IT WASN'T JUST FORMER students who joined forces for Duke University's April 21 Alumni Reunion Gala. The Catering Co., based in Chapel Hill, N.C., got into the “getting together” act by bringing on another local caterer to lend a hand in producing the event, which unites alumni from 10 different graduating classes stretching back 50 years.
In preparing for the event, J.W. Walton, part owner of The Catering Co., found himself faced with the prospect of putting on a dinner-dance for 2,400 guests, armed with a staff of only 150 employees. With three major universities in the area — all of them hosting alumni events that weekend — supplemental labor was certain to be tight.
Walton says his decision to pair with Mitchell's Catering, also of Chapel Hill, was a “unique solution to a unique problem.” He explains, “We said, ‘Let's get another caterer that's nearby but not in our marketplace, who's less likely to get tapped for the big weekend.' To make it worth their while, we said, ‘You do half the food, we'll do half the food.’”
The catering partners ultimately settled on a menu as richly varied as the multi-generational guest list; offerings included paella, dim sum, quesadillas and tortellini.
Hashing out catering plans and dividing up duties weren't Walton's only responsibilities during the year of planning leading to the gala. He also devoted time to designing an event that would appeal to guests ranging from hip young professionals to grandparents. Instead of relying on age-specific trends and tastes, Walton let elements of Duke's architecture and history inspire an “old and new” decor scheme that was part Gothic church, part European bistro.
“The decor elements supported this very loose theme of ‘What would happen if the gargoyles that are a part of this Gothic campus came out to play with the reunion people who had come back?’” Walton says.
He contracted local artists to create various elements, including huge columns and 26 6-to-8-foot gargoyles in various playful poses. He then added aluminum table covers, sculpted copper accents and modern lighting as “new” counterpoints to the “old” traditions.
Having handled the Duke reunion gala for three years running, Walton has learned a few tough lessons about tenting and decorating the event. The first time he produced the gala, he had his plans for bistro-style, “right-before-your-eyes” food preparation shot down by the local fire marshal, who pointed out that cooking inside the tent posed a major fire hazard.
An alternate event design that involved hanging metalwork from the tent ceiling revealed another big problem: “April being the month of high winds, the tent was breathing and moving all the time,” he says. “Sometimes the metal moved up and down two or three feet, which is not one of those things that makes you feel real good.”
This year's setup included an adjoining food tent where catering staff prepared food without putting the main event tent at risk. Also on hand to resolve some of the logistical challenges were gargoyles bearing banners printed with class years, to assist guests in finding their former classmates.
Event night found The Catering Co. and Mitchell's Catering operating in seamless harmony. “We gave Mitchell's the autonomy to manage and run their wait staff, since they are used to their managers, and all their guidelines are in place,” Walton says. “They ran their end of the event, and basically we divided the room in half for serving and bussing and clearing. Guests didn't have a clue that two different caterers were running it.”
While feasting on international fare, guests enjoyed entertainment provided by a full orchestra, which was geared toward the older crowd, followed by surf music, rhythm-and-blues, and pop tunes for the younger classes. A 10 p.m. fireworks extravaganza just outside the tent brought all the classes together for a high-energy celebration, after which guests could choose to go back to dancing or swap college anecdotes in a quieter annex area.
Duke University reunions director Lisa Dilts says the 2001 gala “more than succeeded in completely wowing alumni and guests” with food, decor and entertainment. Even more importantly, “It succeeded logistically, which is a huge piece of the puzzle, and one that a lot of people forget about,” she adds. “But if you don't have a bathroom, or you can't find a place to park, or you can't get to the event, it doesn't matter how great the event is — people are going to get irritated. [The gala] succeeded across the board, and as an end result, our alumni were absolutely enthralled and enchanted.”
Turn to page 50 for a list of resources for this event.
From The Catering Co.:
Grilled Vegetable Quesadillas
Marinated Grilled Chicken Breast
From Mitchell's Catering:
Tenderloin of Beef
Pork Loin Stuffed with Fontina and Sun-dried Cranberries
Assorted Dim Sum
Spring Berry Shortcake
The Catering Co.
2 Mariakakis Plaza
1322 N. Fordham Blvd.
Chapel Hill, NC 27514