Caterer Rhona Silver evokes more than a little of Joan Rivers -- blond, brassy and more-than-a-bit biting. And like the legendary comedian, Silver, 59, is something of a trailblazer, as the quintessential party-giver (her last gig was running the behemoth Huntingtown Townhouse) and entrepreneur (her newest venture, Caterbid.com, aims to marry the oldest of rituals with the newest technology).
With more than four decades as a caterer, her web-biz should hardly come as a surprise. Silver likes to say she learned the business "back of the house forward" -- her parents were Bronx caterers who were too poor to afford a baby-sitter for their daughter. Her breakthrough, though, came in the late '80s when, as a divorced single mother, she shrugged off her teaching background and law degree and went back to her roots. "I lived in the Five Towns and saw the demographic changing. It was becoming very Orthodox. These Orthodox ladies had the most gorgeous clothes and jewelry, but there were no options for their parties except for a piece of chicken thrown on a plate with the right rabbinical supervision."
Silver spent a year finding the right rabbi, chefs and garde- manger and then jumped. Soon, as she likes to joke, she was bringing La Côte Basque to Glatt Kosher catering, not just at Five Towns temples, but hotels from The Plaza to the Pierre to Palm Beach.
In 1997, she snapped up the sprawling Huntingtown Townhouse. With six kitchens, 12 ballrooms and 20 acres of land, it was the largest catering facility in the United States -- and, with the rival Leonard's of Great Neck, for the next decade the very definition of The Long Island Wedding. Wretched excess? Bang-for-the-buck? However you defined it, Silver's hall was a mecca (and when she closed up in 2007, she sold the land to Lowe's for a cool $35 million).
Is there such a thing as a third catering act? Silver is betting on it. Seeing an opening to become the Priceline of the parties, she and her children last year launched Caterbid.com. The philosophy is simple: Couples post their wedding info -- date, area, party size, budget -- and an army of 3,000 big and small venues, which pay to be on Caterbid, are notified of the event. Those who can meet those needs respond, and, with any luck, Silver makes a match.
Recently, Silver chatted about her new venture and some secrets of pulling together a fabulous party:
Our entire world is becoming computerized -- we're a society that doesn't have time, we're always looking to have everything at our fingertips. Well, shopping for a wedding is the same. You might know areas and caterers, but imagine being able to sit on the couch with your fiancee at 1 a.m., post your event, date, time, the approximate number of people, and by time you wake up, caterers have bid for your business. It's like Priceline is to airlines: Whoever thought you would go online and, with a touch of button, airlines would come to you?
Are you aiming to streamline choices, or open couples to venues they haven't thought about?
Both. There are venues that you like that might be very high-priced, and you might not be able to afford them. But when you post on Caterbid, it might turn out the caterer had a cancellation or it's his third party of the weekend. As a caterer, I know if it's a third party or you've had a cancellation, you're already paying overhead, the chefs, the insurance. So they have opportunity to fill that empty date, and the bride might not know to shop there because it might be out of her realm of reality.
How have weddings changed in recent years? Are we seeing fewer over-the-top affairs?
Clearly, with the change in the economy, there's less of a sense of people going for the over-the-top party. Still, there are mothers who dream from the day their daughter is born to make her a royal wedding, and they're still around and they're going to have every last personalized matchbook. Different parts of the country dictate that kind of party. If you're in Palm Beach, you have that fabulous kind of wedding. However, there are also girls who won't spend that kind of money.
What's the most important thing couples should come armed with when they sit down with a caterer? Budget? Guest count? Menu needs?
It's a combination. Don't overspend what you don't have. Couples don't have experience. For example, they might not realize the cost is price per person plus service charges. A wedding isn't something you do all the time -- it's not like buying a dress -- so you need to know your budget and what is and is not included. You're venturing to start a life together, and this is your celebration, so you want your special day to be beautiful, but you don't want it to break the bank.
Is there so much wedding insanity because there are there too many choices out there?
This is America, where we always have lots of choices. The bridal industry is $150 billion a year, just for the parties. Everyone is trying to jump on the bandwagon, so there are always new and creative ideas. I've been in the party business for over 40 years, and you can see the natural progression, even with something as simple as table linens. There used to be basic tablecloths. Now there are websites just for linens -- organdy, shiny, Mylar, damask. I have parties with three cloths on the table. And chair covers! There weren't any years ago, but it creates a fabulous look.
In your Huntington Townhouse days, what was the wildest thing anyone ever asked for?
I had a bride and groom literally come into the ballroom on a horse and buggy. There was a party in Manhattan where they had a 40-piece orchestra, and 20 of the pieces were on a platform built into the smorgasbord, so when you came to the buffet you were serenaded. I've even had brides ask for trumpeters as they were getting out of the car, as if they were a prince and princess.
What are the most important elements of a great reception -- the things you should put your resources into?
It's the people that make the party. You want the food to be beautifully presented and delicious, you want fabulous service, but the truth is it's the music that makes the party. You want people to have fun, so it's important to choose the right band or DJ. If money is no object, there are things that set the mood, like a harpist for an elegant look. Don't use the same color in the cocktail room as in the ballroom and ceremony area. I tell brides they don't need the same centerpiece on every table. You can have one with hydrangeas and orchids, another with roses and peonies. And you don't need the same color scheme. It's the element of surprise that people like. Be creative. You don't need a sit-down dinner; do a buffet or hors d'oeuvres. And have fabulous touches. When I did a party in Palm Beach, the invitation was in a Tiffany box. No one said no -- they felt that if the invitation was so fabulous, what would the party be like? From the beginning, get your thoughts together. Go through different websites and print out [ideas for] flowers, cloths, food items, and set out what you're looking for, what will bring a special touch to your day.
How do you get couples to just take a breath and relax?
Ha! You can't. But hopefully with our help and party planning, we're trying to do that. My favorite expression is, "I'm your human Valium."