Make That Holiday Party The Best!!

mthpIT’S THE HOLIDAYS, AND I WANT TO EXTEND A LITTLE largesse toward my clients and friends. What could be better than inviting them to a party? Unfortunately, writing for Martha Stewart Living doesn’t leave me much time for creating my own stress-free gala. How was I going to find the time to organize and cook for a holiday party?

Since I’m computer-savvy, I decided to see if I could order party food online. I wanted to host a two-hour affair and serve light hors d’oeuvres and wine. I set a budget of about $20 per head and figured I’d invite about 30 guests. That gave me a total of $600 to spend. So I fired up my modem instead of my oven. Now, I don’t claim to have plumbed the depths of the Internet–I’ve merely trawled the waters. But since I’ve done much of the legwork, your holiday planning time should be cut down to almost nothing–unless you’re like me and just get lost reading about all the goodies these sites have to offer. Here are the places I found useful.

One From Column A You can access an on-line service such as America Online or a Web site to order a variety of foods and have them delivered to a party site. My personal favorite is D’Artagnan, which makes the most delicious pates and French-style charcuterie. But I found seeking out and ordering from a number of sources to be too time-consuming. So rather than work in this piecemeal fashion, I looked into ordering all my party food from one place.

Using the Web sites of such top gourmet food stores as Balducci’s and Dean & Deluca, I browsed, selected, and then ordered my delectables via e-mail. Each place makes sure purchases are carefully packed and quickly shipped. Shipping costs, however, added a fair amount to my order so I had to be sure to budget for that when ordering. The selections offered online by Balducci’s and Dean & Deluca are top quality. At both sites, I got suggestions on what to order and advice on the quantities needed. I was told to figure on serving three to four ounces of cheese per guest for a wine-and-cheese-type party.

Balducci’s supplies coffee and tea but not alcohol. Luckily there are many Internet sources for libations from bordeaux futures to microbrewery beers. Setting up a full bar would be prohibitively expensive, so offering a few pleasant wines seemed to be the best option. I sought the help of the oenophiles from Virtual Vineyards, the best designed and equipped wine site I know. It offers wine I wouldn’t find at a local wine store, and among its offerings are many vins that would delight and impress guests. Calculating three glasses of wine per guest and figuring four glasses per bottle, I needed two (12-bottle) cases. Virtual Vineyards will sell mixed cases of wine so I could offer a selection of reds and whites, and the company offered me a 10 percent discount on cases, which almost covered the cost of two-day air shipping. Best of all, there’s no tax.

Arranging a party in this h la carte fashion meant that I would be the caterer. If I organized things carefully and only offered foods that are already prepared (sliced breads or crackers, crudites and dips, brownies or cookies), I could manage without hiring staff. Perhaps I could just enlist a friend to pour drinks. I’d use disposable plates, plastic glasses, and paper napkins to avoid renting tableware. Since my party was starting to look like too much work (I want to have fun, after all), I decided to check out caterers.

At Your Service Caterers supply food, staff, and all the necessary equipment, from coffee urns and wine glasses to tables. Using Alta Vista, I got a listing of caterers nationwide, ranging from large-scale Los Angeles companies that cater film productions to a kosher firm in Brooklyn. The Catering Connection is a fairly comprehensive listing, rather like a nationwide yellow pages of food providers. I located local caterers, but I could only get their phone numbers–no Web sites or e-mail addresses. The Catering Connection offers a preferred caterer section, however, that linked me to the Web site of each of the companies listed.

One caveat: Local caterers that would love to acquire my business are unlikely to have the time, resources, or interest to have their own sites. I’m sure there are exceptions, but I haven’t managed to find them so far.

Searching further, I located Creative Caterers of Rochester, New York . Its Web site proclaims that it caters coast-to-coast and will host events from an intimate luncheon to extensive banquets. Though it does work mostly on the larger parties, Creative Caterers president Sam Kaiser said he’d host my holiday party and work within my budget as long as I was a small-business owner in the Rochester area (so much for the coast-to-coast tickler) and had my own space in which to hold it. He suggested serving an extensive cheese and cracker assortment, grilled vegetables, and crudites. The company would provide one server who would pass around such offerings as stuffed mushrooms and empanadas. Creative Caterers owns its equipment and would bring all the necessary china and glassware, so there would be no added rental cost. Then came the stumbling block. Though they would provide the equipment for the bar, I would have to supply all the alcohol. Kaiser was creating a $600 party with only coffee to drink. Buying drinks on top of his charge would put me out of my league.

Seeking a caterer via the Web did make me feel a bit uneasy. My chances of locating a low-cost caterer that would provide a menu I found tempting was turning out to be more difficult than I had first anticipated. And if I did, I couldn’t be certain it would be the right one for my needs unless I tasted the food. I have always found that the best way to get a caterer is through recommendations. Even then I think I’d want to sample the food. With this in mind, I realized that there are plenty of good restaurants I’ve eaten at. Perhaps one of them would be willing to host my gala.

Take-Out Connection

Many large restaurants have their own catering departments. The catering department of the much-praised Christopher’s and Christopher’s Bistro in Phoenix offers on,site and off-premises catering. They have a Web site through which I was able to get an idea of what type of food it served. I was also able to see sample menus on which to base my questions. Once I made a decision, I could send e-mail to arrange the details of my party. According to Dawn Sullivan, Christopher’s special events director, the price of a party depends on the choice of food and wine and the number of guests. To use such a highly acclaimed restaurant does test a budget, but I was going to make sure that my guests knew this was to be a drinks party with hors d’oeuvres, not a multicourse sit-down dinner, so everyone should be well satisfied with the sophisticated offerings.

For $4.95 a person, Christopher’s offers a small selection of elegant finger foods including smoked salmon on brioche and goat cheese in puff pastry. On top of this, though, I had to consider drinks. Again, I chose inexpensive red and white wines plus mineral water and juices. From Christopher’s point of view, a party is easier if it’s on the restaurant’s premises rather than mine. That way, the service charge will be much smaller and there would be no rentals to consider, but wine would cost more since I’d have to pay restaurant menu prices.

So now that I’ve spent about 12 hours searching, pretending to taste, and wondering about finances, what am I going to do? I’m currently leaning toward throwing my budget out the window and going for broke. After all, everything sounded so good, but I still don’t have the time to shop around. So I’ll e-mail my party order to one of the catering companies I’ve checked out, and I’m sure my holiday party will be a sensation.

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