COVERFeatures

The Gala Industrial Complex Is Broken

By Catherine Bigelow

Illustration by Lucie Rice.

Catherine Bigelow goes behind the scenes of an unraveling gala industrial complex.

The quintessential gala vision emanating from the fervent brain of designer Stanlee Gatti focuses on snugly spaced tables.

“I prefer eight people at a 48-inch round or 10 at a 60-inch. I’ll design a 72-inch for 12, but in a large room with a sea of those tables, there’s no intimacy among guests,” explains Gatti. “My ideal design: zero inches between place settings, and guests’ knees touching.”

But amid strict statewide CDC health and safety guidelines to crush COVID-19, Gatti’s vision is temporarily taboo. As are any large-scale events with more than 12 people. And for the first time in recent gala history, this health crisis also canceled “Hell Week,” the beloved September fall arts season opening heralded by the San Francisco Symphony Gala and San Francisco Opera Ball, which raise funds for the institutions’ free music education programs.

Aside from inflicting a fundraising freefall upon the arts and nonprofits, the shutdown triggered a fiscal tsunami that has crushed the gala industrial complex. A diverse ecosystem, which just months ago employed thousands of full-time and hourly staff, is now broken.

Many gala guests, racing across a flamingo-pink arrival carpet toward the step-and-repeat backdrop to strike a pose for society snaps, rarely notice this corollary hive of worker bees.

They are the tent riggers, chefs prepping in a makeshift kitchen, banquette movers, valet parkers whisking cars to and fro, and event designers applying last-minute tweaks — nimble acrobats, all, enacting a swift soiree setup coupled with seamless service to ensure perfect gala choreography.

In 2019, according to a report from Restaurant Business citing research firm Technomic, the off-site U.S. catering industry was a $64 billion behemoth.

Since mid-March, every 2020 calendar square has remained blank. Lavish fundraisers, exhibition-opener extravaganzas and blockbuster weddings are finito until TBD — hopefully, 2021 — when California can implement the seemingly mythological Stage 4 reopening of concert venues, festivals and sports stadiums to large audiences.

But for the vast array of event workers, initially furloughed, then laid off, the “party” is, temporarily, over.

That legion is manned by impresarios almost as famous as the bold-faced clientele they’ve exquisitely
served the last 40 years: Paula LeDuc, Margaret Teskey, president of Taste Catering (founded in 1978 by MeMe Pederson and Janet Griggs), and designer Ken Fulk, who established Saint Joseph’s Arts Society in a historic church boasting a 22,000-square-foot rental venue, currently unbooked.

In the heady days of 2019, McCalls Catering (founded in 1980 by Dan McCall) staffed, designed and catered
1,200 Bay Area events: galas, corporate parties and weddings. The company, once buzzing with 300 employees, also manages upscale cafes at SFMOMA, the Fine Arts Museums and Davies Symphony Hall.

“At the start of 2020, we were on track for our biggest year ever. In a flash, everything we built is gone,” sighs
McCalls president Lucas Schoemaker, who joined forces with McCall 34 years ago. “[For] each 500- to 800-person event, we employed 75 staff. In the high season, we had an on-call staff of 400.”

Until a new word replaces the one working overtime in this CV-19 era, the current key to survival is: pivot.

“Most staff have been with us 15, 25 years. They understand this is beyond our control,” says Schoemaker. “Now, they worry about me. But in every turn there is opportunity.”

In July, with a skeleton McCalls crew (four chefs, two kitchen managers, two meal packers and four event managers turned delivery drivers) in the company-owned Potrero Hill kitchen facility, Schoemaker adroitly launched MCmarket.

This weekday online service features McCalls’ delectable foodstuffs: four-course dinners and sushi or charcuterie, plus wine packages safely sealed in compostable containers, delivered to your door.

Schoemaker describes the service as, “a home-cooked family meal, minus the cooking, just like grandma made.”

“As the shutdown continues, our clients interact online for meetings or fundraisers,” explains Schoemaker. “MCmarket can deliver Zoom participants a timely toast or hors d’oeuvres to share virtually.”

Jamie Dyos, founder of Soirée Valet, recently celebrated his company’s 30th anniversary. Until March, he employed 80 full-time staff. During the jam-packed spring and fall event season, he’d hire 50 extra part-time valets for weekly shifts.

Inspired by his wife, Katie Dyos, the couple recently transformed their four vans into a new transport service: ProtectRide.com.

Dyos upholstered a plastic curtain (plexiglass could be dangerous in an accident) to seal the space between
driver and customer. Working in masks and gloves, drivers are screened and temperature checked. Vehicles are sanitized between each passenger.

“People still need a ride to the airport or enjoy a cocktail without worrying about driving. But no one feels comfortable now hailing a random Uber,” Dyos explains. “ProtectRide keeps our managers working. So long as my 30 years of Soirée savings don’t dwindle further, when events return we’ll come out of this with two businesses.”

Another gala soldier toppled by this pandemic’s domino effect: California’s $360 million cut-flower industry, tended by numerous small family farms, which, according to the California Cut Flower Commission, supplies 75 percent of product to the nation’s $1.4 billion floral industry.

On March 17, with no advance shelter-in-place warning, vendors at the historic San Francisco Flower Market
(founded in 1924) had just 48 hours to move or donate perishable inventory. As the mart’s shutdown loomed, the
vendors’ last resort was to mulch 85 percent of their stock (worth almost $1 million), then lay off the majority of
their 350 blue-collar workers. (Note: A GoFundMe to support these workers is still active.)

“Business for our 47 vendors, mostly family-owned, is down 40 percent,” says Flower Mart general manager Jeanne Boes.

With new safety guidelines and wholesale versus public shopping hours, the Flower Mart reopened just in time for Mother’s Day — the floricultural equivalent of St. Patrick’s Day for an Irish pub.

Boes says the bulk of the Mart’s business is events: galas, weddings and funerals. But the other crucial slice
of this financial pie comprises floral displays the Mart supplied to now-shuttered hotels, offices and restaurants.

“When you walk into a flower shop, nobody thinks about the amount of jobs related to this industry,” notes Boes,
who worked with city officials to have the Mart declared an essential business.

“Agriculture is one of California’s most important industries. But I worry some of our small vendors and farmers may not survive until 2021.”

Claire Marie Johnston, founder of Flowers Claire Marie, is receiving an order uptick among her individual
clients, loyal swells ready to adorn their lockdown cribs with her artistic arrangements.

The majority of her 2020 weddings are postponed. But the City’s gala ecosystem is interconnected: In June, Johnston partnered with MCmarket, creating pink peony bouquets (blue blooms weren’t available to match the hue favored by maestro Michael Tilson Thomas) that accompanied McCalls meal deliveries to Symphony Gala patrons for a Zoom toast.

“For now, I shop the Mart myself, make arrangements and drive deliveries,” says Johnston, who, having laid off her crew of 15, now works with just two staffers. “It’s just like 32 years ago when I started my own business.”

Designer J. Riccardo Benavides, founder of Ideas Events & Rentals, was forced to lay off 21 of his full-time staffers. But every month, he still pays $4,000 rent for his San Francisco office and $18,000 at his Richmond warehouse.

His tech clients, such as Facebook, no longer require Benavides to design on-campus events for employees now
working from home. And this year, hotel clients canceled his Christmas decor.

“Even if hotels reopen by December my clients worry decorated trees send the wrong message to furloughed staff,” shares Benavides, who, until March, was finalizing his design for this year’s Opera Ball. “I feel proud to work with these hotels, which respect their staff. But it hurts my business.”

In what typically would be a frenzied season of fundraisers, Benavides Zooms at home while reimagining protective devices in his design and the future gala format amid this new era of safety.

With Neiman Marcus in Union Square open again, Benavides hopes the San Francisco Opera Guild revives
the Carolina Herrera fashion show it canceled in May.

With the store briefly closed to the public, the escalator becomes the runway with models riding up and down.
Three guests who feel safe together sit at spaced tables facing the runway behind plexiglass,” he explains excitedly, imagining the scenario. “With Neiman’s 100-foot ceilings, the air is perfect.”

Even seasoned philanthropists are getting creative: Dede Wilsey, a trustee on numerous boards, including the opera’s, instructed Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock to keep her opening weekend sponsorship check.

“We still have to raise money for the arts and nonprofits. But COVID-19 is decreasing our attention span, and I
fear donations will also decrease. When you attend a live performance in Davies Hall or the opera house, you feel a real connection to the art and give more,” explains Wilsey. “I want Matthew to use my Opera Ball funds to support the singers, musicians and crew who’ve lost work.”

This year would’ve marked Wilsey’s 15th as grand sponsor of SF Opera’s opening weekend, underwriting the opening night performance, the free Opera in the Park concert and the exquisite Gatti-designed garland adorning the gilt horseshoe that frames the War Memorial Opera House’s box seats.

To assemble that one garland, Gatti would hire 50 extra staff, logging 1,200 hours over four days hand-planting
chicken wire and plywood frames with 165,000 roses.

For mammoth events like SFMOMA’s Modern Ball, Gatti hires 150 freelancers to lay carpet, sew table fabrics, design sound and create graphics.

But forced to furlough his 60-person staff, Gatti retains just two employees manning his office.

“There’s nothing on the horizon,” admits Gatti. “I’m thinking about new gala banquette designs and the concept of social pods. That used to mean friends buying an event table to share. Today, it’s quarantining with family or
partners. Our future will be changed. But so, too, will the mentality of people, inherently social creatures, who may think differently about what sparks true happiness. I just hope people don’t become wary of giving to the arts. We need beauty in our lives.”

Back at the Flower Mart, which plans to open its new Potrero Hill facility in 2022, Boes believes science, and
safe, masked gatherings, will eventually solve this health crisis that’s imploded into an economic 911.

“The event industry is one large family extending to the arts, designers, creators, caterers and philanthropy,” Boes notes. “Events for all of us were halted in spring — full-bloom season. Like crop production, it takes a while to turn the water back on. But we’re old San Francisco — we hope to survive so we can, again, celebrate with the entire city.”

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