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THE CATERING RACE : Improving the Odds

March 25, 1993|KATHIE JENKINS

When Celia Hollander found out about an upcoming wrap party for the Steven Spielberg film, "Hook," she pounced.

"Not only were we the only ones bidding on it," says the feisty Hollander, who at the time was working for another caterer, "but I had had a working relationship with ("Hook" star) Robin (Williams) from other stuff I had done for him. I know what he likes to eat, so I took him a huge basket of food."

Then, just to cover her bets, Hollander went out and bought a gigantic treasure chest, filled it with goodies and delivered it to Spielberg.

But Hollander didn't get the party. "I heard that Mary Micucci (of Along Came Mary) called Mike Medavoy (chairman of Tri-Star Pictures), and she got it," Hollander says. "I cried after that one."

Once, to impress the accountancy firm Ernst and Young, party planner Randy Fuhrman invested $1,000 of his own money--just to make a presentation. His idea: to turn an airplane hangar into a "Babes in Toyland" playground.

"It worked," Fuhrman says. "They never interviewed anyone else."

Tom Byrne of La Cuisine, on the other hand, rarely leaves his office to get a job. He has no sales staff, no brochures, not even a photo album of ideas. He doesn't need them: "People just call here," he says.

Hollander, however, feels she can't let up. In a landscape littered with caterers that come and go faster than a plate of popcorn shrimp at a cocktail party, she intends to be a survivor. Currently with the two-year-old upstart L.A. Caterworks, Hollander sells party relief. It's her job to figure out who's going to have a party and then get the business for her company.

She is successful, she says, because she is a connoisseur of relationships: "Someone else got the job because they had a relationship with so and so, or we developed this great relationship and so I got the party."

Hollander's relationship work has her scurrying all over the city, working 15-hour days. One minute she's blowing up balloons at a birthday party for a client's kid, the next she's running to meet a prospective client. She spent one Christmas morning delivering a pie that one client just had to have. "That's how it works," she says. "Networking. You are out there and your business cards are out there."

On Tuesday mornings, Hollander studies The Hollywood Reporter. It's the day all films in production are listed in the trade paper. Then she starts making phone calls--to people she doesn't know. "I'll say, 'I see you started filming on such and such a date. When is the movie going to wrap up? And who do I need to talk to about the wrap party?' That's one way to get your foot in the door. If you do the wrap party, maybe you can at least get to bid on the film's premiere."

Her strategy is paying off. Two years ago, Along Came Mary catered most of the parties for HBO; today, L.A. Caterworks has poached more than half the business.

Another way of drumming up business is referrals. Get to know the florists, the party planners, the rental houses in town. A referral from Classic Party Rentals, a company L.A. Caterworks does business with, got them the Cirque du Soleil benefit party for Childrens Hospital.

Another referral landed them a party for Wine Warehouse. "That time we were bidding heavily against Ambrosia," Hollander says. "And again, we were the new kid on the block. The people at Wine Warehouse had worked with Ambrosia before. They had a relationship with them. I told them I wanted the party and I was going to do whatever it took to get it. We got that party."

"What makes one company different from another," says Ambrosia's David Corwin, "is the services they provide. You line up the best caterers, and the food will be about the same."

In other words, you should make yourself indispensable.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver were interviewing chefs for their Santa Monica restaurant, Schatzi, they had Corwin's partner, Carl Bendix, attend every food tasting. "Arnold never said he liked anything, until he checked with Carl first," says a source who was there.

To keep her highbrow clients happy, Somerset's Hallee Gould just catered what she calls her "first penis party" for a Futurists conference sponsored by UCLA at the Getty Museum. A recreation of a dinner that took place in Italy in 1929, the menu featured everything from a "terrorist bomb" first course, to an anatomically correct sculpted veal loin stuffed with vegetable forcemeat, to marzipan breasts for dessert.

"You are constantly being challenged to do some pretty awesome things," says Micucci.

"You have to do these things," Hollander says. "If you don't, someone else is going to."

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