I write this anonymously because I don’t want it to negatively impact my boss or their business, so please think of this as a public service announcement, rather than an accusation. There have been recent changes in how local restaurants are approached to cater events for Middlebury College groups and departments, and how this can negatively impact those restaurants must be addressed.
Labor shortages in a post-ish Covid world have negatively affected everything. Middlebury is a small town, so inevitably pretty much every citizen and business is at least somewhat aware of Covid’s negative influences on other businesses in town. Whether or not they are understanding of these pitfalls and challenges depends on the individual and perhaps if they have ever worked in the service industry.
We local restaurants understand and are sympathetic to the challenges Middlebury College faces as it emerges from the pandemic. There used to be a clear path to holding an amazing college event at even better prices by booking online. The event would be catered in-house by the college catering department and managed by professionals from that catering crew, all paid for by the specific college department and absorbed seamlessly into its budget. This process has been seriously jeopardized by staffing shortages and supply chain issues.
Now, having an event in a particular building like McCullough is often impossible due to shortened hours at the Grille. The college catering department sometimes has to simply decline an event. When this happens, local Middlebury businesses welcome the opportunity to step in, but we are structurally and financially very different from the college catering department.
This is where I’d like to help. We local businesses do not have an endowment, donors or trustees, and we are definitely not non-profit organizations. Our pricing must reflect these differences in order to cover our costs and allow us to be successful.
The college catering department can offer a wide variety of services at a remarkably low cost because it is a part of a nonprofit college and has resources available through the college.
I would like to give context to questions the college tends to ask, such as, for example, “Can we get this down to $12 a person?” and “What if we don’t serve side dishes?” First, depending on what you choose to sacrifice, many of your guests (vegetarians, vegans, celiacs, etc) will suffer without variety on the menu. When guests of the college event go to the restaurant with plans to order specific menu items and those items are unavailable, it is not the college department, but rather the restaurant staff, who are given a hard time. When the college department does not purchase enough food for the event and the food runs out with an hour remaining in the event, it is again the restaurant staff who suffer.
Additionally, the all-you-can-eat buffet at Golden Corral, a well-known buffet restaurant chain, starts at $16.99 per person. Shame on the college for trying to pay only $12 per person for an event at one of our restaurants. Doing this puts the employees of a local business in a losing position before the event even starts. Our products and services are so devalued that we are likely to lose money.
When negotiating an event with a local restaurant, the restaurant may charge the college an “event fee.” When booking events at college venues, obviously, the college department is not charged this fee. With a restaurant, however, the amount spent by tables of independent patrons is always higher than the revenue brought in by a catered buffet event for the same amount of people. In addition, throughout the course of a regular lunch or dinner service, those same tables could be used multiple times by 3 or 4 groups of people, tripling or quadrupling the restaurant’s income potential.
To use a simple, theoretical example, if a restaurant can make $5,000 on a regular Friday dinner service, when a potential client asks about having an event in that restaurant, that event should result in the restaurant still making $5,000. Accordingly, if the college pays $1,000 for food and $2,000 for drinks, they must make up that $2,000 deficit somewhere.
College departments attempting to shirk paying a facility fee or event fee by making 4 separate reservations of 10-12 people is simply rude. Then, as some departments have done, not communicating to guests that you made separate reservations rather than booking an event, so they are walking around with drinks in their hands as if they are at a private party, is frustrating and confusing for everyone involved. Restaurant staff should not be responsible for begging these “partygoers” to return to their table so that we can seat other customers at other tables.
There are no clear answers to this situation, so the best I can do is make suggestions. College department budgets are typically finalized in the summer, so perhaps bolstering your department’s catering budget in light of new pandemic-related realities is the easiest solution. Perhaps when you are made aware of students (past or present) and even other faculty abusing the staff at the Grille or at Reunion events, Language School dance parties, etc., you will take it more seriously. That is, after all, a big reason the college is struggling with staff shortages.
Disrespect from students is a major reason that the Grille suddenly can’t operate past 2 p.m., and, as a result, catering events in spaces like Wilson Hall is no longer an option. Increasing the college's budget for spending on catering and holding your students more accountable to behave appropriately would improve your ability to support local businesses financially and help curb the mass exodus of college staff.
Regardless, it is not fair for local businesses or their employees to suffer. Our structure is very different from the college, so our operating costs and prices are very different, too. Trying to herd us into giving away the farm for the price of a meal at the Golden Corral isn’t sustainable. If this continues, you eventually won’t be able to have your parties in town either.