This section is from the book "The Steward's Handbook And Guide To Party Catering", by Jessup Whitehead. Also available from Amazon: Larousse Gastronomique.
Atlanta, Ga., Oct. 17th, '87. Here is a great business which is intirely unrepresented in American journalism, and carried on entirely without system, almost without understanding; a new set of moths flying at the dazzling flame and coming out singed every year. This letter to the Hotel World is written on the grounds in the half-way period of the Exposition at Atlanta, the best week yet to come, the weather the most favorable possible, and everything propitious to the utmost success, therefore I have no croaking predictions of financial disaster to make in this case, but am impressed with the vast disproportions of the risks to be run to the possible profits of a dining room and restaurant enterprise at such a fair when undertaken under the conditions which are now generally imposed.' Undoubtedly the directors of these temporary fairs ought to award the dining room privileges free to the best and most responsible party that would accept, instead of exacting a heavy bonus and sure pay, cash down in advance, as they do, throwing all the risks of failure from bad weather, non-attendance of the public, fire, or other mishaps, upon the venturesome refreshment contractor; and undoubtedly they' would, if the risks and difficulties to be met were better understood and some of the delusively exaggerated idea of the profits to be realized from serving cooked meals were dissipated by actual exhibits of losses and gains in different instances; for the directors would be compelled to provide dining places for the crowds which they induce to attend their shows, and it is nothing but the infatuation of inexperience that impels men to pay thousands of dollars for the wretched privilege of expending thousands more in fitting up one or two hotels on the grounds, with all the incidental entailments, all for the grand reward in view of a probable two weeks' business.
Messrs. Directors! I wouldn't pay you ten cents. There is no adequate profit in serving meals alone under such circumstances.
Big money is occasionally made by exposition catering, but it is under certain favorable conditions, such as the being in a very large city; having exclusive psivi-leges; owning every refreshment stand on the grounds; the contractor being permanently provided with portable ranges, tables, silverware, crockery, linen, and the thousand miscellaneous wares, always ready for such employment, and understanding the business and all its risks. The number of disasters that occur is, however, so much greater than the successes as to scarcely justify a comparison being made, yet, if better reported, they might warn the fresh crop of enthusiasts and keep some of them out of trouble; as, for example, these following:
At the Cotton Exposition, which took place at Atlanta a few years ago, two gentlemen in the restaurant and hotel business on the grounds lost ten thousand dollars each, according to common report. One of these, Mr. Pease, is not known in hotel eircles, but he had a local name and reputation, somewhat of the factitious order, perhaps, as an able restaurateur. He conducted the exposition dining rooms, did business enough, apparently, fed the people, .but failed to get his pay through having no system of checking. He had long tables, and the people crowded in at meal hours, and many either went away without paying at all, or paid the waiters, or dropped the money into any open hand that happened to be held out to receive it The other loser built the exposition hotel, and failed to secure patronage commensurate with his expenses. His financial disaster probably changed the current of his life. He is one of the most amiable of men, and his name was once exceedingly prominent as a rising hotel keeper, but ever since that disappointment he has retired to his Virginia estate and cares no more for exposition follies.
Another ambitious man In the hotel keeping line was brought down through an unfortunate catering venture in Kansas City several years ago. His name was Seigmundt; he kept a hotel on the European plan and received so much praise in various ways that it made him want to own all the hotels in the city, and he planned to build a new one that should be larger than all the others combined. Just then the Kansas City bridge across the Missouri river was finished; the railway companies and the city combined to give an immense celebration of the event, and the city council or committee in charge awarded to Seigmundt the contract for a barbecue feast to be provided for ten thousand people, fully fifty thousand strangers being expected, and the barbecue being calculated upon as one of the aids in -providing for such of the crowd as could not find other accommodations. The event came off and the barbecue proved a most indescribable failure. Seigmundt did not understand what he undertook. There was no water, no bread, no more cook' d meat than would serve for a few hundred, only some raw carcasses rolled about in the dirt, and a crowd angry enough to have started a riot but for strong restraints. Seigmundt was utterly crushed.
He not only lost the money, as he could not claim payment on his contract, but his courage was broken; he left Kansas City and went to Galveston, where he died not long afterwards, in all probability a victim to the mania for undertaking great catering enterprises which so often overcome the inexperienced. But nearly every reader of this article can tell of such instances. I will only add a local example of small size. The man who had the refreshment privileges at the Georgia state fair at Macon last year came out six hundred dollars loser, and if the amount was small it was borrowed money and he was a poor man, and consequently was sufficiently serious for him.