Planning for a New Normal
An interview with Joel Catering president Sarah Hall
For the last few months, the coronavirus pandemic has created chaos in the wedding industry. Brides, grooms and wedding professionals have had to pivot and find new ways to celebrate and deliver a special wedding day among city ordinances and social distancing rules. Many couples and parties opted for postponing their events till the fall or even in 2021. Some chose to still celebrate, but in a smaller or more intimate way.
Sarah Hall, president of Joel Catering (the exclusive vendor for Il Mercato), sat down with us for a Zoom interview to discuss the current state of the wedding industry in New Orleans, how vendors all over the city are reacting to the changes and how everyone is adjusting as best they can to this new normal for the New Orleans wedding industry.
Like many an interview or meeting over the past few months, we recorded a Zoom interview with Hall. Also, like many Zoom interactions over the past few months, we ran into some technical issues while trying to record and speak with Hall. Because we wanted to make sure the message was shared with our readers, you will find a complete transcript (of sorts) of our interview below.
- With the coronavirus pandemic, how is Joel Catering pivoting their approach to accommodate the “new normal” of weddings?
We’ve worked with our clients to reschedule their weddings based on their needs and to create alternate plans based on our best guesses of what weddings may look like in the fall, but as we all know, everything has been dependent on recommendations by both the state and city. We’ve been so blessed that our clients are so understanding. The industry has been trying their best to accommodate given the circumstances. The rules have been updating a lot over the past few months, so it’s been important to be able to adjust.
In the meantime, we’re lucky that we’ve been in the position to be able to switch to a home and business meal delivery model through our website to keep our staff safe and employed. We’re grateful to be able to continue to stay in touch and interact with our customers and community through our favorite comfort food in the meantime.
- What are other local industry leaders seeing as the coronavirus pandemic throws a wrench of sorts into wedding plans?
As you can tell, everything in New Orleans has been put on hold. We’re a culture built on gathering and celebrating, and it touches every business within parish lines.
Just like couples we’re working with, we’ve all had to re-evaluate our business models, dedicate ourselves to learning more about our safety, and have had to pivot in line with the city’s regulations. As an industry, we’ve gotten together to discuss best practices and try to come up with ways that we can move forward together.
- What is your (and/or other industry leaders) battle plan moving forward?
Well, we all will have to work harder and be more deliberate with our actions. Better safety protocols require thought and practice, and it’s necessary to communicate that with our guests and clients going forward to create the best experience for us all. All of us vendors have been communicating with one another since the beginning–first to reschedule events, now to start talking in detail about what they may look like moving forward. We’ve all been on the same page from the start and it’s been wonderful to be a part of such a tight knit community.
For our company, since we’ve been operating this whole time, we’ve been able to put into practice our back of house protocols and now they’re second nature. So, every time a team member comes to work in our kitchens at Il Mercato, they head to a cleaning station where their temperature will be taken, and shift prep work begins. All staff will clean their shoes in a sanitizing bath, do a 30-second hand wash, apply hair coverings, wear a face masks and don a fresh chef coat. Hands are washed again upon entry into the kitchen and at 30-minute intervals. Staff has been limited to five in the kitchen at any time to ensure proper distance between stations. More than anything, we need to keep our employees safe.
For the near future, we’ve already started to plan for a new normal. It’s been a game of anticipating future needs—how are we going to keep surfaces clean and what materials do we need to buy for this? What is the demand for this item and how will that in turn effect pricing? How will we work with brides to budget out for required servers? There are a lot of unknowns, but we’ll just have to do our best moving forward. Our plans will be guided by safety, and then we’ll figure out how to make it beautiful and fit naturally into each event so that our guests can focus on having fun. Thankfully, the summer season will give us time to figure things out before the busy fall season begins.
- Are you finding more couples are cancelling their bigger celebrations in opt for smaller “I dos” or just choosing to postpone the entire event?
For our clients with fall weddings they’re in a bit of a holding pattern, waiting to see what the guidelines will be for fall events. We have one or two large events that we’re working on where we have a plan A, which is going ahead with the larger event, and a plan B, which is a much smaller, more intimate gathering. Right now, since we’re still months away, there isn’t a need for an immediate decision, so even though we know the uncertainty is adding to the stress of it all, it makes sense to wait it out a bit longer.
- What is the biggest question or issue you’re seeing from couples?
There’s no doubt that the biggest challenge is all the different layers of uncertainty. Weddings take months in advance to plan, so not knowing what will be allowed or when it will be allowed is definitely a challenge! The best thing we can do is just to be flexible and communicative with clients.
As of June 13, wedding venues still cannot allow dancing, indoor live music or buffet food stations. We understand that the pandemic is still raging throughout the country. We hope that if the people of New Orleans continue to stay safe, we can dance together once again.
- What are some key points or information couples should know when deciding on whether to postpone or minimize their wedding?
As couples begin to plan (or reschedule), they need to ask themselves the following: What are your priorities as a couple? What is your timeline? Who do you want to share your day with? How can you minimize risk?
As vendors, we’re here to help you make your day the best that it can be. Wedding vendors amazingly resourceful and creative- given a little bit of time we’re going to figure out ways to make weddings wonderful again! We’re in the same boat and we’re more than happy to walk through our capabilities and navigate this storm with you.