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a caterer's dilemma with unhappy customer

post #1 of 16
Thread Starter 
Greetings,

At our recent outdoors wedding catering event, held at a horse farm (Lauxmont Farms in PA), we discovered when we arrived that the food prep tent was not on concrete slab floor as promised but was set over uneven pebble and rocks, loosely covered with barn hay that appeared to have traces of faeces on them. Dust was everywhere and 3 old scratched and dirty tables were set up precariously for all of our food and equipment to feed 165 people. Only cold running water was available - from a hose left lying on the ground.

Worse of all, there was no drainage whatsoever for disposing of waste water. We were told to just spray judiciously between the prep tent and entrance to main seating area which was on concrete slab. Guest bathrooms were set up 2 feet away facing the prep tent.

My serving team, which have had strict sanitation and food safety standards instilled in them, were understandably concerned about being able to prep safely. I was sick with worry that my liability insurer might not cover any injury from working in an obviously unsafe and unsanitary environment. Most of all, I was concerned about making customers sick from food handled under the above conditions.

We had arrived 3 hrs before serving to set up and prep, then even the cold water was turned off by the facility. I had to make the instant decision to have all the food brought back to the cafe for final prepping which meant a delay to our service. Now the customer (bride's mom) is very unhappy and does not want to pay the balance of the account.

Bear in mind that I had visited the facility twice with the customer who were assured along with me that the food tent will be on concrete slab floor, there will be running water from taps and that 3 banquet tables will be set up around tent perimeter for prepping.

When I asked for help from the wedding coordinator who is owner of the facility, I was told that Lauxmont Farm only cared about the bride and groom and that the caterers are the last of their worries.

It was also then I found out from her that many caterers had refused to take on jobs at that outdoors location on the farm. Valuable information that would have helped me to plan and price accordingly if told me at our first meeting!

The meticulous hr by hr detailed plans of action for our catering team had to be changed last minute to deal with the unforseen situation.

The bride and groom were happy and thanked us repeatedly and profusely for our service. As did their friends.

Guests came by to tell us that they thought we were doing a heroic job given that the weather had turned to torrential rain right at service time and the prep tent was just mud and the wind kept blowing out the sternos.

I was grateful that nobody got sick and my team did not run screaming out of all that muck. Did I mention that there was no garbage disposal and that we had to take all the garbage with us.

Please share your wise and experienced counsel of what the cafe can do to remedy the situation. Cafe Chocolate has catered many successful events both at the cafe and at outdoor venues. We did another outdoor function to welcome Governor Rendell when he came to Lititz last year.

Not so cheered caterer
post #2 of 16

Since you've catered many events...

I would have to assume that you had a very specific written contract?

What happened in this one that you became lax?

Personally, I would have explained to the Host/Hostess about my concerns and the breach of what was promised and why. If a remedy wasn't offered I would have politely pulled my team and explained to the obviously know nothing wedding planner to go to the local minimart and get a bunch of cheeto's and dips.

I understand perfectly about wanting to do my best under any circumstances, but it sounds like it was an impossible situation.

I assume you received a deposit before proceeding so it would then have been in the bride's mother's court to prove that you didn't provide as promised. With proper documentation you would have no problem.

In this case however, you will need to gather up all of your information regarding the event, photos (I'm certain somebody has photos of your tents and the set up) the contract, witnesses and take her to court.

Sorry to say it, but stupidity seems to be rampant.

April
post #3 of 16
Thread Starter 

Thanks for your response, Chef April

I do have everything to contest the customer's refusal to pay. Your response gives me strength.

Since the cafe is a newbie establishment (2 yrs old) in a particularly conservative county (Lancaster), serving only organic, fair trade and shade grown food and using bio-degradable disposables, I am keen to achieve a win win solution if possible with this unhappy customer.

We do have a contract but the conditions of the prep tent/work area never even came up.

I am calling the PA USDA office to inform them of the inadequacies of the facility.

Will keep you posted of outcome. Again thanks for your comments. Do come and be the guest of Cafe Chocolate if you are in the tri-state area.
post #4 of 16
I'm nauseous just reading about this experience! Didn't you jeopardize your own business by even cooking under such conditions??

Absolutely true on both counts!

That's just too flipping bad. You can sue the mother both for what she owes you AND court costs. You rendered a service under abominable conditions and she owes you every penny of your invoice at the very least.

This is where my $hit lousy attitude would come in. Couldn't you have strongarmed the wedding planner a bit? Asked if refusing to prepare ANY food would have moved you up a bit on the priority list???

You need to let the board of health in your area know about this place. You're honor bound not to let other caterers suffer because it's obvious this farm is not going to play fair with full disclosure.

Anyone know how I nominate this guy for sainthood???


Here's what I would have done.

1) Demand appropriate (at least sanitary) working conditions. Failing that;
2) Be prepared to tell your whole crew to about face and leave the venue.
3) On the way out, write a check to the mother (I'd love to add the suitable follow up word ... :mad: ) and shove it in her hand as you tip your hat.
4) Prepare whatever fresh food you have and either a) donate it to a shelter (tax writeoff) or b) throw an impromptu party for your crew (business expense). Dry goods could be returned to the pantry.

I don't like pi$$ing contests but they're sometimes unavoidable. Lucky thing I have a big bladder.
Food is sex for the stomach.
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Food is sex for the stomach.
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post #5 of 16

Imo

OMG,

#1 parents suck! They are the number one reason weddings are difficult.

#2 I would counter by adding extra fees for working in a hazardous situation, transport to and from cafe, etc. After all, you and your crew did MORE work not less.

#3 Add late fees to the bill. This usually works instantly with corporate clients, and helps private one fall in line faster.

Just remember you both agree on one point. The event was not as planned, and as you described it it was completely out of your control.

Ask the client, "are you refusing to pay the balance due?" If they are smart they will not answer making you take it to the next level. If they answer "Yes, we are refusing to pay." Then ask them, "Would you consider mediation on this matter, or would you rather handle it in court."

This brings them to the sobering realization that you are serious about resolving this matter, but if they know they are wrong they may have a tantrum at the suggestion. If they think they are right then they will welcome the intervention.

Also do not act threatening when you say it. Act as if you want to make it all right and are offering to let them do it through proper channels. Of course, this is akin to meekly drawing a sword.

Good luck

PS don't let them get away with it. None of us can afford it. Peace
"You are only as good as who you hire."
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"You are only as good as who you hire."
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post #6 of 16
Thread Starter 

Appreciate Chiffonade's chiffonading of my problem!

Thanks Chiffonade of Florida,

Your concise responses made me laugh and also taught me how to use the quote function of chef talk!

I am truly touched by this amazing community of chefs sharing with me your experience and advice.

I do feel more fortified in my guts as I meet with the disgruntled customer tomorrow at 4 pm back at the cafe.

I have checked with the PA Dept of Agriculture which regulated food safety and you are totally correct - the prep tent facility must have a floor be it just wood slab. and there must be hot and cold running water, no dust and drainage.

Lancaster county is a strange place though - all the Amish and Mennonites doing things their own way for 300 yrs means that health inspectors often turn a blind eye to egregious health infractions.

When I mentioned possible fecal matter on the straw strew over the stone and pebble surface of the prep tent, the response I got was that it was probably mud and that I was mistaken. (Having changed poopy diapers for 2 boys as part of my extensive resume - I think I have some first hand knowledge of fecal matters.)

Well, all this is another adventure in the life of a former Wall streeter turned restauranteur wanna be! Never a dull moment! At least I have the consolation of premium dark chocolate and all you wonderful chefs!!!!

Cheers from Selina

P.S. Instead of sainthood, I'd rather my Element would stop smelling like an abandoned municipal garbage truck!
post #7 of 16
I meant to say Write a check to the mother for whatever deposit she may have given you. On second thought though, it might be legal to keep the money as you had to purchase raw ingredients for the gig and you had financial outlay - not to mention you did not book another gig for that time.

I really would love to know the legal ins and outs of a situation like this.

And I'm glad you were entertained by my answers - I aim to please :lol:
Food is sex for the stomach.
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Food is sex for the stomach.
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post #8 of 16
In my former life as a chef and caterer I ran into some problem events similar to yours.
Wow! You are a real trooper!

Please keep us all informed as to how this all turns out.

www.foodandphoto.com

Liquored up and laquered down,
She's got the biggest hair in town!

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www.foodandphoto.com

Liquored up and laquered down,
She's got the biggest hair in town!

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post #9 of 16
Unhappy, no way. You're dealing with a scammer. She's rubbing her hands together in glee, thinking she's going to get off without paying. Check your local laws regarding defrauding an innkeeper. When the food went back to the cafe for prep, it basically became an extension of restaurant service. If the food was eaten, it's as though she walked out of your cafe without paying. Besides a civil action to pay for your services, this woman could face a criminal charge. Have your lawyer talk to the county attorney.

People like this gamble that you won't go to the expense of hiring an attorney and filing suit for damages. It's a whole different ballgame when they discover that they may face felony charges and the criminal charge comes from the country attorney.

You should also query the newly marrieds, if they remain local.
post #10 of 16
So what happened with the witch-mom? We are dying to know!

My mother owns a flower shop that does a lot of high end chi-chi weddings and Mum has far more problems with those Momzillas than she does with your average joe or josephine.
post #11 of 16
Yes, yes, yes! An update please!! Did you need to file a small claim or call a lawyer? Did the Beeotch mom relent and pay her balance?? Did you ever speak with the bride and groom to ascertain if they were satisfied?

Inquiring minds want to know!

:bounce:
Food is sex for the stomach.
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Food is sex for the stomach.
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post #12 of 16
RSteve is right - this refusal to pay may be a criminal act, your lawyer can tell you for sure.

You terms and conditions should include language that excuses you from performance in cases of natural disaster and other situations beyond your control.

My best friend is a lawyer, and it's fascinating to listen to him negotiate. He never loses sight of the goal, which in your case would be to get paid for most or all of the balance of the bill. Try the following, if you have the time:

1. Contact the mother of the bride once everyone has cooled down. Let her know that you understand why she is upste by the last minute change in the day's agenda. Ask her if there is anything else she is upset about - get all of it now. Then ask her to put herself in your shoes. You have the responsibilty of serving all of her guests a delicious and SAFE meal. Ask her to think about news stories in the last few months of foodborne illness outbreaks; and how one such outbreak could ruin you financially, closing your business and bankrupting you. Then ask her how she would feel if the longest lasting memory of her daughter's nuptials was an e. coli outbreak that affected all of the guests, and could have killed some who were older or younger - like grandma and the ring bearer?

2. Let that conversation stew for a couple of days, and then call and see if you can stop by to pick up a check. If she still refuses, then calmly let her know that you're never going to stop trying to collect every penny of this balance. Let her know people are already responding to good comments form the wedding guests (more business) but that you will never have the reputation as the caterer who doesn't make clients pay. Without threatening, ask if she's sure that this is what she wants to do, because in the end she will be paying more and going through a lot of aggravation. Find out if she's willing to pay a reduced amount, but make her tell you how much.

3. Since you're collecting this debt for yourself, and not hiring an outside agency, you have a lot fewer rules to abide by. Double check this in your state, of course. If mom isn't going to pay, now it's time to widen the circle. Call the father of bride, and let him know what's going on. If no resolution, call the bride and groom - "I would hate for your wonderful wedding memories to include memories of going to court." Contact the parents of the groom and explain the situation to them.

4. Sue everyone - if your lawyers advises, name both sets of parents, the wedding planner, the bride and groom and the farm in your complaint.

We normally take several payments on weddings and other large events, totally 100% before the actual event.
post #13 of 16
You should change your contract. We require payment in full 10 days before a event and a CC for any last minute changes. Good luck
Enjoy Life ~ Eat out more often
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Enjoy Life ~ Eat out more often
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post #14 of 16
ditto.....nothing like hunting down someone (bride) at a reception to pay the balance. that learning curve was short.
cooking with all your senses.....
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cooking with all your senses.....
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post #15 of 16
Different markets have different operating procedures. But in our case (Washington DC area) ........... ALWAYS get payment in full prior to events, especially for weddings. Our trucks will not leave until payment has been received and processed 5 days prior to event. Weddings are expensive and almost always over budget, clients sometime look for issues to discount what could be owed.

I would recommend that you do all your prep in your facility and transport product to sites for final assembly/re-heating as necessary.

It is your responsibility to have all appropriate equipment for foodservice you have been contracted to do, hot water, sanitizers, tables, floor protection etc. Always anticipate the worse and you will not find yourself in this situation. We use large bleu/grey plastic tarps 20x20 to cover all floors, inside and outside, this gives us a buffer from existing surfaces and also protection from possible damage to floors (stains, burns etc). We transport hot water in cambros for hand washing and demand that vinyl gloves be used at all times by staff. Rent 6 ft banquets or buy them they are idispensible tools of the trade, 4-6 should be enough for that size events, use linens to cover tables and give you a professional/sanitary fiel kitchen.

Good luck collecting.
post #16 of 16

procedures

Different markets have different operating procedures. But in our case (Washington DC area) ........... ALWAYS get payment in full prior to events, especially for weddings. Our trucks will not leave until payment has been received and processed 5 days prior to event. Weddings are expensive and almost always over budget, clients sometime look for issues to discount what could be owed.

I would recommend that you do all your prep in your facility and transport product to sites for final assembly/re-heating as necessary.

It is your responsibility to have all appropriate equipment for foodservice you have been contracted to do, hot water, sanitizers, tables, floor protection etc. Always anticipate the worse and you will not find yourself in this situation. We use large bleu/grey plastic tarps 20x20 to cover all floors, inside and outside, this gives us a buffer from existing surfaces and also protection from possible damage to floors (stains, burns etc). We transport hot water in cambros for hand washing and demand that vinyl gloves be used at all times by staff. Rent 6 ft banquets or buy them they are idispensible tools of the trade, 4-6 should be enough for that size events, use linens to cover tables and give you a professional/sanitary field kitchen.

Good luck collecting.
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