Newsletter Steven Ferry

The Modern Butlers’ Journal, October 2019, The Butlers Speak

Steven FerryThe Butlers Speak

by Steven Ferry

This month’s subject covers informal entertainment for employers and it seems that all butlers responding have had this as one of their main duties.

For one butler, it comprised 25% of their overall duties: “When I first started working at my current position, the family had young children so there were many immediate family parties and get-togethers. Over the years, I’ve also organized many political gatherings as well as charitable events.”

For another, only “5 – 10%, depending on the time of year and when special events occurred, such as birthdays or anniversaries.”

For another, it is “50% during the summer months, 15% the rest of the year.” This butler also had to cook for one employer and would often find that employer inviting last-minute guests for impromptu social gatherings. Solution? Always order and cook extra food.

What exactly do butlers do to pull off these informal social occasions?

“I was the first House Manager whom my principals employed, so we learned together! I had event planning experience in my previous job which helped, as I needed to find caterers, contacts for musicians (we’ve had a Mariachi band, jazz, classical, etc.), valet parking companies, a stationary shop for invitations, build relationships with wine shops and sommeliers, etc. I researched and purchased tables and chairs with color coordinating seat cushions and table cloths for inside/outside events, racks to hold all of the tables and chairs in storage; I had a commercial dishwasher installed, purchased various glassware (wine glasses for white and red wine, all-purpose wine glasses, port, champagne and rock glassware) along with the commercial dishwasher racks, and purchased outdoor lighting (oil lanterns) for evening events.

“I am in charge of these events, meeting with the principal to discuss date and time of the event, work up the invitations, contacting the caterer for food choices and confirming with the Principal. I then receive all RSVPs and work on all of the details, including an event listing that outlines every detail—personnel, the time caterers arrive, flower delivery, valet information, room set up (including table sizes, chairs, linens, glass and silver placement).  We always have a bar and so I detail how it will be stocked – liquors, wine, glassware, bar fruit, ice, etc.

“I work every party to ensure consistency and have a core group of workers (mostly family members) who work these parties; they know where everything is located, which saves me time during the event—if there should be a problem, they are able to take care of it quickly.”

“We have planned religious events, anniversary parties, birthdays, cook-outs and pool parties,” said another butler.

A third butler seems to have run into the opposite scenario: “Though I personally prefer a week’s notice or more, I have organized so many impromptu informal soirées for my clients over the years that I used to find exasperating, but soon began to have fun with.

“For overnight guests, we provide a breakfast buffet of fresh fruit, homemade peach (or an in-season fruit), coffee cake, yogurt, fresh bread, jams, bagels, cream cheese and salmon. As my employer loves bacon, I provide that and occasionally individual eggs or a frittata.

“If it is lunch, and our vegetables and fruits are ready at the farm, I plan my menu around that, usually having the gardener pick items that morning. I do a quick marinade with chicken and grill that. We have fresh flowers twice a week that adorn the table.”

Asked for any challenges they have faced in performing these duties, they responded:

“We were having an event in the home when it was cold outside, so everyone was inside the house. All of the lights were on—three floors and a basement—when a couple of the rooms went dark, one being the bar area around which everyone was grouped getting drinks, so they just cheered!  I went to the basement and found the circuits that had switched of.  When I touched them, they were extremely hot, so I couldn’t turn them back on. I immediately called our electrician (he was over an hour away and this was 8 pm on a Saturday).  We lit candles and when he arrived, he was able to restore some of lights. He stayed for some food and drink and the following week, made the necessary changes.

One December, during a large social event with 250 people in attendance, once again, everyone was inside. The house was large, but not that large. So, we greeted the guests, took their coats and gave them a coat check. I had purchased several coat racks, so we set them up in the parlor off the entrance foyer. We had 2 bars set up at either end of the house to help with the flow (everyone always gathers there!). We had small dining tables set with linens and flowers and chairs and also set up chairs around the dining room and others. We had a buffet set up in the kitchen as well as on the billiard table. We were busy the entire night, but the event was a success and many of the guests talked about it with my principal for years!”

Notes another butler, “Every event that made the guests and the principal happy was a successful event in my book! Some religious celebrations can be more involved and have different traditions/expectations that can vary with the region of the country, or the part of the world the person or guests come from.

“My current position is a job that often changes mid-stream: We have plans for dinner, then the principals decide to go to a restaurant instead. I usually give the food to the farm hands and any raw meat goes to the farm manager and equestrians.

“Another family I worked for did not give any of the excess food away, so we had to throw it out because they didn’t want to be sued for food poisoning. I hold a Food Handlers Certification with Allergen Certification, so, I certainly know when food is good or bad; but as an employee, I had to follow the protocol and throw out food in two days—their house, their rules.”

When it comes to general approaches for ensuring a smooth occasion that brings a smile to employer and guest faces alike, the butlers offered the following:

“Planning, planning, and more planning. As soon as I know we are having an event, I’m working on it. I’m very detailed and I plan it all out right away. I reserve everything I can at that time and then finish up as the event draws closer. A couple of things bring a smile to my principal’s face: A well-planned event, not knowing that there is a problem during the event and having the home cleaned and put back together before we leave like there never was  an event! The guests like the personal touch we give them when they arrive and how we interact with them during the event.”

Another butler is of the same mindset: “Start early!! Have meticulous notes and details from previous events along with pictures. I even record the type of napkin folds, color of linens, flowers, what my principals wore, gifts that any guests brought.”

A third butler adds, “I always keep on hand a variety of cheeses, crackers, grapes and olives, so putting together a cheese board an hour before dinner is a breeze. Luckily, after making the first drinks and setting out the cheese board, my client likes to be left alone for an hour. So, the ice bucket, bar necessities, wine decanter and white wine chiller are all in the room where they gather. Anyone who is invited is always so complimentary and thanks me for doing such a great job for my client.”

“We were having a Mexican-themed event that was supposed to be outside. That night, we had terrible storms so everyone had to be indoors (this happens a lot to me). We had four musicians playing Mariachi music very loudly on guitars and horns, plus singing that evening in the large entry foyer. Staff had to scream at each other and the guests as they arrived. Luckily, there was a landing at the top of the staircase where we could move them so the guests could still enjoy the music as they arrived, and yet we could talk normally to each other.”

One butler had this unfortunate truth to share: “If the event were a success, the staff did a wonderful job! If the event were less-than-expected or even disappointing, then I had failed to plan, prepare, and execute!”

“Don’t rush or something will go wrong,” advises yet another butler: “I never lost a job because of the crudités, but if something does go wrong and you are reprimanded, apologizing is the best advice I could give. There is a plethora of things that can happen, like dropping the hors d’oeuvres on a $45,000 couch, a nightmare I once witnessed: but accidents do happen and in that case, the person didn’t lose their job.”

The Institute is dedicated to raising service standards by broadly disseminating the mindset and superior service expertise of that time-honored, quintessential service provider, the British Butler, updated with modern people skills, and adapted to the needs of modern employers and guests in staffed homes, luxury hotels, resorts, spas, retirement communities, jets, yachts & cruise ships around the world.