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Every Six Hours

Men on a film set select their food options from a catered buffet on a film set.(courtesy of Hanna Brothers)

in Issues
on Mar 18, 2024


The film and TV industry has been through a lot these past four years, including the start of a pandemic and two strikes. Then, there’s inflation, one of the causes of another issue: skyrocketing food prices. That means that on-set catering, an oft-overlooked but important part of any production, has been hit with a triple whammy. There are other matters as well—food quality, increasing focus on dietary restrictions, waste. As productions get back to work post-strikes, caterers—and those who hire and eat from them—are juggling a return to normal and new challenges.

Set caterers are responsible not only for lunch—which, per union contracts and some state laws, is six hours after call time—but often for a courtesy breakfast, too. Sometimes—if it’s not provided by craft services, usually a separate department—they handle the substantial later-in-the-day snack often referred to as the “hot treat” or “sandwich o’clock.” It’s not unheard of for caterers to also cover what’s called the “second meal”; if a day goes into overtime, they might have to deliver burritos at 1:00 a.m., as one catering service has. (Most low-budget productions simply get delivery and try to be mindful of the number of times pizza is offered on a shoot.) 

When productions began to baby step back to work after COVID hit, caterers were tasked with finding safer ways to serve their meals. At the Georgia-based Hanna Brothers, which operates in Atlanta and the massive Trilith Studios in nearby Fayetteville, they kept serving buffet-style, but the catering team was behind a plastic curtain.

“The customer would walk down the other side of the curtain and point to what they wanted,” recalls Jim Hanna, who runs the company with his brother Joe. “My staff would hand them a plate at the end of the line, then they would go their own way.”

Others did boxed lunches. The Scotland-based catering company Nomad Event Catering was started by three chefs who went from restaurants to food trucks to delivery services, eventually adding on-set catering. They’ve fed shows like Amazon’s Anansi Boys and Apple TV+’s Debutante. Lunch orders on most of their sets are served in boxes off the truck, with crew choosing from a menu and placing orders via WhatsApp at the start of the day. One benefit of the streamlined approach: less food waste at the end of the day. 

In America and, increasingly, in the U.K., caterers that did buffet-style pre-COVID have largely gone back to the old ways. But Louise Olivarius, who runs Nomad with her husband and a third business partner, doesn’t see their boxed lunches disappearing because Nomad usually isn’t doing the cooking on-site.

“Obviously, that affects the quality of the product because it’s all being done at the same time and put into a box,” says Olivarius. That means they have to prepare meals that can wait to be eaten. “It can’t be something that’s going to wilt. It can’t be terrible if it loses its heat.”

Boxed lunches do have an upside: They make lunch breaks faster, as people can simply grab their boxes and eat, then get back to work faster. The tradeoff can be quality. As in Atlanta, sets in Mexico tended to avoid boxed lunches during the pandemic. Gerardo Coello Escalante, an assistant director on films like Bardo and Shiva Baby—who, as an A.D., is responsible for making sure everyone gets their lunch—says even on the recent Sundance short he directed, Viaje de Negocios, they built a makeshift kitchen on location, where they could cook up hot meals with fresh ingredients. Building a kitchen on location happens frequently in Mexico, he says, adding, “The food [on] Mexican sets tends to always be great.”

Some productions reach a compromise. The meals from Nomad may be cooked off-site, but they’re not far away, and at least one team member will often remain on the set keeping it fresh. The same thing happens with Skopos Hospitality Group, which operates an army of restaurants in northern New Jersey, including Cowan’s Public in Nutley and The Barrow House in Clifton. Years ago, they added film catering to their arsenal.

Skopos only works with productions within 60 minutes of its main facility, where they do their cooking, the idea being that they can get better quality food by preparing it in a proper kitchen. They’ll do boxed lunches, but they prefer to serve it buffet-style, which Skopos co-founder Thomas Maroulakos argues is ideal for a shoot.

“You can hold a consistent temperature,” Maroulakos says. “You can provide that wide variety. People can come up for seconds. Or you can still create those custom meals for talent that might have specific dietary restrictions or requests.”

When Hanna Brothers is negotiating for a job, the company has to carefully thread a needle. “You’ve got to juggle between charging enough on one end, because you want to buy beautiful food, but you also don’t want to charge [the production] so much that you don’t get the job because somebody else undercut you and wants to serve a product that’s not as nice as you want to serve,” Hanna says. “Depending on the production manager or studio you work with, that attitude is different. You have to, as the caterer, try to match the budget of what their expectation is.”

Enter soaring food prices. A case of chicken Hanna used to buy pre-COVID cost $90. Now, it’s $150. When Hanna has submitted his contract to producers they’ve worked with frequently in the past, they’ve sometimes balked at the price of food. In his experience, though, once it’s been explained to them, they usually get it.

“They go to the supermarket, too,” he says. Sometimes, that means they’ll offer productions a choice. “I can buy a piece of organic chicken that’s going to cost me, or I can buy what they call an eight-way chicken that’s much cheaper. In both cases, it’s a piece of chicken, and I’m going to cook it beautifully. But they’re different products. It just depends on what you want.”

Olivarius says Nomad hasn’t been dramatically cutting out certain types of food, but she has noticed cast and crew are eating smarter these days. “Because of the trends of reducing the volume of meats and things, we’re putting in more vegetables and making things more cleverly,” Olivarius says. “It’s like they’re actually gravitating towards less expensive food.”

The food on sets is generally healthier than it once was. When he was a child actor in the mid-aughts, Nicky Maindiratta had to bring his mom with him to set as his guardian, per SAG-AFTRA rules. There was one hitch: She was a vegetarian, and back then on-set catering wasn’t always friendly to non-carnivores.

“There was often nothing for her to eat on set other than one of the 300 bags of pretzels they had at crafty,” Maindiratta recalls, using the slang term for craft services.

Jump to the present day, and not only are more crew members vegetarian or vegan, but production managers have taken note, providing a wider array of grub. Fish and/or vegan options sit next to the beef and chicken. (Maroulakos says sometimes their allotted vegan options run out because non-vegans take them, too.) There are people looking for dairy alternatives, made from oat or almond or peas. Payroll companies may even ask in the paperwork to note any dietary restrictions.

“That’s really nothing new,” says Jim Hanna. “The difference is the number of people who are requesting it now is a larger percentage of the shooting crew than it used to be.”

“The catering companies want to staff higher than what’s been budgeted while also pleasing a crew and being mindful of people’s dietary concerns and needs at the same time,” says Jimmy Price, a longtime producer, executive producer and production manager whose credits include Zach Braff’s A Good Person and Christy Hall’s forthcoming Daddio. “So, you have to put more money in food and catering than you had to ever before.”

No one wants to eat the same thing, day in, day out, over a shoot that could last months. Says Taylor Hess, a producer of Nathan Silver’s Between the Temples, recently bought by Sony Pictures Classics: “People can be so complimentary of the catering in the beginning, but as a shoot progresses and the menu begins to cycle through some redundancies, there can be a tendency for that initial enthusiasm to very quickly fade. I think the biggest challenge is—aside from managing allergies/restrictions and meal portions that can shift depending on the call time—ensuring variety. It’s weirdly very important for crew morale that the catering doesn’t become too predictable or redundant.”

This is where having restauranteurs as caterers comes in handy. Chefs at Hanna Brothers, Skopos and Nomad are experienced in a wide array of cuisines; at Skopos, they mix things up, doing American, Mexican, Asian and Middle Eastern. “If you’re in this business long, you really have to have a big repertoire,” Hanna says. “Even though you may be the world’s greatest gumbo chef, you’re going to get tired of gumbo if you have it every day.”

It’s important for caterers to notice what’s popular and what isn’t. “Sometimes, you think something’s going to be really well received, then you notice no one touched your fish for the day. You think, ‘That was a dud; gotta change that,” Hanna says. “You’re seeing what does and doesn’t work and removing the things that don’t work from your menus.” Talking to the people eating your food and developing a rapport helps, too. Skopos has a request sheet and request boxes. 

With regard to menu variety, Hess reveals a strategy favored by some producers, although most likely not by caterers: “I’ve never done this, but I’ve heard of producers who hire one caterer for the first half of the shoot and then, just as people grow tired of the food, switch to another who’s been primed and ready to go for the second half.” 

In addition to being varied, tasty and nutritious, set food also has to be practical. The ideal set meal is something that you don’t have to eat with utensils, says Kyle Deven, who served on the camera crew of the Yellowstone spinoff 1923. “On a cold day, it’s great to have some chili or soup, but you just end up drinking it because you need your hands free half the time,” he says. Deven also prefers food that won’t spill or drip on your gear, so foods teeming with mayonnaise or sauce aren’t kosher. 

Working on a Taylor Sheridan show allowed Deven to experience a set where the production really tried to keep the crew happy with superior food. “I still dream of the meals I had,” he said. Among those were the ones cooked by Gabriel Guilbeau, who goes by his nickname, “Gator.” For more than five years, Gator has been the head of craft services in Sheridanland, handling the hot treats but not the main meals, which are done by others. He’ll serve up lobster mac and cheese or one of his signature dishes, “Kickin’ Chicken,” which is fried with spicy pickled jalapeño sauce. They’ve even flown in blue crab to far-flung Butte, Montana.

“One of the hot snacks was just giving out big old turkey legs,” Deven recalls. “It looked like a state fair. People just wandering around doing their jobs with a giant turkey leg in their hands.”

While some praise set meals—Maindiratta says in his experience it’s usually “unbelievably good”—others feel differently. “I used to really love it,” Tyson Breuer, an associate producer on the film Prey and the show What We Do in the Shadows, says, “but when you’re cooking for 200 people, it really
depends on the chef who’s running the truck.” Coello says some catering companies have even gotten people sick.

“It’s a place where I see production companies trying to save money,” says Henry Pskowski, who’s worked in the art department of big productions, non-union indies and commercials. “That always strikes me as particularly disrespectful.”

Pskowski unfondly recalls one company that had an unusual flaw. “They would try to do complex things,” he says. Once, they attempted chicken cordon bleu. “I spent a good four years of my life as a line cook. The idea of making chicken cordon bleu for 100 people is insane. And then it sucks. I know for a fact that if you put out cold cuts, people would be measurably happier.”

“Some productions are just looking for the absolute lowest cost number they can get,” explains Hanna. “Some productions really want to take care of their crew. Some productions want to spoil their crew with food.” Per-person prices, for breakfast and lunch, on most New York/New Jersey sets are in the $15 to $20 range, though on a bigger production that number could hit $25 to $30. (Maroulakos says he’s had productions go as low as $5 a day.) In the U.K., Olivarius says the average is £19, though smaller productions can go down to £13.

Skopos works with all manner of productions, from small, non-union indies to studio fare, with Steven Soderbergh’s recent Sundance hit Presence in between. On non-union productions, they tend to drop off food, then have a PA handle the set-up and service. “I’ve never encountered a non-union shoot with food being actively made,” says Pskowski. “It’s always food that was made some place else, then driven there and dropped off, and they’re like, ‘Guys, have fun with that.’”

There are other options. Breuer—who works in Canada and says the set catering options aren’t as plentiful there as in the United States—says sometimes he and others working in the office section of production will skip the set catering and use a local app, hungerhub, which is like DoorDash or UberEats for large-sized delivery catering. They’ll allot a $20 subsidy per person and, instead of getting whatever’s at the buffet, have a big order from Halal Guys waiting for them before noon.

Waste has always been a major problem on set. Price recalls how in the ’90s, well before the green revolution, there was far more waste. The issue didn’t get better during the height of the pandemic. Pskowski says the sight of pre-packed boxes piled up at the end of the day, some with uneaten food, can look like a “minor environmental apocalypse.”

Sometimes, the food goes home with cast and crew. With Nomad, Olivarius says people come up to them at the end of the day with Tupperware containers, seeing what they can take with them. But what to do with leftovers that don’t go home with cast and crew? That can be tricky. “There’s really not that many places where it’s actually easy to donate food,” says Coello. “Even some shelters and places like that have certain limitations and hours during which they take food.”

Coello has worked in New York and Mexico City, and he says the latter is more eco-friendly. There, it’s far more common for sets to use reusable plates, silverware, cups and mugs instead of the single-use ones used largely in the States that only create more waste.

As vital as caterers are to any production, they’re not always treated that way. The only catering team members covered by unions are head chefs, who are considered part of the Teamsters. Everyone else is not. “There are a lot of good people who aren’t getting their retirement,” Hanna says. “If I work in the film industry for 20 years as a sous-chef, I don’t have any retirement. The only way I get it is if I rise and I’m the head chef, which makes it tough.” Hanna Brothers is the rare on-set catering company that does provide health insurance, a pension plan and a 401(k) to all employees.

The pandemic and two strikes also inspired a lot of people to leave the film and service industries for other industries. (Looming potential IATSE and Teamsters strikes may lead to yet another shutdown.) “To keep the best people, we’ve had to increase our rates,” Hanna says. He says he recently saw one of his chefs quit because they found a more stable construction job.

Those who stick around should find themselves as vital a part of the production as any other crew member. “We’re kind of kindred spirits with the film and television business: You work in long hours; you’re almost a glutton for punishment,” Maroulakos says. The varying schedules, the constant stream of out-of-nowhere headaches, the stress—all that, he says, is “what I think keeps people from entering the industry. But that’s also what we love about it.”

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