WHITE POST — As an experienced caterer, Lisa Trumbower Sheppard is skilled at providing delicious meals and beautiful presentations no matter the situation.
But the coronavirus pandemic is offering new challenges for both her and her clients.
“Things are never going to be the same in terms of entertaining,” said Sheppard, owner of Love at First Bite Catering & Events based in Clarke County. “At least not in the near future.”
But as long as people want to celebrate weddings, anniversaries and retirements with family and friends — and they will — caterers will need to come up with creative ideas to help their clients feel safe.
Sheppard isn’t interested in putting herself or her staff in harm’s way by hosting large events where no one is wearing a mask. What she is willing to do are smaller functions with hosts who are as concerned about social distancing and safe serve practices as she is.
Sheppard has been catering for more 30 years. Before she started Love at First Bite 10 years ago, she was director of catering at Lansdowne Resort and the catering sales manager at Sheraton Premiere. Caterers, she said, must always put the safety of their clients first whether they’re serving food indoors or out — or during a pandemic.
For the near future, Sheppard wants to focus on outdoor parties whenever possible. Fall is a magical time in the northern Shenandoah Valley and perfect for garden parties, especially now that homeowners have spent so much time working on their yards, she said.
There’s a big upside to a smaller party size, Sheppard said. As the number of people at an event go down, the special effects can go up. Smaller events can handle more elaborate tablescapes and fancier food, she said.
Sheppard offered a few suggestions for fun parties during the COVID-19 pandemic:
• To prevent contact between servers and guests, uniformed staff could carry vintage serving trays — the kind with neck straps — to circulate throughout the party. Guests could grab a napkin and their hors d’oeuvre without touching fingertips with the server.
• A smaller party is a good opportunity for a live cooking demonstration — sort of like a TV show, but better since guests will be able to eat the food after it’s prepared.
• Charcuterie boards loaded with Italian meats, imported and domestic cheeses, fresh and dried fruits, olives, nuts and crackers are a big trend now in party entertaining. But everyone sticking their hands in the same plate of food isn’t safe. Instead, Sheppard is searching stores and online sites to find attractive vessels to package food for individuals or couples to take and consume away from the larger group.
• Another idea for those looking for a fun party theme is an outdoor movie night. Hay bales, blankets and hammocks could be set up least 6 feet apart for socially distant entertainment under the stars. The menu could include sliders, popcorn, cotton candy and ice cream.
• Or how about letting guests eat off TV trays set up at safe distances apart? The party could have a retro vibe but with much better food than an old-fashioned frozen dinner of meatloaf, carrots and peas and warm pudding.
One of Virginia Living’s best
Sheppard finds her inspiration everywhere, particularly while traveling.
“I live by the motto of ‘Absorb, Adapt and Apply,’” said Sheppard, whose office and commercial kitchen are housed in the former Mr. B.’s barbecue restaurant on Lord Fairfax Highway.
On her travels, she absorbs a region’s art, architecture and food and then figures out how she can adapt them in a practical manner to apply them in her business.
She takes pride that Love at First Bite is known for its eye-catching presentations.
Her attention to detail has paid off.
Love at First Bite was recently voted one of the best caterers in the Shenandoah Valley by the readers of Virginia Living, the only statewide lifestyle magazine in Virginia. Results from the 2020 “Best of Virginia” readers’ survey are printed in the issue now on newsstands.
“I literally started crying,” said Sheppard, who received a badge and a plaque from the magazine to help promote her business. “It’s so fantastically wonderful.”
Part of the family
Sheppard said the philosophy of her business is definitely not “one size fits all.”
“The canvas is painted for each client,” said Sheppard, a longtime Clarke resident who tries to source many products as possible from local farms and providers.
The menu at Love at First Bite is extensive. Clients can order such classics as beef bourguignon, boeuf chateaubriand, coq au vin or crab cakes. Or they can indulge in trendy dishes or regional specialties such as Nashville hot chicken sliders served with Gorgonzola coleslaw; miniature mole spiced street tacos; macaroni and cheese cupcakes with mix-ins of lobster, bacon or tomato or even choose a green tomato bar, where guests can top off their tomato with mushroom ragout, shaved Virginia ham, blackened shrimp or other flavors.
Sheppard has found that once she does a catering job, she can often expect repeat business as she follows a family from engagement party to wedding to retirement.
“We go with them on the journey of their life,” she said. “We definitely become part of the family.”