The pandemic had a devastating effect on almost every independently owned business in the Chestnut Hill area, but imagine if you have a business that depends on weddings, store openings and other celebratory events.
The pandemic had a devastating effect on almost every independently owned business in the Chestnut Hill area, but imagine if you have a business that depends on weddings, store openings and other celebratory events that routinely draw large numbers of people gathered together to eat, drink and socialize. What do you do then to survive when those events disappear?
That was the dilemma facing Erdenheim residents Melissa McDevitt, 45, and Laura Kidwell, 43, who have spent the last two decades in the restaurant and hospitality business. In 2014 the two friends started Seedling & Sage, a “farm-to-table” caterer that has grown into a multi-million dollar business, arguably the most successful catering firm in the immediate area, with 15 in-house employees and 90 in the field, mostly Springfield Township residents, working events.
The company has three exclusive properties (they manage all venue and facility operations in addition to the catering) in Flourtown, Skippack and West Grove. They have also catered at dozens of properties in the area such as Morris Arboretum, Abington Art Center, The Highlands Mansion in Fort Washington, Flourtown Country Club, Kimberly James Bridal, TailoredHome and Gravers Lane Gallery, among others.
However, according to McDevitt, “In 2020 we rescheduled, postponed and canceled about 500 events. Once we recognized this wasn't a two-week shutdown, we needed to get creative and quick. We had over 50 couples we needed to work with in order to re-imagine how their weddings may or may not take place and on what date; bar and bat mitzvahs that had been planned for a year, and so on. We had a staff who wanted to work and needed to pay the bills...
“Learning how to operate in a safe way and providing that training for our team was paramount so that we could still operate our business and the events we had committed to. Our team underwent intense training in the front and back of the house. We joined the PA Restaurant and Lodging Association and followed along daily to the latest changes and trends and in the weekly webinars.
“Besides a reduction of more than 50% of our business, we also spent an estimated $100,000 or more on additional tenting in multiple venues, heaters, fire pits, protective gear and disposables. The unrecovered expenses that ensued from last-minute capacity changes (under 48 hours) in food, beverage, linens, china, glassware for events that got shut down or had capacities slashed in half, we haven't even calculated that yet. Nor the additional staffing that had to be added to every event to assure that there was proper mask-wearing, etc.”
The prospect of simply shutting down completely until a vaccine became widely available was not an option because like other hospitality industry businesses, McDevitt and Kidwell have fixed costs of running multiple kitchens and multiple venues and have to pay those bills.
“However,” said McDevitt, “we are still coming out of 2020 grateful. Many of our competitors have remained closed since the start as they did not have outdoor space to offer their clients. Our hearts are with our industry friends in Philadelphia. We have a special niche here in the burbs, and all of our properties offer outdoor space, so we have been able to pivot our events from indoor to outdoor or even switch locations … The events may have been smaller or masked or on disposable bamboo instead of china, but we all pivoted and got the job done.
“As you watch the ticker of lives being lost during this pandemic, of course, that's what is the most important. We have committed to following the guidelines needed to keep our community safe. Outside of our traditional events, we have provided meals to front-line workers and essential workers. We are also committed to making sure our team and their families have what they need to survive.”
McDevitt and Kidwell, who went to Gwynedd Mercy Academy High School and Mount St Joseph, respectively, have also created a successful “cocktails-to-go” concept made up of ingredients that most people do not have at home like hibiscus, peony, Vietnamese cinnamon and Yuzu. Prior to Seedling & Sage, McDevitt planned international drug launches for pharmaceutical companies, then was on the opening team of the Normandy Farm Ballroom space in Blue Bell. She also served as an adjunct professor at Montco Community College and Temple University for their event planning certification classes. Kidwell also has many years of experience in restaurant and banquet operations and the wedding industry.
For more information, visit seedlingandsage.com. Len Lear can be reached at email@example.com