Wedding Q&A: Butler’s Pantry Chef Greg Ziegenfuss
On the ins and outs of a wedding reception
By George Mahe
December 18, 2015
St. Louis Magazine
When asked how many weddings he’s done in the nearly 15 years that he’s been with Butler’s Pantry, executive chef Greg Ziegenfuss’ eyes get big, as if to say, “I don’t know, but it’s a lot.” The company has seven party venues and is on the lists of 40 more. On September 17, he and the Butler’s Pantry team had their busiest day ever, catering 25 events, 10 of them weddings, feeding a total of 3,800 people. The moment he said that, our eyes got big.
When did you join Butler’s Pantry? In 2001. Ricky [Nix, owner of Butler’s Pantry] had the connections, he just didn’t have a premium product. At the time, we were a million dollar a year company. This year we’ll do $10 million.
How has the catering business changed? Our business was more corporation-focused then, 60 percent corporate to 40 percent social, and not very many weddings. Now, weddings account for over third of our business.
How many venues does Butler’s Pantry control? We run seven venues exclusively [Palladium Saint Louis, The Coronado, Piper Palm House/Café Madeleine, Missouri History Museum, Bixby’s, Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, Joule], plus we’re on a list of 40 more.
What are some venues that may not be top of mind for a wedding event? The History Museum is different and versatile, people forget that Bixby’s is available at night, and we just introduced Joule a few months ago. Venues like the City Hall Rotunda, the World Chess Hall of Fame, the Cabanne House, the Muny, and “the Big House”—Gussie Busch’s former home at Grant’s Farm—are off-radar as well.
How many events does Butler’s Pantry do on a weekend? On a Saturday night, we could have seven weddings in-house, for example, which happens often, plus more at other venues, homes, and back yards.
How much staff does all that require? Over 20 full time cooks, plus a chef de cuisine, sous chefs, and a full crew of chefs and sous at Bixby’s. All our baking is done by our pastry chef at the Coronado. And Piccione, which Ricky owns, can supply us with desserts quicker and easier.
Do you lay off people when it gets slow, like in January? If you combine our growth with people taking vacations when it’s slow, we now rarely have to lay off any of our full-timers. Fortunately, we don’t have those high peaks and deep valleys anymore.
Do you ever use a temporary staffing service? No, that’s where we’re different. We have 350 part-time people we can call on—people we know and trust, people we’ve trained, most with other jobs. We know who’s working your event or coming to your house. With staffing companies, there are unknowns. Today, some guy’s digging a ditch, tomorrow he could be wearing a tuxedo, pouring wine at a table.
Do people still get married in the winter? Consumers are much more educated—and flexible—today. They know that both venues and churches are available and most companies—the florists, the limo drivers, our company, too—can be more aggressive with pricing in the slower months. A winter wedding may preclude sleeveless bridesmaid dresses, for example, but today’s consumer is better at dealing with things like that. Plus, the vendor’s focus is usually sharper, because it may be their only event that weekend.
How can one save money when planning a wedding? It’s more efficient for us—and less expensive for the wedding party—if we handle the rehearsal, reception, and maybe even Sunday brunch. With multiple venues available, there doesn’t have to be any duplication. Like at The Palladium, the service could be held there, guests move over to Joule or Joule’s patio for cocktails and appetizers, move back to The Palladium for a sit-down dinner, then have brunch at the Piper Palm House the next day. Many of our venues offer the same kind of flexibility.
Does Butler’s Pantry ever cater showers? Yes, more and more. Some couples’ showers get pretty elaborate. These days, we’re seeing both parties getting involved in the planning, even so far as doing a heavier, meat-centric table and one with lighter foods.
Are there any new wedding trends? More and more people are waiting to get married until they are in their thirties and forties. And with second marriages, the groom is a lot more involved—with the food choices and the wine. In younger marriages, the groom just shows up. Same-sex weddings, both parties tend get more involved.
I guess you’re seeing more same-sex weddings? We are. For those, since often there are no kids, incomes tend to be higher, and both the food and beverages are much more important. There’s almost always higher-end wine and premium liquors. Thirty years ago, guests could expect to see chicken, green beans, and rice—and hopefully an open bar.
Are you seeing more craft beers and mixologist-grade cocktails? Wedding functions mirror what’s seen in restaurants, on the internet, and on TV. So yes, all of that. We’ve come a long way from being able to serve just Bud and Bud Light. Receptions today usually feature at least two specialty cocktails, somebody’s favorite drinks from somewhere.
Are buffets always cheaper than sit-down dinners? Not for a wedding reception. At a sit-down event, you prepare precise portions for an exact number of people. It’s very efficient but labor intensive. At a buffet, there’s a lot more variety, and you can’t run out of anything. Plus, you never know what’s going to be popular. As a result, you have to cook more, which negates the efficiencies of a sit-down meal.
Are multiple stations still popular? They are, but guests still don’t know whether to go to one station and sit down or hit multiple stations at once and then sit down. The ideal situation is to visit one at a time and get a clean plate at each. The food is fresher and hotter that way.
Wedding cakes: Yay or nay? The younger, more traditional brides still want a cake and the ceremony that goes with it. Older people, second wedding, and same-sex wedding couples are interested more in current desserts. Cupcake towers are still big, as are fried-to-order donuts. Without the pressure to get on with the cake, a dessert station can be put out later in the evening. After drinks and a big dinner, I see that as a welcome change.
What’s the most overlooked issue? Most [couples] haven’t thought through their priorities. Some brides want a four-hour dinner; others want four hours of dancing. We can get close to either, depending on how the rest of the event gets structured. Another is what to do with leftover food: Should we box it up? Should we donate it to a charity? One couple recently said, “Just throw it out.” It’s the same thing with flowers; all too often, beautiful floral arrangements end up in the dumpster.
What else is there to remember? With full-service caterers, you’ll find the need for a wedding planner is lessened, since we cross the same T’s and dot the same I’s that the planners do. And some of us even own all our own tables, chairs, china, stemware, and flatware, which makes us more competitive and sets us apart. We bought our own square plates and square plate covers. We bought a Villeroy & Boch china pattern that’s definitely a step up.
What was the coolest wedding reception you ever did? It was a same-sex couple, and both were really into food. They tasked us with re-creating dishes from places they’d traveled, items that were special to them. We did a six-course meal that night, in which some of the people—including the married couple—were directed to change tables after every course. I’m not sure how the math worked, but all of the mixing and mingling made for a more interesting evening.
Are there any new trends that seem to be sticking around? Late-night snacks are still a thing—we can get a food truck to stop by and White Castle sliders are still popular. Both add an extra, unexpected element, but in my mind, it’s too much, too soon. You’ve had a big meal and dessert and two hours later…sliders. I’d rather see some takeaway items offered.
Such as? Have the valet issue madelines or cookies, something sweet to have with coffee the next day. “These are courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. So and So. Thank you for coming.” The big hit this season was our mini caramel apples.
Any demands you can’t meet? Some of the newer cooking techniques—like spherification [flavored liquid encased in gelatin] or cooking things sous vide, for example—are very hard to do on a large scale. We challenge our creative people—all our people, really—to think out of the box and figure out how to make the difficult doable.
Can you share any horror stories? One wedding venue had its own table for the wedding cake, and the couple cut the cake. But as we rolled it away, the table collapsed. The bride laughed—and at that point, I was able to.
Any outrageous demands or circumstances? We were doing a small party in a private home and planned on a certain number of guests—we had protein for exactly 15 people—then two extra guests showed up. I jumped in my car, drove to Schnucks, got back, and was able to grill the meat and no one was the wiser. The problem was, it had happened before. I told the host, “Can we just plan on bringing a few extra portions, and we’ll leave them for you if nobody else shows up?”
Have allergies, vegetarian considerations, and gluten-free concerns become more of a factor? At a big event, 15 percent of guests now have a special request: no dairy, gluten, seafood, nuts… Fifteen years ago, I don’t remember anybody even asking for a vegetarian meal.