People often ask me, “Mordechai, you clearly don’t make a lot of money. How do you save money on simchas?” And to that I answer, “By being anti-social,” and I hope they take a hint.
But for the most recent bar mitzvah that I made, right before Sukkos, I decided to try self-catering. Caterers are very expensive, considering that, most of the time, their food isn’t actually any better than the food you can make at home, for free, plus the cost of food.
And yes, I understand that this isn’t an answer for everybody. But even if you’re just talking about a Shabbos menu for your extended family, logistics are going to be a problem. You’re going to find yourself asking questions like, “OK, so how do I lay out enough chicken to feed 100 people in an oven that holds two large baking pans? And can I bake a half of a simcha challah at a time, and then peanut-butter them together or something?”
Soup logistics were a problem for us. In general, soup is a great way to fill people up, but if you’re having 60 people for Shabbos, and everyone eats a cup of soup, that’s almost four gallons, which is an impossible amount of soup to transport, not to mention it would take every fleishig pot we own cooking at once to make that much soup. And each pot gets progressively smaller. And then how am I making my rice?
I did see an enormous pot when my wife schlepped me to Restaurant Depot, and this pot was big enough to have solved all of my soup-logistics problems, but would probably collapse my stove. I’m also not sure how many shelves I have to remove from my fridge to put it in there overnight. Can I leave chicken soup on the back porch if it’s cold enough? Cats don’t like soup, right? Or swimming.
But what if we made kneidlach? Yes, that’s extra prep time, but if we store the kneidlach separately, does that mean less soup to transport? How much soup does the average kneidel displace? Probably not that much if it’s nice and fluffy. But what if we make them dense, like bowling balls?
So we’re starting to see why caterers do the things they do.
But yes, technically, you can buy food for less money if you do it yourself. That makes it easier. On the other hand, you have to seriously overestimate on your food purchases. For example, if a container of coleslaw says it feeds 15 people, and you’re having 150 people for the bo ba’yom, you have to buy 10 containers of coleslaw. And yes, not everyone will have coleslaw, but you have to assume that they are, because you’re not asking around. Not only that, you have to assume that each person will eat a full serving, which I’m pretty sure the company estimated based on someone who decides to eat nothing but coleslaw for his entire meal. Because let me tell you something: When the package says it feeds 15 people, it means 15 people who are actively interested in eating coleslaw.
Sure, the caterers have this issue too. But (1) they can always put the leftover coleslaw away for the next simcha, whereas your next simcha is four years from now, and (2) if the coleslaw is close to the expiration date and they really want people to eat it, all they have to do is leave it on the table with the challah and then take a little longer to bring out the next course.
But in our society, if you’re making a simcha, you have to estimate that every single person will eat every single food to the fullest extent. You have to assume that everyone is starving themselves for a week before your simcha so they can come and have exactly one full serving of each thing you put out. When have you ever eaten exactly one full serving of anything? You either eat way less or way more. You have no way of knowing. How often do you pay attention to the serving suggestions?
Let’s put it this way: For our bar mitzvah, we made six loaves of gefilte fish, and it turns out we needed three. I did the math based on servings, but I didn’t realize that it says that a serving is two slices. What kind of monster helps himself to two slices of gefilte fish at a simcha? Not everyone, that’s for sure. Just the people who really, really don’t like coleslaw.
And you have to buy more than you need. There’s no way around it. If you’re having 273 people at your bar mitzvah, you can’t just buy 273 plates, forks, knives, spoons, napkins, cups, and bowls. They all come in packages of 500. Or 24, if you want to pay more per piece. A caterer will charge you for 273 of each thing, but if you cater it yourself, you’re going to end up with leftovers that you’re going to store until the next bar mitzvah and then pull out and realize that you don’t have enough of anything anyway, and nothing they still sell matches what you have from the last time. And what if people at different tables compare and realize they have different patterns? Maybe give the men one pattern and the women another and make a note of who notices.
Also, a caterer has the experience to realize that you need more plates than the number of people you’re going to have, because if your 273 people breaks down into 124 men, 123 women, and 26 friends of the bar mitzvah boy, and each table seats ten people, then buying exactly what you need will leave you 17 short of everything. You can’t set half a table. And you also have to buy 17 appetizers that no one will eat.
Another benefit of caterers is that they generally come with waiters. If you cater it yourself, you still want waiters. We didn’t get waiters for our first bar mitzvah, and we ended up with all our friends and family watching me cut open the hechsher tape on our buffet pans in my suit with a set of car keys, which is another thing I learned from experience — bring a knife.
“OK,” you say. “How hard is it to find waiters? Everyone knows how to carry food.”
The problem with finding waiters is that everyone you know is invited to your event. You want to find someone you don’t know and convince them to be waiters.
And you’re thinking, “What’s the big deal? I can hire a couple of teenagers.” But you forget that when you ask your teenagers to bring food in on Friday nights, they go, “Ugh. Fine.” And you’re their parents. Imagine if you go over to strange teenagers and say this.
But at least when all is said and done, you’ll be able to relax knowing how much money you saved, right?
Wrong. Now you have to figure out where to put the leftovers.
We put out the food family style, so people could take as much as they wanted, and we wouldn’t have to waste food. The problem was that people could also take as little as they wanted, and now we had nowhere to store the rest.
Shabbos wasn’t as much of a problem because of when we did it. And that’s our advice: Make your simcha right before yom tov. We made our most recent bar mitzvah the Shabbos before Sukkos. If you think you’re sick of fresh food by the time yom tov is over…
Anyway, our yom tov guests were super not appreciative.
“Well, you should have eaten more at the bar mitzvah.”
Probably the biggest downside of self-catering is that, afterwards, you find yourself actively upset at your guests for not eating more.
But after our bo ba’yom, which was a week earlier, we had a problem. Yes, there are organizations that take simcha leftovers, but (1) I’m pretty sure they only take sealed pans, and (2) I couldn’t ask, because by the time we got all our food home and organized to figure out what we had and what we had no room to store, it was 11:30 at night, and we obviously didn’t have the fridge space to store the food until we could call anyone. Cats don’t like Chinese food, do they?
Fortunately, I have connections in my local mesivta, so I drove it over there, and two guys who were still up told me that they would pull everyone out of bed to come for the food, and whether or not I believed them, this was no longer my problem.
“Wait. It’s mostly rice. And appetizers.”
“Oh, you don’t like that? You should have waitered.”
So no, we didn’t get to relax afterward knowing how much money we saved. We have no idea how much money we saved, because we had to buy so many little odds and ends that we lost track of our total, and we don’t have time to retrace our steps because we haven’t gotten any work done in the last month because we were trying to save money on a bar mitzvah.
So my advice, all in all, is to find someone who’s making a simcha right after you and pass everything you don’t use down to them. And yes, I realize that this goes against everything I said about being anti-social. But if you can’t make your peace with a simple little problem like that, there’s no way you’re going to be able to handle self-catering a bar mitzvah.
Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of six books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com.