Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Indianapolis Museum of Art and Caterers

IMA may drop Puck for service lapse

January 8, 2007

The Indianapolis Museum of Art is considering whether to revoke Wolfgang Puck's exclusive catering contract after the company's slow service marred an important event in November.

The coveted contract has allowed Puck to cater hundreds of museum-sponsored activities and outside events held on the museum's picturesque grounds, including holiday parties, corporate receptions and weddings.

Before Los Angeles-based Wolfgang Puck Catering won the deal in 2004, a group of local caterers shared the responsibility of serving food and drink at the museum, and they would jump at an opportunity to reclaim the business.

But Puck wants to keep its arrangement and is lobbying for a chance to make things right with the museum and its guests.

The fate of the company, named after the world-famous chef, rests with an IMA task force appointed Go to Forum at www.ibj.comto comment on this story. to determine why the service was slow at a European Galleries opening Nov. 29 and how to prevent it from happening again.

The committee will decide whether to stick with Puck or look for another company. An answer is expected this month.

"We would hope, in all candor, that we would be able to have improved service and improved quality and meet a happy medium with our current provider," said Marsha Oliver, the museum's director of visitor and community relations and a member of the task force. "If we can't, we would need to work with other vendors."

Puck Catering took over a variety of food-service duties--including opening a restaurant, Puck's--when the museum reopened in May 2005 following a $74 million renovation and expansion.

CEO Carl Schuster said his company feels terrible about what happened and wants to make amends. That could include serving another dinner to the guests who attended the botched one.

"You're only as good as the last meal you served," Schuster said. "We set a pretty high bar, and we didn't live up to our own standard."

Schuster said he's heard no complaints about service other than the November opening. He likes the people he has in place and says the restaurant is doing fine.

The company has sent in a team to analyze what happened and is considering the possibility of adjusting staffing levels or retraining employees, Schuster said.

A big night

The European Galleries opening was a big night for the IMA and the highest-pressure night for Puck since it won the lucrative deal.

More than 450 of the museum's wealthiest and most influential patrons were on hand. They sipped wine, looked at art, and sat for a dinner featuring lobster salad with baby artichokes and a roasted filet mignon "Rossini" with foie gras.

By all accounts, the food was delicious.

But the service left a bad taste. Many guests finished eating before others got their food. The slow pace dragged dinner longer than scheduled. Some had to take dessert to go.

"They didn't rise to the challenge," said IMA spokeswoman Jessica DiSanto.

For any caterer, serving food and drinks at the IMA can be a tough proposition, said Jack Bayt, president of locally based Crystal Catering, which also bid on the museum contract.

On one hand, it's a great venue to make a name as a caterer and generate new business by serving socialites and corporate executives. But you're also constantly under a microscope.

"You're dealing with very-high-end events all the time, not a casual little lunch," Bayt said. "You have to be on your game every day."

Bayt figures Puck didn't have adequate backup staff to call in and help with its first big sit-down dinner. He said the caterer has good people, but might be thin on talent so far from its West Coast base of operations.

"No matter how big you are, it's really, Who's the manager? Who's the chef? Who's the team you have on board?" Bayt said. "If you don't have a good local team, that's where you get into trouble."

When IMA awarded the exclusive contract to Puck, the decision struck a nerve with local caterers.

The museum instead should have relied on Hoosier caterers who had supported the institution over the years, said Kyle Buckley, a vice president with locally based Hoaglin Fine Catering. Hoaglin used to run a cafe at the museum, but did not bid against Puck in 2004.

"It was a big blow locally to the caterers who had chosen to submit bids and compete against Puck," Buckley said. "I feel like entities such as Puck come into Indianapolis and feel like they can take [the quality] down a notch. I think they missed the boat on that level."

Mixed reviews

Up until the November event, there were no major problems with Puck but reviews had been mixed, Oliver said. Another complaint has been lack of menu variety. The concerns led the task force to review the museum's entire food experience.

"We need to feel confident that, whether it is a fine-dining experience, or a grab-and-go-sandwich experience, or a catered event, that all of those experiences will be positive," Oliver said.

In nine years in business, Puck Catering has never lost a contract or not been renewed, Schuster said. And the company gets plenty of work, including catering for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which puts on the Academy Awards.

Most events go off without a hitch. The IMA affair was an exception.

Museum patron and board member Myrta Pulliam was standing up to leave the dining area at the event when she realized some guests were still waiting on dessert. Pulliam had already enjoyed her chocolate bombe with caramel creme and pomegranate sauce.

That's when the frustration of others in the room became obvious.

"It was not like we all starved that night, but it was still inexcusable," Pulliam said. "Obviously it's hard--they just didn't pull it off as good as they usually do this time."

Pulliam isn't ready to give up on Puck. The caterer just needs to get its act together.

"I think it'll work out," Pulliam said. "I hope we don't lose them."

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