For medical school graduates pursuing specialized training at Rochester General Hospital, it is essential to have easy access to affordable meals during their grueling 13- to14-hour shifts. However, a year ago, due to the pandemic, RGH had to close its cafeteria where the residents used meal vouchers to buy food.
Michelle Simmons, program administrator for internal medicine at RGH, started considering alternative food options for the medical residents, including catering companies that could deliver to the hospital.
“It was a struggle to find a caterer that could accommodate our tight budget,” Simmons says.
“Many of our residents have cultural and religious food preferences and we needed to find someone who could handle that too.”
Simmons’ assistant, Sabrina Maldonado, found All Occasions Catering & Events Planning, a 25-year-old family-owned business.
“In the early days, we catered weddings, birthdays, corporate parties, bar and bat mitzvahs,” says owner Pattie Taylor-Brown. “In 2008, when the recession forced companies to let go of their administrative staff, CEOs were left to plan their company picnics. They didn’t have the time, or the experience, to plan parties, so they called us to help with planning events as well as catering them.”
When the pandemic put all large gatherings on hold, Taylor-Brown was glad to get the call from RGH, and ready to switch from special events to everyday meals.
When asked about accommodating the religious and cultural requirements of the residents, Taylor-Brown says, “I have an extremely low tolerance for food boredom. I enjoy coming up with customizable menus.”
The menu features new items each week, many of which are inspired by national holidays and international cuisine. There are also vegan and gluten-free options.
Recently, Taylor-Brown invited me to accompany her as she made one of her trips to RGH. She has been delivering meals there four times a week, and this month marks the first anniversary of her business relationship with the hospital.
We met at the All Occasions kitchen, where chefs Pam Graham and Zelma Livingston were packing containers of Poulet DG of Cameroon, a spicy tomato stew with plantains, carrots and green beans, over sadza (a cornmeal porridge).
They customized each meal with either tofu or chicken. Meanwhile, Taylor-Brown individually wrapped the Sour Cream Banana Bars that RGH had ordered for dessert, then the three of them loaded up her van. She handed me the Yucatan Sweet Potato and Black Bean Bowl that I had ordered, and as the smell of chipotle-spiced sweet potatoes and roasted peppers wafted through the van, we set off for RGH.
As we drove, Taylor-Brown told me about her first business, a clothing line designed for women with arthritis and other ailments that made it a challenge for them to fasten buttons or zippers. It wasn’t until Taylor-Brown married chef David Brown, that they started All Occasions Catering & Event Planning.
“I realized that if I wanted to see my husband on weekends, I was going to have to go into business with him,” she says.
Brown has since retired from the business, serving as a consultant on the rare occasion that Graham and Livingston need a second opinion about their menus. Taylor-Brown continues to handle the orders, marketing, deliveries and any event planning that she is still able to do given the restrictions of the pandemic. In addition to her RGH partnership, Taylor-Brown delivers meals to families and individuals mostly in the Rochester area, but also, for an additional charge, as far as Dansville.
Her new business environment doesn’t have some of the excitement of event planning, like seeing a coyote run through a backyard wedding or dealing with a power outage at a corporate event, but it does have its own special merits.
“With weddings clients, you’re best friends for the duration,” Taylor-Brown says. “Now, with delivering meals, I’m really getting to know my clients. For some of them, I’m one of the few faces they see.”
We pulled up to the Lipson Cancer Center entrance at RGH and waited for Simmons and Maldonado to pick up their order. They arrived with a cart to load up the boxes of food, enthusiastically greeted Taylor-Brown, and introduced us to one of the residents who, offered to give me her review of the meals.
A second-year resident in RGH’s Internal Medicine Residency Program, Ankita Kapoor was a student at Maulana Azad Medical College in India. She describes her workdays as long and intense, and says the meals are a welcome break in her routine. She appreciates that she no longer had to “waste time standing in line at the cafeteria,” or rely on “greasy pizza” to get her through the day.
With her demanding schedule, Kapoor says, she often didn’t even have time to order groceries, so the generous portion of hearty food was her main meal of the day.
With a smile, Kapoor add: “The other staff are always curious to see what we (the residents) are eating.”
Kapoor also enjoyed the special event menus that Taylor-Brown prepared for the residents, as they didn’t have many opportunities to socialize or celebrate holidays this year.
“For Diwali, they prepared a lot of Indian sweets,” she says. “For Valentine’s Day, we received these big cookies.”
She also mentioned that she had never heard of Mardi Gras until it was the theme of the All Occasions menu. What started as a basic sandwich lunch, evolved into different cultural experiences through food.
After our delivery to RGH, Taylor-Brown and I made one more stop, at the house of a client who had ordered a family meal.
“She was one of our first wedding clients 25 years ago,” Taylor-Brown says. “Now, she orders regularly, sometimes for her adult daughter, too.”
We drove to a house in East Rochester, tucked away in a small neighborhood, where her client greeted us at her front door. She mentioned how much she enjoyed the meals and appreciated the delivery service given the limited choices for ordering food during the pandemic.
We talked for a few minutes, then headed back to the All Occasions kitchen. On the drive back, Taylor-Brown seems hopeful that she would be able to cater events again, though she didn’t expect them to be as large as her pre-pandemic jobs.
“The challenge going forward is how to stay profitable catering parties with under 150 guests,” she says. “Our chefs can prepare food for 30 people or 300 people in the same amount of time. With larger parties, we can take advantage of economies of scale.”
Until then, her company catering company is staying afloat with the help of its PPP grant, and by offering a creative menu, personalized service and affordable options to clients.
“Restaurants and caterers are all struggling to figure out how to move forward,” she says. “There are a lot of sleepless nights with small-business owners right now. We’re pivoting. We’re thinking about our future. We’re thinking outside the box.”
As for my boxed lunch, it was a delicious combination of spiced sweet potatoes, black beans and rice, topped with sliced avocados and a crunchy slaw. It was a large portion that I could have saved for dinner, but enjoyed too much, to do so.
Nipa Armbruster has been a fashion designer, martial arts instructor and an active volunteer in her kids’ schools. She currently writes the blog https://fashionipa.com.