At 1:30 p.m., the basement of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Cleveland Heights goes from largely empty to positively teeming, thanks to the 120 or so people who have descended the narrow stairwell in search of lunch. Waiting for them in the modest banquet space is a buffet of epic proportions. A 12-foot salad bar features two varieties of fresh greens, two dozen fresh toppings, a half dozen dressings, plus bottles of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Nearby, a procession of steamy chafing pans offers an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of roasted broccolini, cheese tortellini, adobo-rubbed chicken, grilled lamb chops, orange roughy with beurre blanc sauce, rice pilaf and baked potatoes. A beverage and dessert station is equally stocked. And then, precisely 30 minutes later, those same people — producers, actors, camera operators, grips, gaffers, hair and makeup artists, extras and stand-ins — all file out and head back to the set of The Last Summer, a coming-of-age film that recently wrapped principal photography in Cleveland.
If an army marches on its stomach, so too does a film shoot — and when it comes to feeding the cast and crew, not just any catering company will do. That's when you call in the very specialized services of a production caterer like Steel Reel, a food-service provider for film, television and commercials.
Jeff Francek left the world of fine dining eight years ago to chase and feed film crews. Last year, he and his wife and business partner Melissa Miller worked a 10-month stretch that began in Cleveland on the set of White Boy Rick, shifted to Detroit for the taping of Detroiters, then off to Buffalo to work on the latest Purge installment, before returning to Cleveland for a few LeBron James commercials.
"This is a whole different animal from restaurant work," Francek says. "When you go back to fine dining cooking it's kind of boring and mundane. Nothing ever repeats itself here."
From the outside, the Steel Reel rig looks like a typical food truck, but it's more of a mobile commercial kitchen. The beefy truck is equipped with a griddle, grill, six-burner stove, double oven and plenty of coolers. A separate support vehicle carries additional equipment like chafing dishes, tables, tents, and food warmers. In terms of power, multiple propane tanks and generators enable the team to set up ops anywhere — and that truly can mean anywhere.
"We've had to work a mile into the woods, on an aircraft carrier, on a ski lift, all kinds of places," he says.
Francek and Miller already are many hours into their day to prepare for "lunch," which is the main meal on a movie set regardless what time it falls. During this six-week shoot alone, Steel Reel will serve meals at 19 locations around town. And when your diners include burly Teamsters, A-list celebs and every personality in between, you truly have your work cut out for you.
"Every show you start is a completely new set of people," explains Miller. "You never know what you're walking into, so you really have to learn to read the people."
Not only does the caterer need to offer a wide range of foods that can simultaneously satisfy vegans, vegetarians, carnivores and the gluten-free, they also endeavor to not repeat items throughout the length of the shoot so the food doesn't get monotonous.
"These people work 16-, 18-hour days, many are away from their family, and they get half an hour a day to sort of breathe, and that's lunch," Miller says. "If the food's bad, that ruins that half hour."
Miller says that she's not the type to get star struck, despite feeding the likes of Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson and Julia Roberts. And she's fielded her share of oddball requests, like when John Travolta wanted a lobster tail at 11:30 p.m. or when a high-maintenance actress wanted the "fat" excised from her turkey bacon (it's food coloring). But the highlights far outweigh the silliness, she notes.
"We did Mother's Day with Garry Marshall, which was the last film he did before he died," Miller fondly recalls. "It was such a privilege to be a part of that because he is such a legend in the industry."
The caterer is selected by the film's production team, which in this case is led by executive producer Mark Johnson. He's a fan of Steel Reel because of "the quality of the food, the variety of choice in terms of offerings, their efficiency and cleanliness," he explains.
Outside, in a parking lot filled with trucks that house the offices, the principal actors' quarters, a wardrobe trailer and restrooms, location assistant Richard Fishburn already is looking forward to the next meal.
"Steel Reel makes an atmosphere where it's kind of homey, so you can leave behind the stresses of work and just go enjoy the food, which is really cool," he reports. "It sets the demeanor for the day. If people are hungry or not well-fed, they get cranky."