06/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Catering Away-Game

My adolescent rebellion took many forms. One of them was refusing to learn how to play tennis. My parents were passionate about the game, as were my maternal grandparents and my siblings. It pleased me to no end to make a sour face, trudge around the court miserably till I was no longer invited back. It was a small yet satisfying victory.

Fast forward to adulthood. Ironically, tennis is now an important part of my life. Since 2004, Great Performances has been the catering partner at the annual Spring WTA Tournament in Key Biscayne, then the Nasdaq, now, the Sony Ericsson Open. It is 10 glorious days of tennis featuring top seeded players, attended by tens of thousands of visitors. Attendees are snowbirds, spring break students and visiting families, locals and Latin American 'southerners'. It is a delightful melting pot of accents, languages, cultures, fashion and colors. The vibe is festive as the confluence of Miami and South America infuse the intensity of the competition with a joie de vivre we New Yorkers sometimes are too busy to weave into our activities.

Most people asking about our stint here are curious about the tennis - What matches do we watch? How did a particular player perform? Any celeb sightings? Whereas the eyes of the world are on the court, our eyes are behind the scenes in the kitchens, at the buffets, the concession stands, food carts, and at the bars. And where tennis is mostly about individual performance, ours is an ensemble that practices and plays together - each player linked to another in an interconnected chain of events.

These are the most challenging, yet inspiring moments in our crazy world. The day begins at 4:30 AM with the first crews arriving on site to fire up the makeshift kitchens. For about 3 weeks, giant tents, cooking and ware-washing equipment, tables, linens, china and other essentials (like sinks, coffee makers, refrigerators etc) are assembled so that the culinary team can produce thousands of meals each day. Why does the Tournament engage the services of a New York City based catering company? So that we can make great food daily from fresh, high quality raw ingredients. Think of delivering over 2-dozen customized parties within a 20-minute time slot, with hot food hot, cold food cold to Suites twice a day.

Then add in 3 restaurants, 3 bars, and several kiosks, dozens of food carts and stadium concessions where a break on the court means thousands of hungry people searching for a meal all at once. The day doesn't end until very, very late. For the small cadre of senior managers (mostly NY based) the tournament is an anticipated break from the daily routine and a satisfying professional challenge. They hone their communication and operational skills as well leadership abilities and problem solving capabilities. It is a moment of great 'nachas' (pride) for me as they shoulder the responsibility for running the show.

You gotta love this game!

Some stats:
650 kegs of Heineken/150 tons of ice
75,000 bottles of soda/50,000 bottles of water
3 tons of hot dogs/5 tons of beef/6 tons of chicken
1,200 lbs of fresh salsa/4,000 lbs of lettuce/2,500 lbs of tomatoes

The human element behind the numbers - that's the beautiful part. The stories are always unique when a small army comes together for 2-3 weeks of work. Some take leave of full time jobs each year just to be here. Others are latter day itinerant workers, travelling from one special event to another. This year, for many, it is the first job they have had since a '09 lay-off. For a special group of trade school students, it was their first job and what an initiation into the work place. One student, just 20, is mother to a 4-month old baby, plans on becoming a pediatrician. Another, 16, was amazed by how friendly and engaging the guests were. It was a window into a world they never knew before and their lives were changed by the experience. Some come from households were no one really cooks, while others have a deep passion for ingredients. For the previously unemployed, this stint rekindled hope of a better year financially. The joy of working - the pride and pleasure - left an impression on me, as work is that thing we all complain about having too much of, never its absence. A young man, working as a food runner (which is a full day of shuttling meals from a ground floor kitchen area, 2 stadium flights up, over and over again) detailed his patchwork of jobs over the past 2 years - from West Coast/aviation to East Coast/delivery businesses, along with finishing a degree.


The faces of our co-workers and the artfulness of the food they all contributed to providing - that is the tennis story for me. And though I am not rebelling against what happens on the court anymore, my heart and soul is forever off the court and behind the scenes.


Oh, one last great lesson from SEO 2010. In the Women's Final, it was top seeded Venus Williams (#5) against Kim Clijsters (#17). Though she advanced to the finals, Venus was routed in short order. Sometimes you lose. The crowd still loved her. (An interesting event to share with clients on those rare occasions when we fail.) We are all obsessed with winning, but it is also about rolling with the punches, overcoming the obstacles and going on to the next match - I watched that story unfold on and off the court this year. Humility, humanity.