Among the food businesses seriously hurt this past year by the coronavirus pandemic are caterers. Chefs who made their living off weddings, parties and corporate lunches saw business drop to nothing virtually overnight.
Once the CDC started telling people in March 2020 to stay home and not gather in groups, months of bookings extending into the summer were canceled.
Some caterers, though, managed to find enough work to get them through — just like restaurants that turned to takeout or take-and-bake meals.
Two of these have found a home of sorts at Buie’s Market, a small grocery tucked into the Buena Vista residential neighborhood on Avalon Road next to Diamondback Grill.
Buie’s, which highlights a lot of local and regional foods on its shelves already, has been offering free space to two local caterers to use as a pickup point for its offerings of family meals.
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Shereen Abdelfattah is a small caterer who has been in business only a few years. A native of Egypt, she began sharing her love of cooking five years ago during cooking demonstrations at the Shepherd’s Center, and slowly began building an audience for her beloved Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes.
By early 2020, her business, Delicious by Shereen, was on a roll. “We were doing great,” Abdelfattah said. “We had expanded to weddings and conferences, and bigger gatherings, like for 300 people. Then, unfortunately, the pandemic hit in March and everything was gone.”
Abdelfattah felt particularly crushed by the shutdown because part of her business model is to employee refugees to help them get on their feet financially. She even set up a 501(c)(3) for the purpose. In short, she seeks out good cooks in our area who have emigrated from Egypt, Syria and other countries. She gives them a job to help them, and they in turn help her offer authentic Middle Eastern food to the Winston-Salem community.
“These are people who know the flavors of the Middle East and are sharing their culture through food. We prepare it like we prepare it at home,” Abdelfattah said.
The question became, then, how was Abdelfattah going to help these refugees with no catering jobs in sight.
Within a few weeks, Abdelfattah had reached out to customers on her email list, offering family meals. At first, she and her husband, Hassam Elsaie, personally delivered every meal, but the orders kept increasing. “It was exhausting,” Abdelfattah said.
By mid-April she had partnered with Café Gelato. She used that as a pickup spot for months, but eventually she outgrew it. That’s when she turned to Buie’s in October.
“Shereen comes on Mondays, which is normally a slow day for us,” said Yvonne Whitehead, the manager at Buie’s. “We’re providing a safe pickup location, but it also increases our foot traffic. So it’s a win-win.”
When Crissy Faison, the owner of LeanBack Soul Food catering, came to Buie’s to inquire about the store stocking some of her foods, Whitehead suggested the same idea to her. Now Faison uses Buie’s as a pickup spot on Tuesdays, also normally a slower day for the market.
“Pre-COVID, I was booked. I had a lot of business. But then it all stopped,” Faison said.
During the early months of the pandemic, Faison got by with help from Love Out Loud and other nonprofits that hired chefs to prepare meals for laid-off workers and others in need. By August, Faison managed to get a small job feeding student athletes at Carolina Christian College. She was making lunches four days a week, and she started posting photos of the food on her Instagram account. Soon, friends and others were asking if she could make lunch for them, too.
Like Abdelfattah, Faison was personally delivering meals at first, but now she uses Buie’s for a weekly pickup spot.
Both businesses use online ordering. They post a menu, usually four to six days in advance. People then have a couple of days to place their order and pay online. That makes pickup time go smoothly — everyone can get in and out quickly without crowding the store.
The caterers keep things simple by typically offering just one entrée each week, usually with a couple of optional sides. Two weeks ago, Delicious by Shereen offered Middle Eastern baked chicken, Mediterranean rice and vermicelli, molokhia (jute greens) soup and Mother’s Day cookies. Last week, it was falafel wraps.
LeanBack has offered such things as ribs or fried chicken — accompanied by two sides, which may include baked beans, collard greens or mac ’n’ cheese.
Both businesses offer customers meals for two or four. Prices vary, but meals for two often start around $20 and meals for four around $40.
“The servings are generous, so we often get another meal out of it,” said Philip Payne, who was picking up baked chicken from Delicious by Shereen the other week. “The hummus and her desserts are fabulous. And we like that it’s something different from what we would cook at home.”
“I’m a working mom, so it’s nice to have a night off,” said Kara Yates as she picked up her meal of Middle Eastern baked chicken. “I have two small kids, and I like that this is broadening our palate and teaching us about a new culture. And it’s for a good cause.”
Both Faison and Abdelfattah said that catering jobs are slowly but surely starting to come back, and they are grateful for that. But they also plan to keep making family meals, at least for the immediate future.
“I want to do both (catering and family meals),” Abdelfattah said. “We’ve built this great relationship with the community. I get to see my customers and talk with them, and every week we have like 10 more customers, so we don’t want to lose that. It’s been a great experience.”