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Inaugural Caterers Prepare For Long, Grueling Day In The Cold

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Strawberries dressed for Inauguration at Ridgewells Catering.
Jonathan Wilson
Strawberries dressed for Inauguration at Ridgewells Catering.

Every four years this town puts its best foot forward for another Presidential Inauguration. Back in 2008, the historic election of Barack Obama that meant the pressure was on for the folks in charge of putting the city's best food forward: caterers.

Ridgewells Catering CEO Susan Lacz is making her way through the maze of kitchens at the company's headquarters. Staffers here are ramping things up as inauguration weekend approaches. It's a routine with which the city's largest catering business is a little bit familiar.

"We've been doing inaugurations since Eisenhower's era," says Lacz. "So every four years, Ridgewells is somewhere to be found along the parade route or at an Inaugural ball."

There will be just two official inaugural balls this year, compared with the 10 held in 2009. Even unofficial inaugural parties are expected to be less extravagant in light of the country's current economic struggles.

But the amount of food pushed out of Ridgewells' kitchen will still be massive — at least 80 pounds of salmon sides, 125 pounds of mashed potatoes, and 3,000 empanadas.

But Lacz says the volume of food isn't the real challenge on inauguration weekend. "We could have just as busy of a day, any other day of the year. But you don't have the security and parameters of getting in and out of event space."

In another part of town, the kitchen at Occasions Catering is humming with the sounds of dicing knives and sizzling oil. The company is coming off one of its best holiday seasons. And the kitchen itself sits in the middle of a brand new building — a $10 million facility — they moved into last April.

Co-founder Mark Michael has reason to smile from ear-to-ear, but right now he's feeling a little tense.

"Inauguration brings a pit into my stomach every four years," he says. "It's sort of like heading into war on a ship, in a fog."

Michael says last time around, the trickiest part was making sure key staffers were inside the security perimeter before the rest of the general public flooded in.

Enrique Sanchez, a manager at Occasions, remembers securing lodging — if you can call it that — for 200 employees.

"Last Inauguration we had people sleeping over at American History, Natural History... any museum. We secured spots for staff, waiters and cooks to spend the night in there so they wouldn't have to go through the security lines."

As magnificent as many of our downtown museums may be, few are known for an abundance of cozy places to curl up for a good night's rest. Just ask Occasions cook Sam Jones.

"You're sleeping on the floor," he laughs. "I mean, Occasions gave you a blanket, so you were pretty cool after that. I mean, you had to do what you had to do to get down there earlier."

Mark Michael says after working a couple of inaugurations, you just accept that security is going to get a little tighter each time, and you deal with it. But the unprecedented crowds that showed up in 2009, coupled with colder than average temperatures that week brought something else — lots and lots of coats to check.

Yep, caterers have to worry about that as well.

"There weren't enough coat racks in Washington, D.C.," says Michael. "It didn't matter where you were, so we were finding creative ways to both hang outer garments and secure them during events. So literally we were bringing in rods and hanging them with chairs and all that, just to keep people's coats safe."

With smaller crowds and fewer inaugural balls, some of the bigger challenges D.C.'s top catering outfits faced in 2009 will probably be moot. But undoubtedly there will be other catering caveats for these folks to tackle.

Michael says that's all just part of the busiest time in a D.C. caterer's life.

"Everybody both loves and hates inauguration," he says. "Everybody hates it because it's a couple of nights of no sleep, and everybody loves it because in the catering business, it's sort of a badge of honor to be part of such a big celebration."

Are you heading to this year's inauguration? You can be a part of WAMU 88.5's coverage by tweeting your photos and tips for getting around. Just use the hash tag #WAMUINAUG.

[Music: "Obama's Hail to the Chief Remix" by MrPMass]

Photos: Inaugural Caterers


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