In March, a local catering company called La Pera had 137 employees, some contract or part time, to help them serve food at the kind of parties and events that are a cornerstone of Austin’s social scene. Weddings and anniversaries, product launches, tasting events, conferences, corporate parties.
Seven months into the coronavirus pandemic, they have seven.
"There were days when we needed 75 people on staff, and now maybe we need four," says co-owner Bethany DiBaggio.
Although she and her partner Rafael Rodriguez hope to eventually hire some of those employees back when Austin’s large-scale events return, a marker of normalcy that could be more than a year away, they aren’t going to sit around and hope the phone rings.
DiBaggio and Rodriguez opened La Pera in 2017 after meeting a few years earlier through the food scene. Rodriguez, a McAllen native whose family is from Guadalajara, had left the tech industry to work at a brewery, and DiBaggio, who grew up in San Antonio and who has roots in South America, was helping expand the Peached Tortilla’s catering business.
La Pera, Spanish for "the pear," started off small. "We didn’t have the money to open a big kitchen or a restaurant," she says, but they started doing small events out of a rented kitchen space.
Like dozens of catering companies in Central Texas, La Pera specialized in making everything from a quinceañera or a retirement party to a rooftop soirée feel more hospitable with Latin-infused food and libations.
The company had grown to require more than 100 employees during the high seasons, from South by Southwest through all those June weddings, and then again in the fall. Although they had some different ideas for where they wanted to take the company, they didn’t have the bandwidth to launch that taco truck or build the website to sell those grazing boards that customers loved.
And then the coronavirus hit and took with it every major booking they had this year.
Large gatherings were banned for months. Restaurants scrambled to fine-tune their takeout and delivery services. Nonprofits canceled in-person fundraisers and galas, which are usually big business for caterers like La Pera, and hosted them online instead.
But DiBaggio and Rodriguez decided to pivot, too. They formed a parent company, Loteria Hospitality, and took a break from traditional catering, which allowed them to experiment with new recipes, new ideas and new ways of getting out their mission of supporting diversity and education through food.
"I want to keep us going full steam ahead," she says. "It would be easy to take a break and then lose steam."
The reality of the situation has cast a pall over the industry, but that’s also where the inspiration for one of their new concepts comes from, DiBaggio says.
"A lot of what is happening is not very fun right now," she says. "But tacos make everything better. We thought, ‘How can we drop off tacos at people’s houses and make their day a little better?’"
Rodriguez had always wanted to open a taco truck, and he figured taco delivery was a good way to start gaining customers. He created a new brand, El Camaron Taco Delivery, and started selling take-and-bake taco kits for delivery.
At first, customers were mostly families and individuals who were stuck at home and were tired of cooking, but when they added margarita kits and started hosting online lotería bingo nights, they drew a new wave of clients: friends who want to celebrate virtual birthday parties, companies who want to host happy hours, couples who want something to do on date night.
"We all jump on the Zoom together, and we teach them how to make a margarita and put the tacos together and play lotería," she says. "It’s fun for us, too."
Several months into the new branch of the business, El Camaron Taco Delivery continues to sell those tacos dorados, half moon-shaped, Veracruz-style tacos that customers reheat at home, as well as the cocktail kits and lotería boards.
Menu items include brisket and potato or summer squash and yuca tacos (starting at $24.50 for a dozen) or breakfast tacos filled with Three Six General bacon ($15.50 for six). You can also order desserts and side dishes, including prickly pear shrimp ceviche, grilled pineapple pico and mango passionfruit cupcakes.
The popularity of the El Camaron tacos has sped up their plans to open a brick-and-mortar space, DiBaggio says, but in the meantime, they are continuing to build another branch of the business: La Dama Grazing Co., which sells snack boards draped with cheese, charcuterie, vegetables, nuts, fruit, spreads, crackers and dips.
Each board is named after a notable woman in history, including Lady Bird Johnson (edible flowers, Two Hives Honey honeycomb, Antonelli’s cheese and charcuterie, Austinuts seasoned nuts) and Frida Kahlo (cheeses, candied mango, grilled pineapple, blue corn chips). (They start at $35 for a small board and go up to $195 for a party size.)
DiBaggio says doing things like researching the women she wanted to feature in La Dama has been an unforeseen joy during a year of disappointments.
When she wanted to highlight a woman with their veggie-centric board, she learned about Maria Andrade, a South African scientist and 2016 World Food Prize recipient who developed more than a dozen drought-tolerant, vitamin A-enriched sweet potato varieties. Those potatoes are now grown by more than half a million farmers and are a critical food resource throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
In a year that, at times, has felt unconquerable, DiBaggio finds inspiration in those who have persevered in the face of seemingly unsolvable problems. "Never in my lifetime did I think this is where we’d be as a business, but it’s been cool to develop all three of them at once," she says.
"We always try to incorporate education into our sourcing and our products," she says, and La Dama and El Camaron are simply additional ways to do that, while also celebrating Latin culture and cuisine and promoting diversity.
DiBaggio says she knows that the large-scale parties that were once common throughout Austin every weekend — and even many weeknights — will return, but several catering companies have already closed.
"So much is still up in the air because it doesn’t matter what restrictions are in place. Public opinion is the most important," she says. "People do miss gatherings and want to plan things, but a lot of them are on the edge of their seats."
La Pera, which for so long had been the backbone of the company, is booking weddings and milestone birthdays for next year, but for now, DiBaggio and Rodriguez are focusing on going and even growing with the flow.
"Before, we felt like it was hard to break into a new audience to get into a brick-and-mortar space," she says. "We needed a connection with an audience outside of a catering capacity, and (the pandemic) has allowed us to interact with people on a daily basis."