Holiday banquets keep restaurants hopping

ALBANY, Ga. -- Events can happen any time and do. You have your birthdays and retirement dinners, anniversaries, reunions, all the rest. All of them are meaningful, but strung out through the year. Then along comes December, when restaurants and event centers face their delightful onslaught from businesses, professional, municipal and church groups settling in for holiday celebration banquets.

A quick survey of partiers and providers seemed to show no slowing of traditions in spite of a thing called "the recession." In fact, most area event facilities are on something of a roll, no pun intended. After all, the season comes every year and people like to celebrate.


Joe Bellacomo

Cook Charlton Haskins helps prepare for a scheduled event at the Hilton Garden Inn.

Employees of Thrush Aircraft, Old Pretoria Road, typically have their catered holiday get-together in November, said Erik Rojek, vice president of sales. They did feast in that month but for a different reason -- to celebrate certification of a brand new aircraft and engine -- so they get to do it again Thursday.

"Thrush likes to cater our celebrations at the plant," Rojek said, "We think it adds to the intimacy and family-oriented nature of the event."

B.J. Fletcher, director of sales at the Hilton Garden Inn on Front Street, said business there hasn't been affected by the economy, nor by the recent construction on West Broad Avenue.

"It's been crazy," Fletcher said. "It didn't start popping till about the middle of October, but now it's up 63 percent over the same time last year. Cafe 230 (on West Broad Avenue, where she also caters) is 25 percent booked for 2013."

Fletcher cites a number of reasons for the Hilton's success, including an eagerness to join the community, a willingness to accommodate any and all groups from Sunday schools to major corporations and a dedicated staff.

"We had to force a date to celebrate with our own employees," Fletcher said, "to show our appreciation for what they do."

Catering is a major part of holiday celebration, it seems. In fact, some professionals like Kaye Blalock, owner of Southern Elegance Catering, do nothing else. Blalock keeps a small office at First United Methodist Church in Albany. She rents her kitchen, too, and for 22 years has done very well.

"It's not my first rodeo," Blalock said. "I've been very fortunate in having some very good customers. It's a compliment to me they keep coming back."

Blalock continues to pick up new clients as well, she said, catering meals as far away as Atlanta and Tallahassee.

Each year, Oxford Construction treats its 250 or so employees to a catered celebration. This time the event will be Friday at the Hassan Temple and will feature catered fish and barbecue and the chance to win cash prizes.

"We do it every year," said Steve Burton, Oxford safety director, "to show our appreciation for our people."

Merry Acres Event Center is having a definite uptick in sales compared with last year, according to Amanda Wingate, director of events.

"I'm sure the economy has room for improvement," Wingate said, "but businesses are still willing to show appreciation for their employees."

Wingate believes the acquisition of Merry Acres by Bo Henry and Stewart Campbell in the summer of 2011 has made a big difference in the booking of events, she said.

"For a while before they got it, they weren't doing a lot here," Wingate said.

Things were popping in November for the new Oakland Library and Event Center in Lee County, according to Director Claire Leavy. Now December has cooled, she said. Leavy seemed relieved.

"We were swamped in November," Leavy said, "but that's the month we opened. We have some things in January, but nothing in December. That gives us a chance to catch our breath and make some adjustments."