VALDOSTA -- With a new kitchen set to open Oct. 1, the Valdosta-Lowndes County Conference Center and Tourism Authority awarded the center's catering contract to Covington's Dining and Catering on Tuesday.

The Authority voted unanimously to approve the recommendations of its Kitchen Committee and make Covington's -- a popular local restaurant and catering service -- the center's default food and beverage provider.

As part of the three-year contract, Covington's will have exclusive use of the center's new kitchen and will provide the Authority with a 20 percent share of concessions, 25 percent of banquet revenues and 30 percent of alcohol sales.

Authority Chairman Carl Holley said a full-service kitchen and caterer should be a revenue boon for the conference center, while also boosting service to customers.

"It makes our delivery of food service that much more efficient," he said. "It makes the quality better, and it makes our product that much better. We do get a larger percentage since we are operating the kitchen out there. From the standpoint of economics, we should make more money per event. Overall, it should be a win-win situation for the Authority."

Covington's has been the center's temporary caterer, but due to delays in kitchen construction, was required to prepare food off-site and transport it to the center for events.

"When you talk about feeding large groups of people, it just makes more sense to do it on site. It makes the quality of the food better, and it is a better organizational arrangement," said Holley.

A group booking space at the conference center can still choose to have another caterer provide food, but it must be delivered. Covington's -- which has the only pouring license for the center -- is the only vendor that can provide alcoholic beverages. Holley said the contract requires Covington's to provide beverage services even if it is not providing food.

Any outside caterer will be provided necessary set-up and staging space.

The Authority issued a request for proposal seeking an in-house caterer in August, and received five calls from caterers requesting a copy of the RFP, though Covington's was the only one to submit a bid.

After bidding on the project, Covington's requested a series of amendments to the original RFP, including lowered general liability insurance, a lowered performance bond and reduced minimum percentages. The caterer also requested that percentage charges not be assessed when catering fund-raisers, at their cost, for non-profit groups.

The Authority agreed to lower the liability insurance requirement to $1 million from $2 million, as requested, and set a new performance bond requirement of $100,000 -- down from $250,000. Covington's had requested a $50,000 bond.

The minimum percentages remained unchanged, and all events are subject to those numbers.

The changes to the original RFP were forwarded to other interested caterers to allow them a chance to bid under the new requirements. Covington's remained the sole interested party.

While the Authority could have held Covington's to the original numbers, Holley said the compromise was an effort to foster a good relationship.

"The fact is that what we're entering into is a partnership," he said. "We want to be a good partner, and we want them to be a good partner. They felt some of the items were more than what was necessary, and upon review, we came to the same conclusion. It's not in our best interest or their best interest to get nitpicky over contract terms because we're going to be in this together over the next three years."

The kitchen was designed to be a part of the conference center from opening day, although cost overruns caused the $400,000 project to be delayed. A state grant enabled the Authority to bring the project back sooner than expected. Holley estimated that through catering revenues, the kitchen will pay for itself over a seven-year period.

"It makes us a complete facility as opposed to just a meeting hall," he said.

To contact reporter Bill Rober

ts, please call 244-3400, ext. 245.

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