The chefs were world-class, the food was exquisite, the chatbox was upbeat. A live, virtual, Venetian-style cook-along, with a parcel of tender onglet and aged shorthorn carpaccio couriered straight to my door, was a lockdown treat. But it did not deliver the thrill of a real-life celebration.
Big parties are the plexus that holds city life together and, with luck, they will be possible again in England on June 21. As restrictions lift and London’s nightlife comes alive again, we are gagging for their return — and so are the businesses that depend on them.
Charlie Grant Peterkin, director of Rocket Food, one of London’s most established catering businesses, employs 120 people (including casuals), and typically serves up bashes for City banks, law firms, fashion brands and car companies. “Dinner for 400 at the V&A, standing reception for 800 at the Natural History Museum — that sort of thing,” he says, rattling off his favourite venues in a wistful tone. Who can blame him? He has been at home for months with preschoolers.
In need of a plan under lockdown, Grant Peterkin came up with A Cook’s Tour, a mealkit-meets-live-cook-along venture. Boxes of prepared ingredients are delivered to members’ homes, who then join a live demonstration hosted by a skilled chef. Angela Hartnett and Thomasina Miers are among the big names. And the business took off: one big bank used the service for a client party; gangs of friends used it for virtual dinner parties.
A Cook’s Tour was an imaginative response to global events, but Grant Peterkin says it was difficult. There were new costs: television studios and deliveries, and skills like film production. “Our hand has been forced. We’ll keep it going . . . but is it making money? No.”
Until 2020, corporate parties were worth £1.2bn a year in the UK, according to Statista. Events catering was worth more than £5bn. The industry provides livelihoods to more than half a million people — from the companies that lay on extravagant gatherings to the entrepreneurs who supply the props: fancy dress costumes, flowers, drinks, music.
The idea that survival depended on businesses’ ability to transform themselves into purveyors of distractions to be enjoyed at home is appealing. But “pivoting” has been far from easy for Grant Peterkin. “What you’re doing is starting up a new business and, as we all know, that involves investment. So you aren’t ‘pivoting’, actually. You are trying to protect your cash reserves. It sounds good. But actually it’s a financial burden.”
Illustrator Caroline Kent’s business, Scribble & Daub, made about 40 per cent of its revenues from events until 2020. She supplied whimsical, hand-drawn invitations, menus, name cards and the like. “Before last year I remember thinking it all had so much potential,” she says.
Her livelihood depends on personal ties. She remembers names, favourite motifs, preferred styles. Now, as the world reopens, she worries her clients will have forgotten her.
Like Grant Peterkin, Kent “pivoted” to e-sales. But the word implies a degree of effortlessness that belies reality. Pivoting, says florist Kitten Grayson, is really “having to start again”. In a year, her business changed from one service — floral installations for parties thrown by big-budget clients such as L’Oréal — to flower deliveries, decorations and wreaths, with a few commissions for private homes on the side. In 2020, Christmas sales were down by more than half.
Now, she is looking to a post-pandemic future with a cutting garden for flower deliveries, classes and workshops. “We’ve not put too much risk in . . . But we have to run with it because we have to survive.”
All businesses have been affected by the pandemic but the party industry is particularly vulnerable to confidence. Perhaps it will return: one UK venue provider claimed to have received close to £2m worth of inquiries in the 24 hours after the prime minister announced the UK’s “road map” to normality.
Grayson, meanwhile, talks of sleepless nights, remote meetings and the hard slog of keeping up momentum. “We discuss what’s ahead and push forward,” she says. She marks time by the progress of the flowers she has planted for spring.