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As economy improves, caterers see a growing appetite for holiday parties

Some 89% of human resources professionals said their companies plan to throw holiday or year-end parties

Inside the kitchen of catering firm Heirloom L.A., chefs buzz with adrenaline. Cooks jump from one task to another, some peeling onions while others braise short ribs or tackle risotto. All hands — and spatulas — are on deck for the holiday season.

The holiday party business has nearly doubled for the company, which made its name dispensing lasagna cupcakes and now operates a small salon on the border of Glassell Park and Eagle Rock in northeast Los Angeles.

Heirloom, which specializes in organic and sustainably raised ingredients, is catering as many as six events a day this holiday season, said Tara Maxey, the company's co-founder and a former pastry chef. That's in addition to as many as 30 daily food drop-offs for festivities in businesses and private homes.

The improving economy appears to have everyone in a party mood.

Consumers are more confident about the economy and plan to spend 22% more on entertaining at home this holiday season for an average of $194, according to a survey of holiday shopping plans by consulting firm Deloitte.

Employers also are more willing to bring out the appetizer trays and don their party hats than in previous years, according to a December survey by Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a global outplacement firm.

Eighty-nine percent of human resources professionals said their companies plan to throw holiday or year-end parties this year, an increase from 82% in 2012 and 68% in 2011.

In addition, almost 1 in 5 companies will spend more on this year's festivities. One-third of those businesses are increasing spending limits 5% to 10%, the poll shows.

"This is the fifth year of the recovery, but for some employers and many of their workers this is the first year it actually feels like one," Chief Executive John A. Challenger said. "We saw solid hiring gains throughout the year; wages increased, albeit slightly; corporate profits are strong; and consumer confidence is at pre-recession levels."

About 60% of companies are relying on a caterer, event planner or other outside service to plan and execute their year-end functions, Challenger said.

During one busy week this month, Heirloom catered about 15 events and delivered 95 drop-off orders, Maxey said. Nearly half the deliveries were for private parties. Those events, she said, seem much bigger than in prior years.

"I feel like that's a good sign of a healthy economy, because that's people who are middle class or upper-middle class who are feeling confident enough to have a party with a big number of people and not cook for themselves," Maxey said.

Heirloom L.A. employs nearly 45 people, up from about 30 in January. The company hired five extra workers for the holiday rush, Maxey said. After this year's experience, she said she is thinking of bringing on more seasonal employees next year, but she is "staying humble."

"Holidays they get last-minute, even just a few days before," Maxey said. "This year we thought we were prepared, but we have an incredible team who have been putting insane hours and holding up somehow."

Emma Tate, who runs Culinary Delight Catering in the Windsor Hills area near Ladera Heights, couldn't help but notice the uptick this year — her business increased about 25% this holiday season.

"It's a blessing, but we were wondering why," Tate said. "It started with Thanksgiving. A lot of law firms asked for Christmas dinners for tree-trimming parties and lot of social parties at people's homes. It's totally different than last year."

Many of the holiday events she caters are filled with traditional Christmas dinner trappings — roast turkey, baked ham, mashed potatoes and more.

Tate and her team will be cooking for as many as 350 people per party this month, in addition to filling at least 25 Christmas pick-up orders for customers who won't be cooking for themselves. It's busy, she says, but she finds beauty in the chaos.

"There is a lot of waste in catering for parts you can't use, because you can only give clients the best," she said. "The ham that gets carved and you can't use it all? You can take it to missions. You can bless other people and help them make dinners and have a meal."

During the recession, Doug Biggs spent much of his time catering to corporate clients who were downsizing and holding small parties. Now, as the economy improves, his clients include companies in various industries from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara that are throwing more parties — and throwing more money at them.

He even catered one holiday party for an auto manufacturing company with 1,600 employees. Biggs, who has been in the business for more than 23 years, said he would like to see company picnics make a comeback next.

"I'm looking forward to a wonderful 2015 with companies starting their growth and getting back on track and doing additional events throughout the new year," he said. "I'm optimistic."

sarah.parvini@latimes.com

Twitter: @ParviniParlance

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