THEY MAY HAVE had a hometown advantage when it came to participating in Chicago's long-awaited Millennium Park inaugural gala. But, say staffers of 35-year-old Chicago event and concert production veteran JAM Productions and famed caterer Wolfgang Puck Catering and Events, Chicago, along with that advantage came a serious sense of hometown responsibility. Fortunately, both JAM account manager Diane Goldstick Meagher and Puck operations vice president Carol Daniel concur, diligent teamwork between the producer and caterer produced success for a challenging event.
More than merely the launch of the Windy City's much-anticipated Millennium Park, the July gala was a thank-you to the park's many donors — more than 90 of whom had contributed in excess of $1 million each, Meagher says. As such, both the event's budget — $1 million plus, according to Meagher — and the event expectations of client Millennium Park Inc. ran high.
Selecting Puck was a major step in meeting these expectations, the producer notes. But tapping the high-profile caterer was no fait accompli. Eight catering companies received an RFP, out of which four went on to interviews, Meagher explains. While “all the caterers we talked to were very good at the meals and foodservice,” Puck led the pack in initiative. In addition to impressing Meagher and the event's organizing committee members with “everything from logistics to front-of-house personnel,” the caterer proposed bringing its “entire corporate office from Los Angeles for this event, including Wolfgang Puck himself,” the producer says.
For her part, Puck's Daniel says her operation's high level of commitment was the only way to contend with the event's enormous demands. And none was more daunting than the complexity and sheer volume of the gala's dinner service — 2,500 guests seated in two 66-by-230-foot clear-span tents erected on the park grounds, all of whom had to be served an elegantly plated meal of grilled filet mignon and roasted Maine lobster. And all of whom had to be finished eating and ferried back outdoors in time for a precisely timed concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Calling upon their individual teams' event expertise, JAM and Puck rose to the logistically harrowing occasion.
Tackling the event's production end, JAM worked with Chicago-based decor provider Heffernan Morgan to divide the dining tents into quadrants separated by 10-foot-high “water walls.” The walls, with their nod to nature, not only worked with the event committee's desire for an aesthetic that was “true to the park,” but served to “make everybody feel like they were in a small room” — a critical factor for a group in which “everybody thought they were on the A-list, so there was no way to separate the VIPs,” Meagher says.
The setup also allowed the catering crew to approach seating areas as “stations,” each overseen by several of the 43 managers Puck brought in from its St. Louis, Los Angeles and Chicago offices. Instead of serving via sweep, with all food timed to come out simultaneously, the caterer opted to serve “restaurant style,” treating each table individually, and communicating with the kitchen accordingly. Having nearly 700 catering personnel on site was essential to smooth service, Daniel says. But, ultimately, “We did it by practicing.”
The event's pre-dinner reception similarly saw each team contributing its part for the benefit of the whole. JAM's multitude of hired interactive performers — characters in overhead swings releasing monarch butterflies, gazelle-costumed performers in anti-gravity boots and a cycling wine steward among them — helped stem crowding and ensure flow.
Meanwhile, Puck, working with “a totally separate operating plan” for reception and bar service, staggered bar shut-downs and placed staff behind the last person in line at closing bars to reassure guests they would be able to get their drinks. It may seem a small gesture, but “that way, nobody was disgruntled,” Daniel points out. “People said they never waited a minute for a drink,” an appreciative Meagher adds. “That just never happens.”
Citing guest endurance as a major measure of success — many stayed until 2 a.m. to enjoy music and dessert following an elaborate fireworks finale — both Meagher and Daniel say they couldn't have done it without the other's commitment to the cause.
Daniel credits Meagher with making her crew's needs a priority. “Diane would ask us over and over during the planning stages what we thought our challenges would be,” she says. “And when we told her, she and her team listened and worked with us to adjust planning so that when we got there, there would be no problems.”
Meaningful to Meagher, “Wolfgang Puck Catering was accessible to us — they were accessible to me. There were so many meetings happening, and they were always available, always able to be there.” Most important in her book, she adds, “They kept a promise. They presented something to us, and they did what they said they were going to do. That, to me, is everything.”
JAM Productions 205 W. Goethe St., Chicago, IL 60610; 312/440-9191; www.jamusa.com
Wolfgang Puck Catering and Events 220 E. Chicago Ave., Chicago, IL 60611; 312/397-4025; www.wolfgangpuck.com
MENU OF THE MILLENNIUM
Roasted Red Beets and Goat Cheese with Toasted Hazelnuts and Citrus-Shallot Vinaigrette
White Asparagus with Prosciutto di Parma and Whole-Grain Mustard Vinaigrette
Chilled Potato-Leek Soup with Iranian Osetra Caviar
Grilled Filet Mignon and Roasted Maine Lobster served with Sweet Pea Puree and Summer Truffle Sauce
RESOURCES FOR THIS EVENT
DECOR, FLORAL, WATER WALLS
HDO Productions (Central Region)