More than you ever wanted to know about the tournament's food service...
SERVICE ACES GENE'S CATERING FEEDS THOUSANDS IN STYLE AT THE LIPTON TOURNAMENT
The Miami Herald
Thursday, March 19, 1992
There you are, a hungry tennis fan who has just sat through a five-set marathon, and you're really ready for lunch. But you don't want a burger and a beer. You have a taste for pasta. Or pizza. Or fajitas. A Caesar salad with grilled chicken. Grilled fish with tropical fruit salsa.
You can't get that at a tennis tournament, can you?
At the Lipton International Players Championships, now in full swing on Key Biscayne, you can. Food at this tournament is a whole new ball game.
Though the concession booths stock the stand-bys -- hot dogs, burgers, frozen yogurt -- they also feature bruschetta, ham and brie sandwiches, fish tacos. A sit-down restaurant, the Bacardi Tropical Grill, offers grilled fish, chicken fajitas, pasta salads, made and served on the spot.
This is upscale fare on a grand scale. By the time the tournament ends Sunday afternoon, Gene's Catering will have served about 200,000 meals in less than two weeks. Says company president Gene Singletary Jr.: "It's so much food it boggles your mind."
The logistics are formidable, the hours seemingly without end.
Singletary, who runs the family-owned company with his brother, Jim, jokes that catering the Lipton is like two weeks at a spa: You get a great tan and lose 15 pounds. The down side, he says, pointing at his sandy hair that's liberally dusted with silver, is more gray hairs.
This is the third year the Singletary company has done the food at Lipton . The job means weeks of days that begin at 9 a.m. and end at midnight, if you're lucky, riding an adrenaline wave that staffers call " Lipton fever."
Besides the food for spectators, the caterers also will handle about 140 parties given by corporate sponsors for their customers as well as set up and operate an exclusive restaurant for tournament players and their guests. Gene's also will feed the ball-fetchers, the umpires and referees, the reporters and photographers from around the world.
"It's expensive, but we know it's good," says tournament chairman Butch Buchholz. "Gene is known in the community, is known for quality. . . . We want it to be a total experience, that you can come out and have quality food and quality tennis."
To offer food that ranges from hot pretzels to paella cooked in a custom-made, 10-foot pan for a 500-person corporate party requires not only the caterer's regular staff (sometimes on double shifts) but also 300 temporary cooks and servers. They operate from a city of tents housing temporary kitchens, dishwashing machines, paper and food storage and props. A small fleet of refrigerator trucks will be unloaded and refilled with food a half-dozen times before it's over.
In the trailer that is the Gene's Catering office for the duration, phones ring madly on the Monday morning before the tournament begins. Walkie-talkies blare out questions. Fax machines whirr. On one wall are stapled samples of the paper and plastic cups, plates and containers that food will be served in. (They keep track of sales with daily opening and closing counts of cups, plates or food items. Gene Singletary's wife, Isabel, is here on a two-week "vacation" from her job as executive director of the Florida Shoe Mart to help with the accounting.)
The temporary workers are arriving to learn their tasks. The concession stands go through dry runs to check equipment and
serve the die-hard tennis fans here to watch the qualifying matches.
By Friday the 13th -- a cold and rainy day -- the Tropical Grill is up and running and the first corporate parties begin. The first weekend of the tournament is busiest for the concessions -- naturally enough, more tennis is played in the early rounds -- but the second weekend is prime time for the big-money sponsor parties.
Though it seems both daunting and exhausting to an outsider, the Singletary brothers, their families and core staff thrive on the challenge.
Says Gene Singletary: "I have to administrate all year long and wear a tie every day. This gets your adrenaline going a little bit."
There is a lot at stake: Gene's has set the gold standard for society catering locally and wants to uphold its reputation for sophisticated food and smooth, problem-free service. There are potential new customers to woo, too. Says Jim Singletary: "There are people out at Lipton this weekend eyeballing everything. . . . It's safe to say we got the Super Bowl (1991 in Tampa) out of Lipton."
The Singletary family started in the food business two generations back, when Gene and Jim's grandmother started the Estes restaurant in Allapattah. Their father, Gene Sr., began catering in the '70s. Their dad was a "hands-on cook" while their mom was the bookkeeper and accountant. (They have retired and live in Fort Lauderdale.)
Four of their six children (Gene, Jim, sister Janice and baby brother Jeff) are involved in the company today. Jim, who handles the "back of the house" or food side of the business, learned from cooking with his dad. "He knew pastry, meat, butchering. He used to wake me up at 4 a.m. to go and bake."
Gene, who seems equal parts showman, salesman, perfectionist and nice guy, recruits new business and is the "front of the house" man. At Lipton , he is everywhere, into everything. At the Spizza stand, he spends an hour adjusting the conveyor belt-like pizza oven to make sure it turns out crusts that meet his standards.
He grabs a pair of tongs and a bowl to demonstrate the portion size for the Caesar salad. "Just fill it up. Lettuce is cheap. Make a nice healthy, serving."
He looks at the serving cart for the salads and frowns: "I want some tomatoes in here, some color. Cauliflower, eggplant, tomato. Give it a lot of color."
He can be stern. As staffers wrangle on the walkie- talkies about missing keys, he grabs a microphone and says: "Let's get this key business straightened out today, guys. Let's not let it become a problem."
He is obsessed with making things better. To staffer Barbara Burton, who is supervising the players' tent as well as food for the officials, he radios: "Barbara, I want you to take a look at the officials' buffet and make sure we spiffy it up a little. Also, don't serve hot dogs in there anymore. They don't like hot dogs."
A few minutes later, in the players' tent: "It's too quiet in here. Where's the music?"
Few details escape his attention. At the players' pasta station, he looks at the portion languishing in the pan and says to the cook: "Don't serve that if it's been in there too long. Just throw it away and start again."
Time was, Jim Singletary says, that he was alarmed by his big brother's penchant for taking on new challenges (Sure, we can cater a party in the Virgin Islands. No problem.) and branching out beyond the receptions and charity dinners that are a staple of the catering business. Now, Jim says, he relishes "the challenge of doing mega-events with little or no problems that anybody in the front would know about. Just seeing it all pull together. . . . It used to boggle my mind."
Planning for the tournament begins in November, devising the hospitality menus and thinking about concessions and new ideas. As it nears, party menus are set, amended, set again. Orders are placed, amended, delivered.
Two days before the tournament opens, Jim is at the company's headquarters -- a 20,000-square-foot office, huge catering kitchen and warehouse west of the airport. His wife, Neli, has taken a few weeks off from her job as a Southern Bell sales rep to keep track of change orders for parties, and later serve as an "expediter" in the hospitality kitchen at the site. Every time a party menu item or the number of people expected changes, it sets off a chain reaction in the food order and in the preparation needed in the kitchen. It's no simple thing.
The commissary is buzzing. "We're running two shifts right now," says Jim Singletary.
A crew in the bakery, all wearing tall white chef's hats, turns out dozens of cakes, pastries and breads, including "can bread" baked in big rounds.
In the salad production room, gallons of dressings are stirred together and make-ahead dishes like chicken salad assembled. Green salads will be prepared on site. In a steam kettle, 100 gallons of Alfredo sauce bubble. Next to it, a similar amount of beef stock steams.
At the loading dock, goods are being unloaded not by the case but by the pallet. There are three 45-foot refrigerator trucks here to handle the overflow.
In the midst of all this tournament-related chopping and cooking, other business goes on. In the big freezer room, executive chef Jose Rios examines a custom rubber mold for a foot-tall ice sculpture to hold caviar. It's not frozen yet; they'll need 400 of these for a party in a couple of weeks. (Gene's also handles catering and the restaurant at Grove Isle. The company operates Seasons restaurant at The Falls in South Dade, too.)
In Rios' office, which perches above the kitchen like a dispatcher's booth, production charts are color coded by department. As each shift reports to work, Rios assigns the day's tasks. Among them:
* Sear 105 tuna steaks.
* Make two batches (25 and 50 gallons) of tomato basil sauce.
* Prepare 10 gallons of pizza vegetables.
* Shred a case of cheddar cheese. That's 60 pounds.
* Season and sear 35 flank steaks for fajitas.
"It's very regimented because you have a lot to get done," Jim Singletary says.
"Right now," say Rios, who has been with the company for seven years, "we're low key." Once the tournament begins, he adds, "We don't sleep much."
Despite (or maybe because of) the long hours and the pressure, the Singletary team relishes the Lipton. Gene and Isabel's daughter, Amanda, turned 6 the first weekend of the tournament; her birthday celebration will come when it's over. Jim and Neli's three young daughters -- Nicole, Monica and Brittany -- miss their parents, too.
Still, says Jim Singletary: "It's a challenge. Every year it becomes a little easier because we're a little more experienced."
"You know what I like about this?" Gene Singletary asks. "It's a real local thing. It's in our back yard. It's like I'm part of something big. It makes you feel you're really a part of something that's happening in the community."
'LIPTON FEVER': Ramona Visconti, above, serves pasta -- a favorite with the athletes -- in the players' tent. At right, a wall in the tournament office is covered with samples of the plastic and paper goods in which food is served.
MARICE COHN BAND/Miami Herald Staff
THE FAMILY BUSINESS: Brothers Jim, left, and Gene Singletary check the rowboat that serves as a salad bar in the players' restaurant tent.
TROPICAL FARE: Ofelia Garcia opts for pasta salad in the Tropical Grill, a restaurant-bar that serves tropical drinks and grilled and light fare to tournament spectators.
IN TOUCH: Portable phones and two-way radios keep Isabel Singletary in touch with the action.