Brooke Greer thinks she is ready for the United States Grand Prix. She had better be.
Friday through Sunday, her company, Contigo Catering — run with Ben Edgerton and Andrew Wiseheart, who also own the open-air Contigo restaurant — is set to serve breakfast, lunch and snacks each day to 1,200 guests in 26 trackside Trophy Suites at the Circuit of the Americas. An extra late dinner will be plated on the nights that Taylor Swift and Usher perform.
Three other Austin companies — Rosemary’s Catering, McGuire Moorman Hospitality and Kurant Events — will cater other track parties during the long weekend.
“For F1, we are building a kitchen in the middle of the track,” Greer, 35, says. “So we’re thinking through all the equipment needs, plus restrooms, water, grey water, propane, power, trash, refrigeration, and everything that needs refilled or replenished overnight to be set for the next day. Can’t load anything during race times, so it’s early morning and late night. You can’t forget anything and gotta be on your game.”
Concerted efforts to upgrade the guest experience at the track led to the hiring of Greer’s group, which has handled events as large as a 1,500-guest event at Stubb’s and as small as a family wedding. The company maintains just nine full-time employees, but their numbers grow to 50 or 60 helpers for the biggest events.
“We cook everything on-site,” she says. “We get pushback on price, but we have more staff on-site and more equipment that we bring. Like the restaurant, we emphasize seasonality, sourcing locally when it makes sense, but really valuing quality.”
Among jobs that she held before starting Contigo Catering, Greer hustled tables at the County Line barbecue spot — where she learned how to carry heavy trays and to multitask — and took up bookkeeping, staffing and planning events at Leslie Moore’s prized Word of Mouth Catering.
“In the best-case scenario, the caterer sets everything up and breaks it down,” Greer says. “We are running the bar, sweeping up the sparkles, putting everything in order before we leave. We are not just the food provider. We are the whole thing.”
Tips for talking to your caterer
Just as crack event planner Courtney Caplan shared tips on staging your party last year, Greer jumped at the chance to help people negotiate with their caterer.
On where to begin: “Start with knowing your budget and knowing what is really important to you. If you do not value food as one of the most important things, don’t call us. Go with a bigger, less boutique-style company. The bigger the company, the more quantity they execute, the lower their overhead, divided out, creating economies of scale.”
On the servers: “You want to know the staff. Ask yourself: Am I getting the A-team for my wedding? Or am I getting temps who don’t even know what Contigo is? In the latter case, you never know who is going to show up. We focus on training our staff, and we turn down a lot of events. And we aren’t going to take on five to six weddings a day, so we can provide the best quality and not thin our resources.”
On first contact: “Interview three companies. Ask: Is your food prepared hours in advance and sitting in a hot box? Or is it prepared on-site? What is the role of the salesperson or event planner? Find out what other logistics can we handle. Do you have a rain plan? What are we going to need to rent? We prefer they have an event planner who does that last part, but ask your caterer whether they offer that.”
On the bar service: “Brainstorm fun ideas. Give us samples. Whether for food or drinks, if you already have a venue, it’s important that the caterer knows what to do with it. Every venue changes every vendor’s quote.”
On leadership: “Ask: Who’s going to be on-site full-time? Who’s going to oversee these details? How can I be sure that the food from the tasting will be the same at the wedding or dinner?”
On tastings. “Sometime after the initial contact, you’ll get a quote. Narrow it down to two firms. Then set up two tastings. Any more is excessive — unless you go to two and hate them both. Be honest with yourself and the caterer about the budget. We do what we can to fit budgets, and everything comes down to selections.”
On eyewitness evidence: “If you have time, look behind the scenes at another event done by those caterers. It tells you a lot.”
On what to leave out: “Avoid carving stations. That’s old-school. And those mashed-potato bars with the martini glasses. People like to customize dishes and want to dictate recipes and flavors — we all have preferences — but it makes for long lines, and taking on creating your own menu takes away from the creativity our chefs bring.”
On logistics: “Talk about how many lines you want, how many stations, how do we set them up, how we can service quickly. What kind of displays? I’m anti-chafing dishes. We take a lot of pride in our displays and serving pieces and use a mix of handmade pottery and nice neutral stoneware pieces and a lot of cast iron.”
On timing: “We like to be involved in the timeline of the event, especially a coursed-out dinner. We can’t just serve food when you want it. And we want to see the alcohol order. Oh, you planned three bottles of tequila for 100 people? Go to the store and get more.”
On the first drink: “We recommend to start with servers floating around with wine on trays. Then again, you end up wasting a lot if you keep peddling it around. Plan no more than three specialty drinks, and maybe that’s even a lot.”
On having a full bar: “Guests are always happy with a free bar, but they are really happy with cocktails. I recommend you stick with just four spirits: gin, vodka, bourbon and tequila. Stay away from the rum; nobody orders it. Another tip: If you order from Spec’s, they’ll let you return the untouched bottles. And it’s always better to have more than you need.”
On vegetarian and gluten-free options: “Most of our dishes are already gluten-free. It comes down to this: Choose what you want to serve. If somebody is a vegan, we’ll take care of that. Don’t add a vegan dish for everybody. But have that option ready. Most vegetarian or vegan guests really appreciate it. They are pleasantly surprised, overjoyed even.”
On food sourcing: “Ask about the sources and the quality. For instance, we don’t get food from big companies. And when you are comparing caterers, we are all preparing quotes in different ways. Be sure you are comparing apples to apples. I put everything up front — these are the potential costs you could face — rather than starting low and then coming in later and saying: ‘I need a stove!’”
On the final price tag: “People are often surprised how expensive catering it is. But we are bringing an entire restaurant to you. Just the seat you are sitting on costs $3 to rent. Somebody has to pay for it. You don’t have to pay for it in a restaurant directly, but you do when you take the restaurant to another venue or on a farm or in the middle of a field.”
On the absence of drama: “People ask me: ‘How do you stay so calm? Even when the fire marshal came and took away all your cooking propane.’ I just think about how to solve the problem. And I take a line from Tim Gunn on ‘Project Runway’: ‘Make it work!’ I say that at every event about something.”
Follow along with all of the highlights from this weekend’s Formula One events at statesman.com/formula1.