PENNINGTON, N.J. — Pennington Quality Market's catering business here has grown to include after-funeral gatherings — as many as 10 per month — and often includes meals delivered to bereaved families following the loss of a loved one.
Catering is usually associated with happy occasions — weddings, birthdays and bar mitzvahs — but that's obviously not always the case. Indeed, more than 15% of upscale PQM's catering business is now made up of serving after-funeral gatherings.
Total catering sales are 7% to 8% of the location's total sales, said Don Rellstab, manager of the 48,000-square-foot, family-owned single unit.
“That amounts to a lot of money since this is a high-volume store,” he told SN.
Rellstab and catering coordinator Diana Meskill described some of the particular challenges associated with catering funeral-related gatherings.
“For one thing, it's — because of the nature of it — always short notice. We often have just 24 hours' notice,” Rellstab explained.
Since that is the case, it works well to have the catering business a part of a full-line supermarket, he pointed out.
“We don't have to order supplies and wait for vendors to deliver [as a stand-alone caterer would]. We draw from the meat department, the bakery, produce. We have everything right here.”
In addition to having little notice, the catering team has to be flexible, ready to adjust the amount of food needed, since the number of guests expected is usually just a bare estimate.
Unlike a wedding or a birthday party to which a certain number of guests would have received an invitation, bereaved families have no way of knowing how many people will return to a gathering place, such as a home, after the funeral or memorial service.
“We help the family estimate by counting the number of family members and close friends they expect to attend the funeral service, but a lot depends on whether it's a weekday or a weekend and what the weather is like,” said Meskill, who is PQMs director of foodservice as well as its catering coordinator.
“If it's on a weekday, there will be fewer people returning to the home because most will have to go back to work. If it's a weekend, they're more apt to go to the home and spend more time there.”
Here, the flexibility allowed by the catering department's position as part of a full-line supermarket comes in handy.
“If the server sees there's not going to be enough food as more people arrive than expected, it's not a big deal for us to get more food brought over from the store. We're usually no more than 20 minutes away,” Rellstab explained.
And Meskill pointed out that Pennington's servers make sure any leftovers are properly packed up and put in the family's refrigerator.
“Or if the gathering was held at a hall for other off-site place, it's packed up and carried to the family's car, or could be taken to the home,” she explained.
Sometimes the catering team just sets up and then leaves, but most customers — in fact, about 75% — want servers, officials pointed out.
“We send two or three servers out to the site an hour ahead of time to get things set up, coffee made and everything ready, so the family doesn't have to think about anything having to do with the food,” Meskill said.
The family will have chosen the food they want from a 10-page menu made available to them when they contact the catering office.
“We can do anything from mini-sandwich platters and dessert platters to tenderloin roasts and mixed, grilled vegetables, and other hot dishes,” Rellstab said.
“A popular choice, too, is sliced, chilled tenderloin on a platter, with a small container of horseradish sauce.”
Depending on the menu and the size of the group, this segment of the catering business can be lucrative. While the fare to be served is certainly more modest than that at a wedding, this type of gathering is the second largest type of affair the catering department serves, Rellstab said.
Anywhere from 50 to 200 people is within the norm.
“The bill can range from $500 to $1,100 and sometimes much more. One of our largest, for $3,000, was this summer,” Rellstab said.
After the funeral, or sometimes before, Pennington's catering department often gets a call from a friend of family member asking that meals be delivered to the bereaved family for several days.
“That is pretty common. People sometimes call from out of state. It might be from a friend of the family or a relative who has returned home from the funeral or from someone who couldn't get here for the funeral.”
The meals often are for dinner, but some are breakfast trays.
“Wachovia just ordered breakfast trays to be sent to the family of one of its [workers],” Meskill said.
“We always send a nice card with the meals, and we call ahead to see when the family wants the food delivered,” she added.
“Sometimes they're just overwhelmed and have too much food on hand for a few days. They might tell us they don't want it till the end of the week, and we'll call again to make sure there's someone there to accept it.”
Because everything about dealing with a bereaved family requires special sensitivity, Pennington puts its most experienced servers on these jobs.
Meskill herself has had years of experience. She's been with Pennington for 10 years, and prior to that she owned her own catering business in a nearby town.
Catering after-funeral gatherings became a natural part of Pennington's catering business from the beginning, Rellstab said.
It started with the company's well-established floral department.
“We already had a really good reputation for flowers when we decided to go into catering. When people ordered flowers for a funeral, they'd often ask where they could get food for afterward. We told them we could provide it,” Rellstab said.
He added that, with nothing but word-of-mouth advertising, that part of the catering business has grown significantly each year.
“I'd say it has just about doubled in the last five years. It's because we do a good job. People tell other people.”
Now, the company — which employs four full-time chefs and six or seven back-up people — is catering about 10 after-funeral gatherings a month.
The other events it caters include big weddings, parties almost every weekend, and small-business lunches and meet-and-greets on an almost daily basis.
“We're doing 700 or 800 events a year,” Rellstab said.
Pennington, N.J., itself is a small town, but it's an ideal location for PQM. In the midst of an affluent area, the store lies just five miles from Princeton University and 10 miles from the Delaware River.
“We draw business from Princeton, Titusville, Trenton. We get some government business from Trenton,” Rellstab said.