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Less glitzy holiday parties making a return

It’s never a question whether Bob Leffler’s annual holiday party will go on or not.

“I’d rather cut something else out than not say ‘thank you’” to the media representatives with whom his company — The Leffler Agency — works, the agency’s president said.

For the 27th year in a row, Leffler’s holiday party — “the longest-running advertising party” in Baltimore, he reckoned — will go on, despite the nation’s worst recession since the Great Depression.

Calling off holiday parties on account of the recession was “probably the story for 2009, a year in which many holiday parties were cancelled or rendered much more modest,” said Anirban Basu, the chief executive officer of the Sage Policy Group Inc., an economic consulting firm in Baltimore.

“This year will be better,” he said. “The economy will be recovering,” and the Baltimore area has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation — 7.8 percent at the end of September, according to the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

The nation’s average unemployment rate is 9.6 percent, according to the latest figures released in October by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Still, caterers note a downsizing trend.

At Biddle Street Catering and Events on East Chase Street, clients who used to order complete meals for their company’s holiday parties are scaling back — ordering just an entrée, “while everyone else brings in the sides and desserts,” said Larry Levy, co-owner and executive chef.

Clients say they’re not happy about that, Levy said.

“And they’re also reducing the length of the parties,” he said.

Another way Biddle Street’s clients are saving money is by cutting out serving costs — employers are serving the employees themselves, Levy said.

By doing the serving and cleaning up themselves, clients save 25 to 30 percent of the catering costs, he added.

And still other employers are opting for just an afternoon party — “coffee and a little treat … [as] a way of having something nice without spending a lot of money,” Levy said.

“Some people want to treat their staff but don’t have the money for it,” he said.

In past years, Leffler’s holiday party guest lists would total around 1,000 people. The parties were held at places like The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore and at City Lights, a former Inner Harbor seafood restaurant.

This year, it’ll be a more intimate gathering of 200 or 300 at the agency’s headquarters on North Charles Street.

The downsizing works, he said, because “we don’t have a lot of pizzazz. … The company is more substance than style.”

Party food, too, has evolved in the economic downturn.

Wendy Fox, director of catering for Rouge Fine Catering of Baltimore, said she sees “a trend in comfort food across the board … in all seasons,” especially in upscale comfort fare.

“When budgets get cut, people are comfortable going back to something they know, [something] that they’re familiar with,” Levy said.

And so, Biddle Street’s menu highlights a selection of holiday-themed, edible “martinis” — martini glasses filled with tenderloin, garlic mashed potatoes or “an interesting little thing with string beans sticking up in the air” to put “a little buzz” on traditional foods, Levy said.

Many of Rouge Fine Catering’s clients are cutting back to just hors d’oeuvres instead of full meals, Fox said.

It’s still a little early, though, for Fox to tell how Rouge’s holiday bookings will pan out.

With the recession, staff members who make the bookings for company parties are overworked, doing the work of two or three people, Fox said. For them, holiday party planning may be taking a back seat to other office tasks.

And business owners — unsure of what they can afford — may hold off on booking catering events for their staff. At Biddle Street, where everything is made from scratch, “a lot of jobs come in at the last minute,” Levy said.

Still, even the caterers are doing something for the season. At Biddle Street, the chefs cater their own holiday party on Christmas Eve.

As professional chefs, they “all have their own thing that they want to show off,” Levy said.

Rouge Fine Catering employees won’t celebrate until January. With five to eight holiday parties a day they’re expecting to do, plus the daily corporate catering, it’s the earliest they’ll have time for socializing, Fox said.