Catering to your conscience

More couples say 'I do' to menus that use local foods -- even if it means more green

Staff WriterMay 27, 2009 

— The bride wore white. The guests ate green.

Well, OK -- the bride's dress was actually ivory. And the environmental correctness of the food at the early May wedding of Laura Paynter and Robert Burton wasn't as important as the source.

It was all local, from the dates stuffed with Bosky Acres goat cheese and wrapped with Grateful Growers prosciutto to the chilled asparagus from Rhodesdale Farm in Grover.

If you count the honey in the flank-steak marinade -- from the bride's parents' beehives -- 13 local purveyors were in the kitchen Friday with caterer Hollace Stephenson of Tastemakers of Charlotte.

"I wanted to have a wedding that represents my values. My green values," says Paynter, a volunteer at the Matthews Community Farmers Market. "And there's a huge value in organic and local foods."

Trend over the past year

Catering has changed from the days of a steamship round of beef and disposable everything.

A bride at The Plaza in New York can now choose a "100 Mile Station," with all food from within 100 miles of Manhattan.

Charlotte's Something Classic Catering won a Green Award from the Business Journal this year for its Green Goddess Alliance, a move to make all of its operations environmentally sound, right down to recycling the fryer oil.

In the Triangle, Durham Catering Co. recycles its fry oil so it can become biodiesel, offers biodegradable disposables and will soon allow clients to contribute to a local carbon offset firm.

Meanwhile in Raleigh, Green Planet Catering makes its own fuel for the company's delivery vehicles, grows its own vegetables on farmland east of Raleigh and will soon raise chickens on that leased land. Of course, the company composts.

"As far as I can tell, we're one of the most sustainable caterers in the country," says Daniel Whittaker, Green Planet's catering manager.

More couples are choosing green nuptials.

"In the past year, you've definitely seen a trend toward it," says Greg Casella, president of the National Association of Catering Executives. He owns Catered Too in San Jose, Calif.

"I had two weddings last summer that paid extra, a 20 percent premium, just to have all-local. I expect that from some corporate events, but not a wedding. I was like, 'Are you sure?' "

'Nobody in

the Yellow Pages'

Paynter was a little worried when she started planning her wedding last fall. Her fiancé is a former chef who trained at the New England Culinary Institute, so he was all for it: "He's as dedicated to the cause as I am," she says.

They found a baker, Cloud Nine Confections, that would make an organic poundcake with local strawberries and butter cream.

But finding a wedding caterer who would work with local farmers was harder.

"There was nobody in the Yellow Pages. If I Googled 'local organic caterer,' not a single thing came up." She finally posted her request in a forum on the Web site for the organization Slow Food Charlotte.

Bingo -- two suggestions, including Stephenson.

Stephenson, a yoga teacher and private chef who usually caters dinners and farm events, had never done a wedding. But when Paynter approached her, she was happy to tackle this job.

Stephenson sees her cooking style as an extension of her yoga business, she says.

"It's all about eating well and living well," she says. "Organic as much as I can, local as much as I can. Being mindful."

Expect some differences

If you're working with a local-foods caterer, expect a few things to be different up front. For one, you have to be flexible. You can't have your heart set on tomatoes in January or strawberries in August.

"The first thing I say [to clients] is, 'I'm not a typical caterer,'" Stephenson says. "Most people who want a local-food caterer understand that."

She sticks with smaller events, with 100 or fewer people, to make sure she can get enough of the ingredients she needs.

Farmers usually can tell her what they expect to have six weeks out, but things might change at the last minute. A hailstorm might shred the basil, or the green beans might not be ready that day.

"It takes time," Stephenson says. "It's not as easy as opening a catalog or calling a food broker. It takes a lot of phone calls to farmers, going to farms, going to gardens."

The other consideration is cost. The cost per person is going to be higher.

Jill Marcus of Something Classic says she gets approached by some clients who want all local -- until they find out what it will cost.

As a general rule, a local menu will cost at least 25 percent more, Marcus says. In some cases, she has found local vegetables to be cheaper. But the savings are offset by the meat, which is far more expensive. That can drive the overall tab 50 percent higher than the standard menu, or even higher.

"Some are committed, and some will say, 'We really want to do it, but ...' You're not going to get a $15-a-person wedding," Marcus says. "We try to give them options so they can do some or part, because it is expensive."

Stephenson says she does run into potential clients who expect her cost to be the same as the other companies'.

"You just have to educate," she says. "We have to decide as a community what we value. People will pay for what they value."

Paynter says she was happy with the cost. Her mother -- a research librarian for The Charlotte Observer -- was paying, but Stephenson's estimate actually came in under their budget.

"If it's OK with Mom, it's OK with me," she says, laughing.

Stephenson says she's just happy to spread the word about how creative you can get with local food.

"How we eat is as important as what we eat," she says.

Staff writer Andrea Weigl contributed to this report.

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