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Bill seeks to help Norwich firm cut out of catering Rocky Neck events

April 8, 2019

In October 2012, a Rocky Neck State Park employee emailed Rodney Green to let him know that his company, Olde Tymes Catering of Norwich, had catered more events at the park’s Ellie Mitchell Pavilion than any other that year. In May 2013, she wrote that he is “one of the best presences we have at The Pavilion functions.”

At that point, the only state park facility requiring state approval of caterers was Eolia Mansion at Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford. But in December 2013, the Department of Administrative Services issued a request for proposals (RFP), seeking to develop a list of six caterers for the Pavilion. The Day obtained documents from the RFP process through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The state ended up approving only four caterers. Olde Tymes was shocked to not be one of them, and Green said the decision cost him $100,000 a year in revenue.

The irony for Green was that while the Pavilion was the top venue for Olde Tymes, the RFP said written references as part of the application “should not be from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Harkness or Rocky Neck,” as such employees would be the ones reviewing the responses. Then, on the award summary for the RFP, the first factor listed for the refusal of Olde Tymes was, “No similar events.”

Finding this situation “arbitrary” and “ridiculous,” Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, introduced a bill authorizing “individuals who rent state-owned venues in state parks and other locations to utilize caterers of their own choosing.”

At least, that’s what Senate Bill 590 said when Osten introduced it, and the original draft from the Environment Committee mirrored this intent. But the latest iteration says that if people want to use a non-approved caterer, they must submit information to DEEP for review and approval at least 12 months ahead of the event.

This was voted unanimously out of committee, but Osten said it “won’t be the ultimate bill.” When the bill had a public hearing on March 1, Osten was the only one to testify in support while four people expressed opposition.

DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes noted that while most state park facilities allow a renter to select any caterer, Eolia Mansion and the Pavilion are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

She believes the pre-approved list is important “both to protect the buildings themselves as well as to ensure a more seamless experience for our renters and their guests.” Dykes added that these buildings require specialized knowledge and planning, because caterers don’t have any kitchen or preparation space there, need specific insurance policies, and have narrow windows for set-up and break-down.

She said the process to establish a new list of approved caterers for Rocky Neck and Harkness will start later this year — meaning Olde Tymes could apply again.

Offering similar reasons for opposition were the Friends of Connecticut State Parks president, Connecticut Forest & Park Association executive director, and a park volunteer.

Olde Tymes disputes fairness of their RFP review

Olde Tymes Restaurant has been open in Norwich since 1984, Green began offering full-service catering in 1992, and Olde Tymes catered at Rocky Neck from 2000 to 2014. Catering manager Debbie White-Palmer has been at Olde Tymes for 14 years.

The reviews for Olde Tymes on the website Wedding Wire are glowing, with one person saying, “Having worked with Rocky Neck before, Debbie knows how important the rules are to follow and how to set the place up in record timing. Her staff was amazing too!”

Another person who got married at Rocky Neck wrote, “We had to go with Olde Tymes since they were the only caterer that services the park that we could afford. BUT, knowing what I know now, I would have contracted them even if I had the money to go elsewhere!”

In responding to the RFP, Green provided references from Eastern Savings Bank, Norwich Free Academy, Covanta Seconn and Friends of Connecticut State Parks. One reference mentioned Rocky Neck, a July 2011 calendar of catering events included four events at Rocky Neck, and a picture showed a lobster bake there.

Green did not provide references from any venue staff, whereas the winning applicants included references from such as the University of Connecticut at Avery Point, Florence Griswold Museum and Saltwater Farm Vineyard. The four companies approved were Ivy’s Simply Homemade, Coastal Gourmet, Gourmet Galley and Cloud Nine Catering.

Green’s submission included menus and prices for two breakfast options, two lunch buffet packages, a wedding reception buffet and plated dinners, but the award summary said, “provided no sample menus.” Other critiques were not listing staffing information aside from White-Palmer and “lack of creativity.”

In a March 2015 letter to Osten and Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville, DEEP Deputy Commissioner Susan Whalen explained that the category for one score was low because of “a lack of creativity in menu options, no ‘Sample menus’ were included and minimal photos.”

She added that giving Old Tymes the opportunity to “submit a more comprehensive and hopefully more compelling proposal” must be weighed against added staff time and “the damage that precedent would do to future competitive bidding processes.”

Olde Tymes did not have much prior experience responding to an RFP.

“I am not disputing whether the approved caterers’ proposals looked better,” Green said in a May 2015 letter to Whalen. “They all had a lot of ‘fluff’ that is basically irrelevant, but they looked good. The big difference was not in the amount of real information, but in the way it was presented.”

Olde Tymes was permitted to cater events for which it had already signed contracts.

DEEP spokesman Lee Sawyer said he couldn’t “go into the specifics of why a particular restaurant was not selected.” He said there weren’t any issues or incidents at Rocky Neck that led to the RFP, but it was determined a list would benefit events for the public.

e.moser@theday.com