Walking around Pantagi's Renaissance in downtown Scotch Plains, it's hard not to be struck by the impressive decor. Grand staircases and stained-glass chandeliers are the highlights of several rooms in the banquet hall. Floral arrangements and marble flooring can also be found throughout.
It's that ambience that has attracted locals to book weddings, birthday parties and other special events there for years. But with the economy the way it is right now, fewer people are able to afford such luxury.
Banquet Manager Al De Rienzo says that this year has been particularly rough for the party business. Bookings are down 50 percent from last year, and continue to go down, he said, as people cancel their reservations.
"With the economy the way it is and everything, a lot of people who are getting married, their spouse might have lost their job or something, and they're canceling or rebooking for next year," De Rienzo said.
Last July, Pantagis hosted 48 parties in its facilities. This year, they've only got 20 booked. About 20 percent of those who are canceling are rebooking for next year, De Rienzo said. For those who are less sure, he said he tries to offer them special deals to stay.
"People come in and we try to work with them to get the party," he said. "We're more reasonable than a lot of halls."
At Alfredo's Italian American Deli and Caterers in Scotch Plains, the issue isn't so much that people are canceling orders. They're just not booking them at all.
"It's definitely down, maybe 50 percent this year," said manager Ragaei Azzer. "Last year was a little bad, but this year is more."
Azzer said that because bookings for catering and the deli's banquet room are both down, he has been trying to offer potential customers different incentives for their business.
"I put tables outside, I try to give them new sandwiches to try," he said. "I don't make much profit, but I want to keep the customer."
Florence Ravioli Co. in Scotch Plains, which has suffered a nearly 40 percent loss in sales this year, is taking its business directly to the people. Manager Ralph Losanno said the catering company is setting up tables at local events, like the downtown summer concerts and farmer's market, to try and get its food out there and introduced to new people.
"We have ourselves out in many directions," Losanno said.
For the first time, Pantagis has started hosting special barbecues on its patio to attract new patrons. On Memorial Day, the restaurant had 370 people show up for the event, which had a $20 admission and included food, a DJ and other entertainment. Nearly 320 attended the Fourth of July one, and De Rienzo said he hopes even more attend the barbecue planned for Labor Day.
All caterers spoken to said they're hopeful things will turn around in the fall and winter, when business typically picks up because of holiday parties.
"I don't think it'll be as substantial as in the past, but things are starting to see a little crack of light now," Losanno said. "People have kind of gotten acclimated to the problem of the market crashing last year, and they're working around it."
But one bit of advice to them all: if you're looking for new business, seek out the Sweet 16 crowd. De Rienzo said Pantagis regularly hosts Sweet 15 and Sweet 16 parties, and that despite the downturn in the economy, nothing has slowed them down.
"Oh, they're still having them," he said. "Once one kid has one, then the others want one. It's rare that they cancel."