Feeding the Film
Sixteen-hour days, hundreds of hungry crew members, remote locations, tight facilities, and tough competition: Two local caterers tell all
By Mick Vann, Fri., Aug. 6, 2004
Ask anyone associated with food service, and they'll tell you that catering a culinary event is one of the most stressful things you can do in the trade. In conventional catering, the food is normally prepared off-site, then transported hot and/or cold to the event. Most often, only a single meal service is involved. The clients are almost always on edge, even though the details have been planned for weeks or months.
Imagine, instead, preparing the food on-site, occasionally in remote locations with no support infrastructure. With only one or two days' notice regarding the quantities or service times. Arranging two meals a day for hundreds sometimes thousands of diners, day after day, for months on end. You'll start to get a feel for the world of the film-catering company.
Filming sites (whether in a studio or on location) are closed sets, where the shooting schedule rigidly follows that day's call sheet. It's not an environment in which the cast and crew can head off to local restaurants when they get hungry, have a leisurely bite, and come back when they want to. Time is money, and getting a couple hundred film workers fed quickly and nutritiously so that they can get back to the task of creating art is paramount to the studio. Just as an army marches on its stomach, so, too, does a film crew. It's a demanding task, and neither of Austin's two local film caterers David Long of Locations Catering and Paul Kuzmich of Hat Trick Catering would rather be doing anything else.
For his part, Long worked for years at a friend's mother's catering company. "It was always a great source for quick money and dependable work when I needed it," he remembers, "and I really enjoyed the work." He then worked with National Backstage Catering for years, until their pitch for a partnership deal didn't sit well with him. He decided to start his own company and landed his first Locations Catering job in 1990. "In this business, there's a Catch 22," he says "You can't get your first job without first having a job." Something obviously clicked. Long has had his own company now 14 years and for the past five has been able to manage the company from the office, without having to personally man the stoves. "It's really hard to do both," he says. "If you're cooking, too, it makes managing properly a lot harder."
Kuzmich started in restaurant kitchens, and after deciding he'd had his fill, answered an ad for a film catering company in Hollywood. "I grew to where I hated the restaurant scene, and one day cruised the trade papers on a lark. A film-catering company was desperate for help, and the next day I was working on the film set. I never looked back." Kuzmich now owns half of Hat Trick and recently relocated two of the company's five trucks to the Austin area after eight years in the business. He's a firm believer that an owner needs to work his own trucks, pulling 15-hour days behind the stoves.
Both Long and Kuzmich bid and book their own film deals, without the benefit of an agent. "You're only as good as your last job," Long says. "Reputation is everything in this business, and it's very competitive. You hear about upcoming projects from production companies you've worked with in the past from cast and crew of the films you're working on. Most of it is word of mouth."
Kuzmich's company has films booked for most of their trucks through next spring. "You're either hated or loved," he explains. "Your reputation precedes you. It's a very close-knit community that works in film, and the crews know what to expect from the different catering companies."
The two stress the need for some downtime between projects to recoup drained energy. "All through the shoot you're looking at that light at the end of the tunnel, pacing your energy to get you through to the end," Long says. "You definitely know when the free time starts. After a little travel and fishing you're ready to jump right back in again." Caterers also never know when a production might run a little beyond the planned time allotment, so the safe bet is to schedule in a window of inactivity between projects.
Both companies book music video productions, commercials, industrial/training, and made-for-TV films between major studio productions to keep the cash flow moving and the staff employed. These aren't high-profit projects, but staffing the kitchens can't rely on major productions alone, and it's too difficult to retrain staff constantly. "I book four to six major projects in a typical year, but my executive chef's also a carpenter," laughs Long.
Film-catering employees are a particular breed, requiring many specialized characteristics. They have to be licensed commercial drivers to handle the trailer rigs (and, in some states, also must be members of the Teamsters); they have to be talented kitchen repair technicians (and skills in refrigeration repair are a major plus); they have to be able to think quickly on their feet and be able to improvise and adapt. They have to be able to get along with everyone on the set and have a great personality, not to mention be able to work in close quarters under stress and heat. Most importantly, they must possess culinary chops and be able to crank out consistently good food in little time. For this, they earn in the neighborhood of $300 to $400 a day, plus benefits. For a film feeding 100 or so, the catering staff will be made up of three, sometimes four if the demands of the production are higher.
What It Takes
The bids are based on a number of criteria number of crew and cast involved, difficulty of the location, number of site moves in the shoot, labor costs, type of food requested all based on information provided by the unit production manager. Both Long and Kuzmich were tight-lipped about the actual process, saying only that there was a general industry-accepted standard for bidding, and that it was enough for them to make "a reasonable profit." Food costs are surprisingly high, typically in the 50% range (a conventional restaurant operation seeks the 22-30% range). The overall percentage spent on feeding the film is probably less than one might expect, however: A typical $3 million made-for-TV movie that shoots for three weeks might budget in $30,000 to $40,000 for catering, or a little over 1% of total production cost.
Film-catering companies usually own all of their own equipment, and that investment can be substantial. A 38-foot catering trailer with a semi cab to pull it could cost in the neighborhood of $225,000. Own a couple of these trailers, maybe a refrigerated trailer for cold food storage and food prep, tables and chairs, power generators, tents, portable ware-washing facilities, and the rest, and you're talking a considerable cash investment. It's not the sort of cash outlay that one takes on frivolously. Lay out this kind of dough, and you'd better know what you're doing, and you'd better have some jobs lined up on the horizon.
The typical catering trailer is a stainless steel, self-contained restaurant kitchen on wheels, capable of cranking out huge amounts of food. Long's trailer the day we inspected it contained a seven-hole steam table, a six-burner stove, and a 3-foot flat-top griddle, as well as two steam-jacketed kettles for making soups and stews, and an outdoor reach-in cooler. Every available interior space was utilized for storage of dry goods or refrigerated items, with just enough room for two people to work comfortably, three if they are very familiar. It's more a tight ship's galley than anything else.
Kuzmich's 38-foot trailer was similar: 5-foot griddle, six-burner stove, two double ovens underneath, fully lined with prep counters and undercounter refrigeration. Both are equipped with vent hoods and makeup air fans, but combine lots of propane BTUs with a Texas summer and you're talking the stuff of heat strokes.
A usual catering day begins long before sunup. Normally there's a crew call around 6am (or earlier), which means that the cooks need to be there two to three hours prior to get everything ready. They wake up around 1:30 or 2am and grab any extra supplies they might need on the way to the set. Breakfast is generally what's called a "walking breakfast" that spans a three-hour window. This allows the production company to schedule crew to arrive at staggered times to save labor costs but still get them all fed.
Hours of Operation
Breakfast can include such items as Belgian waffles, pancakes, beignets, custom omelets, eggs to order, migas or rancheros, juices and fruits, cereals, typical Continental breakfast pastries, etc., and lots of strong coffee. The crews and cast eat well and early.
Normally six hours later is the call for lunch. This gives the catering staff 30 minutes or so to break down the morning meal and do cleanup, and three hours to get lunch prepped and cooked. Generally the standard lunch meal is three entrées, with one of them being a little more special and one a little more down-home. There will be a huge salad bar and up to seven individual salads, three vegetables, three starches, fresh baked breads, a dessert table, and a drink table. The goal is to get the cast and crew (anywhere from 80 to 125 folks on a standard production, 200 on a large production, and more than a thousand on a blockbuster) through the lines and fed in 30 to 45 minutes. Again, the call sheet has them scheduled for staggered arrival, with the transport crew arriving first (since they are usually the first on set in the morning).
Lunch to the crews is more than a meal; it's a very important psychological moment, an event they look forward to, and a time in which they need to feel pampered and coddled. Most of these folks are old-timers, and they have high expectations and short fuses. If they start to bitch too much about the chow, it's not above the production company to bring in another caterer to keep the rank and file happy. Catering companies have been known to hire lunch entertainment and to schedule in special theme days. The first and last meals of a shoot are an opportunity for the catering company to go all out, to really make that big lasting impression on their clients.
On any given film, maybe half to three-fourths of the "talent" will eat with the crew, that is, if they don't have their own posse of private chefs, nutritionists, and trainers in tow. They might also send "their people" down to pick up a meal to be eaten in the comfort of their trailers. Nonproduction staff are more likely to eat from Styrofoam in their offices, and lunch is the common time for the big shots to go through the dailies from the day before. The day that we dined at the Mike Judge production at Austin Film Studios, Kuzmich was sautéing a spicy Cajun shrimp pasta entrée (quite delicious!), and he also had a toothsome roast pork carving station, as well as some unctuous enchiladas. The cast and crew got really quiet when the feed bag went on; they all left with bulging bellies, and the operation was seamlessly efficient. In all fairness, Long had already wrapped on the Robert Rodriguez shoot he had been doing, so we didn't have the opportunity to taste any of his meals, but I had actually already eaten his excellent and impressive fare back in 1990 on the first job he ever did under the Locations Catering banner: the original Scary Movie, a low-budget straight-to-video thriller shot at the 709 Ranch near Driftwood.
After lunch, the day's cleanup begins, and hopefully there has been the opportunity to get some advance prep done for the next day. Calls are made to the local homeless shelter or church soup kitchen to dispense with any leftovers. After cleanup of the serving station, ware washing, and truck cleanup, the paperwork gets done, and the call sheet will have arrived from the assistant director's office for the next day's shoot. Based on the cast and crew quantities cited on the call sheet, the orders can be called in for the next day, but often, ordering for a specific number of people can be a crap shoot, as things are subject to frequent change. If things were running smoothly, the meal calls occurred at roughly the times they were called for, and the catering staff didn't have to speed up or slow things down to accommodate the shooting schedule. If luck is with the catering company, there won't be a need to relocate for the next day's shoot if there is, then the truck and all of the equipment must be packed up and the portable kitchen driven to the next location to be set up once again. If the film has a night shoot, then all bets are off. You might be looking at a three-meal day, which could mean sleeping in the trailer. This completes the normal 14- to16-hour day in the life of the catering employee, only to begin way too early the next morning and the morning after and the morning after, until the wrap party occurs.
The catering chef will try to plan his menus as far ahead as possible, which can mean a week, or it can mean one day. Two to three days is typical: He doesn't know when the crew calls will be; he doesn't know how many actors, crew, or extras there might be scheduled for any given day; he doesn't know what didn't get shot that day, or needs reshooting the following day. It all depends on how efficient the planning is on the production-office side and how quickly they can feed him information.
The catering company can be brought in on a new film at any time. Long typically shows up near the start of shooting, with craft services handling feeding the crew during preproduction. Craft service is normally covered by a different company (independent of the catering company) and involves nonmeal foods and drinks (snacks, sandwiches, soft drinks, water, candy bars, fruit). Kuzmich has started films as early as four months before shooting, but eight weeks is more typical for his company.
Since most film-catering horror stories involve food purveyors (more on that later), a key element of preplanning for a film catering company is to line up food purveyors in advance of a production. If it's a location shoot, then food brokers will be employed to help secure supply lines. Of course, if the shoot will require several sites, then purveyors must be found for each one. The budget of a major production enables the catering company to contract with large national food distributors, which will then provide refrigerated semi trailers at no expense, but on most productions the catering companies prefer to use small, local purveyors. Generally only fresh product is used, as no freezer storage space is then needed and defrosting time isn't required. The smart film-catering company maintains updated lists of proven suppliers. For new locations they'll scout the purveyors several months out and one month away from showtime start getting bids.
Another aspect is to secure location commissary facilities for dry goods storage, shipping and receiving, refrigerated warehouse space, ice machines, water and propane supply, and more. For shoots at Austin Studios, both Long and Kuzmich have rented facilities at the old Skychef airline catering operations, convenient for ware washing, cold storage, and dry-goods storage.
Long's horror stories were more tame, which might be a reflection of his ability to avoid problems, his good sense to not divulge any kind of shortcomings, or the fact that he's done fewer jobs in the Third World. His worst situations involved a shoot in far West Texas: getting lost in unnamed arroyos due to faulty maps, truck breakdowns on razor-sharp rocks, and being saddled with the nearest grocery store being more than 200 miles away.
Kuzmich's horror stories are much more flamboyant: "St. Vincent was the only island in the Caribbean that didn't already have the fruit fly, so my first shipment of fruit flown in from Miami was doused in diesel fuel and torched on the tarmac upon arrival. The prime minister had to give special permission to have the order duplicated and flown in overnight so we'd have fruit for the next day. This was while trying to feed 1,700 people for three weeks. On Mars Attacks!, I received 30 cases of fresh chicken, except that the chicken was missing the boxes held only ice. I started getting my deliveries a day early after that one.
"I did a film in Chicago once that had 72 location changes in 58 days. We did another one that happened during the worst winter ever, with above-the-head snowdrifts, 40-below temperatures, and blizzard conditions. The wind was blowing the catering tents over. I've gotten midnight calls to tell me that I have 1,000 extras to cook for unexpectedly. I've had propane tank deliveries where the tanks all had leaky valves. Fed people in sandstorms. We got shut down temporarily once because of a tornado coming too close, but no catastrophe has ever stopped one of my meal services."
But there's a real horror looming over the Texas film industry: Louisiana. Our Creole neighbors have been offering a 15% tax incentive on crew salaries, and there are five major studio projects shooting there right now and 15 more lined up in the future. Many of the Texas film-crew members have fled east seeking work, and David Long and Paul Kuzmich are hoping they don't have to pack up their trailers and follow suit.
Mick Vann would like to thank Amy Cadenhead and Toni Atterbury for their assistance in researching this article.