How 5 Caterers Got Happily 'Into the Weeds'

NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- Being "in the weeds" is restaurant lingo meaning "I'm overwhelmed and unable to catch up." Most of the time being even temporarily in the weeds is a good thing, because at the end of the night the busy server will likely make bank in tips.

Catering is the fastest-growing segment of the food industry, according to the International Caterers Association.

Being in the hospitality and food industries means caterers endure long hours, demanding clients and aggressive competition from others trying to be bigger and better to snatch clients. But it is also a chance for someone to use their passion about food and decor to make a living, while being in control of the experience they give to customers.

The ICA, an association made up of on- and off-premise caterers, estimates there are 80,000 caterers just in North America and expects "substantial" growth, according to its Web site.

After speaking with a handful of caterers, common themes for success emerge: being detail-oriented, being able to listen to clients' needs and desires (even if they aren't speaking them aloud) and a general passion for food and hospitality.

Here are five caterers who like being in the weeds:

1. Choice Cooking
Chef Ryan Brown
Brooklyn, N.Y.
After burning out on long restaurant hours, Chef Ryan Brown of Choice Cooking decided in 1999 to try his hand at being a personal chef. While Brown loved to cook (he studied at The French Culinary Institute and worked at highbrow restaurants including Jean Georges and Picholine), he didn't like being stuck in the back in a kitchen all the time, he says.

His opportunity came when a friend who already had a catering business in the New York City area said she was moving and asked Brown to take over her clients.

"It started from that," Brown says of the small dinner parties he would cater.

Choice Cooking now has two fully functioning divisions -- a personal chef business, from which clients in the New York and New Jersey areas can get locally sourced, organic meals delivered to their doorstep, and a full-service event-catering business. The two complement each other, especially during the recession, he says.

"Catering can be really seasonal," Brown says, while the personal chef business "tends to be opposite. When it's slow with catering, customers are at home" wanting a good hot meal that, of course, someone else cooks.

"The catering business at the end of 2008 and all of 2009 took a big hit, which started to come back in 2010 and really come back a lot in 2011," Brown says. "People are much more relaxed and want to spend money and have an event, but during that tough time my personal chef business more than doubled. New Yorkers, even in tough times -- they don't cook."

Brown has catered for Al Gore, Lacoste and Macy's ( M), among others. He has also served as a consultant for Weight Watchers ( WW) and Extreme Workout, a competition for super-athletes in Europe.

Especially this year, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are the busiest time of the year for Choice Cooking. Brown brings in more hires to staff events.

"Catering is about the client. It's not like you have a restaurant, you make a menu and people come and eat the food. You really have to be able to hear what the people need," he says. "And they don't always tell you."

"What I love about being a caterer is it's always different," Brown says.

But those are also drawbacks, he says. Each event and client is different, and "You never know what you're getting into" -- which is why an ability to welcome the unknown and think on your feet is what separates good caterers from the bad ones.

"There's all sorts of weird little things you have to be prepared for and work in less-than-ideal environments," he says. "You could be the world's best chef, but you have to know how to deal with a client who invited 100 more people than you thought."

2. As You Like It Catering
Chefs Betty Fraser and Denise DeCarlo
Los Angeles
Fifteen years ago chefs Betty Fraser and Denise DeCarlo were waitresses at California Pizza Kitchen when they decided to challenge themselves by opening their own catering business. The team garnered clientele ranging from dinner parties to events of up to 100 people and grew quickly.

They leased a 1920s bungalow that had been converted into a restaurant for use as their commissary kitchen. But when neighbors asked when the restaurant would open, the duo decided to expand into their own restaurant, Grub, known for its "California comfort food."

The chefs' appearances on The Food Network, Top Chef, Rachel Ray's Tasty Travels and local programs helped As You Like It Catering thrive.

Given their location, the catering arm tends to focus on entertainment industry premieres and after-parties with guests ranging from 50 to 500.

"What I find most appealing about catering is the constant change," Fraser says. "With a restaurant it's more about creating an atmosphere, perfecting a menu and then striving for consistency. But each catering event is an entirely unique experience with new people, new locales and usually new menu choices."

One attribute of a good caterer is staying on top and in front of the latest trends and, more importantly, how they might affect the budget for a particular event, she says.

"Sometimes clients don't have a full understanding of the logistical and budgetary elements that come in to play. My job is to present them with something that meets their goal while still being attainable and realistic. This is where learning tricks of the trade through trial and error comes in very handy," she says.

Another key attribute of successful caterers: attention to detail.

"This is the time of year when most catering companies are booking holiday-themed events, so it can be a little easier to get a handle on the decorations and menu options," Fraser says. "But even with that, the goal should be to create a unique experience with each event. There are some companies that offer cookie-cutter options, but that's not how we've established ourselves. Our thinking is that guests can tell the difference between an event that is just phoned in and one that takes the time to be creative."

"Catering is a very competitive business, and we've tried to set ourselves apart not just by taking care of our client's event needs, but by taking an interest in them personally," she says.

3. Tracey Holmes Catering
Tracey Holmes
Virginia Beach, Va.
Tracey Holmes wanted to give catering a shot after she closed the restaurant she co-owned with her husband. And so she set to work establishing Tracey Holmes Catering in January 2010.

The ramp-up has been a bit of an uphill battle. While Holmes is passionate about cooking good food and creating beautiful experiences for her clients, she's still had to start from scratch to build her clientele.

"Being used to the restaurant business, which is 24/7, when someone calls me I'm not going to say 'No I can't do it.' You have to be very aggressive," Holmes says.

In some ways catering is an easier business. "You know exactly what you need when you're catering," Holmes says. "You're buying a specific amount of food. In the restaurant you have waste and overflow because certain items don't sell."

Holmes caters mostly private parties held at homes and charity events.

"A lot of my clients are very charitable and they want neat foods, so I have fun. I get to cook really nice things ... so I love that, as a foodie does," Holmes says.

The good news is she's now at the point where the business is experiencing growing pains.

"I have a kitchen and commissary, and that's where everything is. My rent is cheaper, but now I might be running out of room," she says. "Probably every job I have I go buy something just for that job."

And as she grows, she is also at the point where more hands are needed -- another good thing. Being able to rely on regular part-time staff is important, she says.

"Every single job is completely different. I'm providing a service and clients better be happy or they're not going to call me back, so you have to pay attention to the details," Holmes says. "But that's what they pay me for."

4. Full Circle Catering
Jenny Elmes
Lexington, Va.
This holiday season is a particularly special time for Jenny Elmes, owner of Full Circle Catering. Not only is it the busiest time of the year for her business, but it will also means a 10th anniversary celebration.

The accomplishment is big for Elmes. She started her business as a single mom with a young son, wanting to be home with him as much as possible but knowing she needed to support herself. What started out as Elmes taking jobs periodically has turned into a full-fledged catering business.

"It's not for the weak of heart or body," Elmes acknowledges. "It's really hard work. It definitely takes a special person that can do this type of work and make a living out of it."

Full Circle Catering is run out of Elmes' home and her health department-approved kitchen.

Elmes' other passion is the environment. From the beginning, she says, she wanted to source her food as locally as possible and use environmentally friendly procedures to stem the amount of waste she produced. In addition to the hours spent cooking, Elmes labors to create compost for a neighbor running an organic farm. (Elmes buys her eggs from him.)

"I live here and these are the people that are supporting me," Elmes says. "I need to and want to in turn support them. There's a farmers market where I get 80% of my produce and cheese and butter."

The holiday season is where Elmes especially gets to give back to her community.

"For my business the holiday season is really wonderful because it's much more personal. I get to work for many of my clients as opposed to a big wedding where I might not know the people personally," she says. "People can forget for a little while what's going on with our economy and eat some good food and be a little more upbeat."

5. Dennis Dean Catering
Dennis Dean and Chef Sally Rueda
Atlanta
Dennis Dean Catering is also celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. The company opened its doors under Dennis Dean and his business partner, Chef Sally Rueda, just weeks before 9/11, with no support staff and a small list of clients Dean had cultivated at another local catering company.

At first they worked out a small kitchen rented from a local restaurant. But the duo developed a reputation for food and presentation quickly and in 2006 bought a 10,000-square-foot facility to accommodate a sales and administrative team, warehouse for rental equipment and event decor and tasting rooms for visiting clients.

Ten years later the company's client list includes some of the top corporate, social and nonprofit entities in the Atlanta area.

Like many small-business people, Dean of course felt the pinch of the recession. He looked to diversify as the solution, forming Dennis Dean Dining Concepts to offer more casual food. But Dean says he has little desire to be the biggest caterer. He just wants to be known as the best -- a philosophy he feels allows his company to thrive while competitors are scaling back.

For caterers just starting out, "don't try to do too much too soon," Dean recommends. "Do smaller events and do them well before undertaking large-scale events. And listen to your clients. Visit their homes. Get a feel for their particular style and tastes."

Dean also recommends that new caterers be resourceful.

"I often work with a client's china and linens and decor. Mixing and matching glasses, utensil, napkins and serving dishes in a fun, eclectic and cohesive way is much more inviting and less expensive than a lot of rentals" and creates a much more intimate and welcoming atmosphere for guests, he says.

As the holiday season gets into full swing, clients want to throw holiday parties but are more concerned than ever about budgets. "I recommend that people limit their guest number and provide more substantial food versus a higher guest count with limited fare," he says.

--Written by Laurie Kulikowski in New York.

To follow Laurie Kulikowski on Twitter, go to: http://twitter.com/#!/LKulikowski

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