Michelson food service was a pioneer in the hollywood catering business, and it remains among the biggest players in the industry
Not all of Hollywood is lights, camera, action. Some of it is coffee, eggs and bagels.
That’s the role of Michelson Food Services Inc., which feeds as many as 2,000 actors, producers, directors and extras on any given day in Los Angeles and other parts of the country. During the past 40 years, the family-owned business has served the likes of Richard Burton, Mel Gibson, Ava Gardner and Julia Roberts.
“My dad was good friends with Jimmy Stewart. We did all of his later movies, all of John Huston’s films, did ‘Rawhide,’ and on and on,” said Steve Michelson, the company’s vice president.
In recent years, Michelson caterers have worked the sets of “As Good As It Gets,” with Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt, “L.A. Confidential,” and numerous TV series, including “Frasier” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
But while a steady stream of television shows has been Michelson’s bread and butter, big-budget feature clients came few and far between this year. In addition, the departure of television productions to more affordable places like Canada and Australia has led to declining revenues.
“We’ve seen a tremendous impact on our business. Probably 20 to 25 percent (of filming) has gone out of the country that would have been ours,” Michelson said. “We catered ‘Return of the Jedi’ in Yuma, Arizona. If they did it today, it would probably be filmed in Australia.”
In fact, the first six months of 1999 were the worst the company has seen in at least 15 years. But things are picking up. The firm is catering more than a dozen TV shows and movies.
Among other projects, Michelson is set to cater the upcoming “Charlie’s Angels” feature, which will shoot for 91 days, or about 50 percent longer than a typical feature film. With two units on the movie, it will be like catering two films.
“You can do as much television as you want and you won’t get rich. It just pays the bills,” Michelson said. “The gravy is directly related to how many big features you have.”
That underscores the cyclical nature of the entertainment catering business, as well as being an indicator of just how far the company has come.
Steve’s dad, Ed Michelson, ran the hot dog concession in Corriganville, a Western movie set in Simi Valley where Roy Rogers films and “The Lone Ranger” for television were filmed. In those days, any on-site catering for Hollywood productions was done by the studio commissaries, with the food sent to the location and kept hot as best as possible.
But in 1958, Michelson figured out a way to put an oven and a grill inside a van, and the mobile movie kitchen was born.
“It changed the whole way the business was done,” said Steve Michelson, who took over the operation when his father died in 1975. “It just took off. We went from one truck to four very quickly.”
By the early 1970s, Michelson Food Services had 14 trucks and dominated a business with only two competitors. But then the Teamsters union came along.
Because cooks who worked for the catering firms also drove the trucks to location shoots, the Teamsters declared that they must be unionized just like everyone else who drove a vehicle in Hollywood.
To simplify matters, an arrangement was worked out so that the studios and production companies actually paid the unionized cooks/drivers. As a result, they received union benefits, even though they remained Michelson employees.
These days, Michelson trucks are outfitted with three ovens, several grills, and sometimes a deep fryer, and most of the food is cooked on location. A truck usually has one chef and two helpers (who aren’t unionized) to set up and cook at least two meals breakfast and lunch.
Because casting calls typically start around 7 a.m., trucks must be on location at 6:30 a.m., having started preparations two hours earlier. Lunch is served six hours after the casting call, and by the time the crew gets back to headquarters and cleans out the truck, it’s usually around 5 p.m.
It’s a long shift, but a cook/driver makes $225 a day, none of which comes out of Michelson’s pocket. And if they work overtime, they get time-and-a-half.
One big change over the years has been the food itself.
“For the first 10 years, people were just happy to get a hot meal,” Michelson said. “We did one kind of fish, fried in flour; liver and onions, knockwurst, Swiss steak but stuff that just wouldn’t fly today.”
As the Hollywood crowd became more health conscious in the mid-1970s, people started to demand salads, chicken and vegetables. Michelson admits his company was slow to recognize that tastes were changing.
“We had been so successful for so long, it took time for us to change,” he said. “In the early ’80s, I realized that if we didn’t make some changes in our food, we weren’t going to be around.”
Michelson charges studios and production companies anywhere between $12 and $18 per person for two meals during a typical day. But during the making of the Civil War movie “Glory” several years ago, the firm served every meal to a cast of 1,200 for five weeks on location on an island off the coast of Georgia.
“We made a lot of money on that,” Michelson said.
Michelson Food Service Inc.
Year Founded: 1958
Core Business: Catering Hollywood productions
Employees in 1959: 2
Employees in 1998: 70
Revenue in 1996: $5.8 million
Revenue in 1998: $5.4 million
Revenue in 1999 (projected): Just under $5 million
Goal: To remain the biggest television and film caterer in the business
Driving Force: L.A.’s continued prominence as the center for the entertainment industry