Arts & Entertainment, Food Service & Agriculture, and Retail

Expensive beef, less boozing, beautiful barns

A food service veteran deals with continuous change in the wedding reception business.

August 15, 2014
| By Pete Daly |
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Tom Doyle
Tom Doyle says wedding receptions make up about 60 percent of his business. Photo by Johnny Quirin

Catering professional Tom Doyle, a former long-time partner in the Brann restaurant chain and the new owner of Distinctive Catering by Brann’s, deals with a lot of change and challenges in what people want for their wedding receptions.

Doyle said wedding receptions are about 60 percent of his business, which operates throughout West Michigan from the Indiana line to Traverse City and east to Lansing. He employs about 122 employees, mostly part time, during peak business in the spring, summer and fall.

Doyle is dealing with high prices in beef, pork and catering supplies this year, and practicing his creativity and flexibility as engaged couples are giving caterers less lead time for booking and planning receptions than their parents did.

Barns are a major trend wedding caterers are seeing all over Michigan.

“Barns are very big,” said Doyle. “Anybody who has a barn right now could turn it into a wedding facility,” he said, only half joking. More about the barns later.

Catering corporate events is another big chunk of business for Distinctive Catering by Brann’s, which specializes in outdoor grilling for large groups of employees, especially popular among the manufacturing clients he serves.

Doyle said the corporate catering market has recovered nicely since the recession temporarily ended a lot of traditional employee reward-and-recognition events involving food service, especially within the hard-hit manufacturing industry.

Doyle, 59, starting working in food service as a teenager when he landed a busboy job in the early 1970s at a restaurant on South Division owned by Tommy Brann. In the early 1980s, he became one of the five founding partners of The Sizzlin’ 5 Corp., the others mainly being Brann family members. Ultimately, The Sizzlin’ 5 opened almost a dozen restaurants in West Michigan and even some in the Detroit region.

Distinctive Catering by Brann’s was established in 1995 as a separate division of Brann’s Steakhouse & Sports Grille. Earlier this year, Doyle sold his interest in the Brann’s restaurants and bought the catering business from the Branns.

Distinctive Catering by Brann’s is located at 4945 S. Division Ave. Doyle said his company is “a banquet facilities management company, and on top of that, we’re a caterer.”

His central kitchen is at the South Division location, which also has a newly remodeled banquet hall seating 250.

Doyle’s business also manages two other banquet halls: the Grandville Banquet Center, seating up to 450, and its newest location, The Waddell Center Banquets by Branns on Taylor Street near downtown Grand Rapids.

Distinctive Catering by Brann’s is the exclusive caterer at dozens of venues and events, including the Historic Bowens Mills in Middleville, the B93 Birthday Bash, and Ramada Inn Ludington and South Haven. He is the preferred caterer for St. Cecilia Music Center, Merritt Lamb Banquet Facility, Fruitport Golf Club & Banquet Center and many other venues in West Michigan.

Doyle’s catering crew also serves the Goei Center in southwest Grand Rapids, which as a venue for wedding receptions, corporate and community events, Doyle calls “the hottest place in town.”

Wedding receptions are definitely at the core of his business, with corporate events a close second.

“This year our goal was (serving) 50,000 wedding guests, and we hit that,” he said in early August. They plan to serve about 40,000 meals to corporate guests and at personal events such as graduation parties.

There have been significant changes to adjust to, especially in regard to wedding receptions. People today often choose to have smaller weddings, many with outdoor ceremonies.

“I think, overall, it’s more of a casual industry” now, he said. “We’re seeing … people who like to keep it classy but simple.”

Rustic venues are crowding out formal settings where previous generations held their wedding receptions, reflected by the burgeoning business in turning old barns into high-end venues for receptions. The renovations aren’t cheap, however, and the cost to book one isn’t likely to be a bargain-basement deal. One of the classiest in the Grand Rapids region is the Hydrangea Blu Barn east of Rockford, where Distinctive Catering by Brann’s is the preferred provider.

The food industry made predictions that food prices would rise from 2 to 3 percent in 2014, but Doyle said, “they’re wrong.” Caterers now are of the opinion that food prices this year will turn out to be “easily 3 to 5 percent” higher than last year. The biggest increase was in protein, especially beef, which is the highest it’s ever been, according to Doyle.

Pork is also very high because of a virus that swept through the pork production industry, triggering steady increases in pork all year. The New York Times reported in July that adeadly virus is estimated to have killed an average of 100,000 or more piglets and young hogs each week since it first showed up in Iowa in May 2013. That increased the demand for poultry, which has subsequently driven poultry prices up, too, although not as much. Doyle said it may be a year to a year and a half “before things settle down” in the meat industry.

His inclusive price for a typical wedding reception — including real linens and tableware — now runs approximately $3,000 to $6,500.

The bar tab at many wedding receptions traditionally has been a significant cost, but at an average now of 15 or 20 percent of the total, it’s “not a growing segment,” according to Doyle.

“Remember how weddings used to be a free for all? They’re not like that anymore,” he said, referring to wedding receptions of decades ago where Uncle Bob was liable to end up face down in the bowl of spiked punch.

One other change is that a lot of wedding receptions don’t take place on Saturday nights anymore. They can be any night with many held on Thursday nights, so guests generally plan to take the following Friday off from work.

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