was dominated by a group of catering companies that some call the Big Four: Along Came Mary, Ambrosia, Rococo and Somerset. If there was a major party to be planned, odds were one of the Big Four would get the job. And for years, there were plenty of parties to go around.

"Mary is the biggest in the city and probably makes the most money," Fuhrman says. "That's fine with me. I don't want to have 30 employees and be crazy."

"Anything that Judy Ovitz (wife of agent honcho Michael Ovitz) is doing," says Ambrosia's David Corwin, "Mary gets."

Along Came Mary's Micucci worked her way up to the top by starting an all-female bartending service 17 years ago. Today her company supplies food and decor at major movie premieres and record parties.

To amuse her demanding--and often fickle--clients, Micucci has hired fortune tellers, turned the Santa Monica Pier carousel into a set from "The Nutcracker," and a parking lot into a pirate ship. She's made gingerbread cookies for the movie premiere of "Toys," beef brisket and latkes for "Used People," and a heartland supper of roast turkey, ribs, cornbread and cobbler for "Leap of Faith." For the West Coast premiere of "Joe vs. the Volcano," Micucci churned out thousands of hot fudge sundaes.

"I'm not like Mary," explains Henderson of Rococo, the oldest of the Big Four. "I don't try to sell decorating jobs." What does he sell? "Rococo," Henderson says, "is food oriented."

That food is created in a swank 48,000-square-foot "party planning center" in Van Nuys. There are separate laundry rooms, tasting rooms and pantries; the walk-in refrigerators are larger than most two-car garages. Rococo even dispatches limousines to fetch its upper-crust clients.

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