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I had a long run as a caterer

post #1 of 27
Thread Starter 

The first party I remember catering was in 1965 ,I believe, Fermi Labs ground breaking party.


In 1976 I became a partner and took the business in a safer direction---Corporate as the primary customer---(safer? Not sure that part worked out)


I became sole owner soon enough and ran the business for the next 20 years.finally sell it to a long time competitor---


I'd like to share some of my successes and methods with you if anyone is interested---


While most of the day to day work was routine we did have some 'feather in the cap' jobs--Our largest single event was a company picnic for 7200 people--all cooked on location--tents,bands,the whole shebang---


We served a lot of famous people and set up in most of Chicagos museums---The Od Town School of Fok music was a favorite----


We had 4 kitchens over the years. The last one was 3800 sq.foot including the office.


That facility worked well--could have been bigger, but you have to make do with what you have.


If you would like to hear a story or two et me know----Mike------

post #2 of 27
Thread Starter 

Corporate catering is a lot different than the usual retail trade.


I figured it was about the same effort to land a corporate customer as it was to sell a wedding,for instance,  One customer is likely to become a loyal repeat and the other will not call until they need a christening party---


Corporate types are used to arranging meetings and company functions,while retail folks have little idea what is involved with party planning----


The one draw back?  Most corporate functions are on account--so you need to be able to bankroll a months sales.


Many have rather high insurance requirements--so this will eliminate much of your competition if you have proper insurance.


Also---you will need to be good for your word---disappointing a corporate customer can lead to serious consequences-----


If you go after the corporate trade, the business will grow quickly----word gets out fast if you do it right.---Mike-----

post #3 of 27
Thread Starter 

I thought I'd pop in again and add a line or two----


Our business evolved over the years---In the early days we did mainly home parties---we had a German deli and retail was a natural---


The catering fell onto my back in the early 1970s---My father had opened a restaurant--along with the Deli and a gift shop---He knew nothing about running a restaurant---and it was going down the tubes--


At that time I was happily living in California and living a dream.

I was working as a carpenter and carving signs for a couple of local shops----


Then the tear jerker letters started----you need to come back and help--we are going broke.

post #4 of 27
Thread Starter 

I packed my clothes and headed home--I left all my tools in California ,"I'll be back in a few months"I told everyone---


Well,that part never did work out---I'm still in Illinois---Plans are what we make--life is what we get--


The restaurant was a loss---my best idea to save the business was to close it and kill the payroll--


That never happened either----

post #5 of 27
Thread Starter 

Ah, yes---the catering----


About the time I was ready to close up the restaurant, my brother returned to Illinois to get married--the rehearsal dinner was held in the restaurant---


The musician for the wedding liked the place and asked," Why don't you have some live music here?"


That was the start of the folk music club----that idea did work out.


We closed up during the week---only opened Thursday for open stage and Friday /Saturday for entertainment.


The place was packed---and I was to busy to deal with week end parties---(unless they were good money)


This is when we started going after the corporate work---

post #6 of 27
Thread Starter 

All went well for the next two years----We were picking up a lot of corporate lunches and open houses ---our area was turning into a hub of office buildings---


Meanwhile---back at the shop things were looking grim---the city was going to close the roar in front of the store for a year in order to build a railroad underpass---


Business was changing--the big grocery stores had all set up deli counters, and although the quality and selection was not as good as ours,the business was suffering---


In 1975 a decision was made----the shop would be sold----all of it----deli--gift shop --restaurant and catering---

post #7 of 27
Thread Starter 

Anyone reading this?  Want me to continue?--Mike----

post #8 of 27

Sure, sounds interesting and reads like a historic novel so

Just give me time to gather a little spiked tea to keep on hand...


Surely  this sad decline, as  victims of the times must've turned around positively at

some point, else you would not be able to claim several decades of successful catering. biggrin.gif


I've catered most different kinds of events from public school sports events to weddings/

birthday parties to picnics to some corporate as well. I personally came to consider corporate

catering as a separate breed of it's own. As you said, collecting payment is different,

but the entire experience is different, and just for the most part, more professional.

So I for one would be interested in how this all ends, and horror stories you might have to mind,

and certainly more about your corporate catering experiences.

Sure there is good money in weddings for instance, but as I think you said elsewhere the caliber

and temperament of the clientele you're dealing with can be.... a bit harrowing at times.

post #9 of 27
Thread Starter 

Thanks for reading----


The business was sold--all except for the catering end of it---A mountain of equipment was stored in my folks garage and I began to plan my return to California ----


I was to slow in going,however.

post #10 of 27

Hey Chef, keep going it's like watching my life in print. I started about the same time as you did, I thought your post should read, I had a long run as a caterer and lived. I took Corporate, I didn't want to deal with people that didn't know what they wanted. Corporate is all about trust, you do what you say, you make the planners job easy.The planner knows all they have to do is call you, the job is done. Once you build up the trust, all I need to know is, What, Where, When, I'll take care of the how. Customer service is a given, if you want something, it's done. It's also all about logistics, there isn't anything I can't do, it's just how much your willing to pay me to do it. The mistake most Caterer's make is, they give up control of the event. You can't control the out come, unless you have total control.  People would ask me how I could stay so calm before a big event, my answer was, I have already done this in my head, now I'm just watching it play out. If your not a person good in detail and planning you will never be a good caterer. You will also find, there are very few people that care as much as you, so stop looking. Front line people and Restaurant Chef's will not see the beauty in your post, front line restaurants are a whole different breed................Great job with the post..............thx, you made my day.......Bill

Edited by ChefBillyB - 7/29/13 at 5:20am
post #11 of 27

Please continue!


And I totally agree with Bill, more control=less stress.  I was volunteering my time to cater a church event and the person in charge called the morning of the event to request that I have the kitchen staff cut all the watermelon off the rinds so the trash wouldn't be too heavy (for context, it was all finger foods, so no utensils were being provided), so I had to pretend she was joking and laugh a lot as I explained how ridiculous that was.  It is one thing to be micromanaged by a paying customer, but when you are donating your time and your name is on the line... I had visions of people (mostly children) with sticky fingers running amok around the church building.  At another volunteer church function I was given a suggested menu, dates, times, and that was all.  What a nice event to run!

post #12 of 27
Thread Starter 

Bill. you could write this one----you and I think a lot alike---


I always wanted complete control over everything----


Make it simple for the host---do nothing but write a check---we'll handle everything else.

post #13 of 27
Thread Starter 

I did not leave son enough----My father was looking for a job ---


This process was crushing him---the offers he had were insulting and watching him sink into depression was more than a son should have t bear--


I could see what was coming--so I postponed my return to the west coast---


Soon enough he and I had a talk.


Would I become his equal partner in a catering venture?



As some of you may have guessed,my father was an artist and a dreamer---attention deficit disorder would be the word today---


I knew we needed to have a serious talk before I gave him an answer.

post #14 of 27

BIGGER chunks of story per post!

You're KILLING us here Mike!eek.gif


And Bill you're spot on about front liners and Restaurant Chefs not "getting" it.

This really is a whole different animal with a whole different type of skill set, 

and a whole different reward set when you pull it off correctly.

post #15 of 27
Thread Starter 

Now you have me laughing!


We had a long talk---His habit of starting a business and then getting bored and starting another without getting the first one up to speed worried me.

I was tired of seven days a week without a break,or a decent paycheck---


So we spent several days working out a plan to go after the corporate customer---we were right in the middle of the corporate boom.


We wanted a location close to the express way ----We needed good menues,aimed at the different types of needs that a business might have.


And we needed a bunch of daily customers----

post #16 of 27
Thread Starter 

We got to work finding a location and checking in on our old customers----


We wanted an industrial park location--no need for a store front---My father found that one of our long time customers had added on to their building and did not need all of the space at this point----fair rent and no long lease to sign----great location for deliveries----plenty of parking for the trucks---


I was pleased to find that each and every one of our customers was still loyal----By the time we reopened almost a year had passed and no competetor

had filled the gap-------

post #17 of 27
Thread Starter 

Advertising was a problem---That is a niche market and the usual advertising methods did not look likely to hit the customer.


Here is what we did over the years that worked---


Yellow pages---big bucks in those days and only marginal returns----but needed---I hated RR Donlley--bunch of robbers --(top pro web site is todays yellow pages--do you have a great one?)


Knocking on doors---this was the best----after the lunch runs we would go calling---"Hi, We handle the training classes for Bla Bla Bla corp down the hall and thought you might need our services"


Nice clean, well signed trucks----All of our trucks were painted the same---always clean and rust free---classy looking---


Nice uniforms----with our name on a patch----(we had 300 patches made so we could sew them on standard off the shelf gear---they went onto the drivers coats--chef's coats and hats--waitress uniforms--vests--aprons--you name it--)


Our equipment was all labeled with our logo--

post #18 of 27
Thread Starter 

I'm a cheap son of a gun--------


I've always disliked newspaper adds----a huge waste of money in my experience---

But newspapers brought us a bunch of customers for free.


Back in the Folk Music Club days I discovered the wonders of 'the press release'----


Most smaller papers and trade magazines don't have much of a staff for writing articles---


I can write---so I started writing press releases about musicians that were performing--a little history, a little fantasy and a mention that they were performing at my club----all for free---


This worked well for business open houses---We had a local business trade magazine that specialized in commercial real estate and business moving in or growing---they published a lot of my releases---" Megadynagon is having a huge open house on September 6 to celebrate the opening of their new location--They have been a major provider of Bla bla bla for over 40 years-----"


Customers liked the free press---and we did to-----

post #19 of 27
Thread Starter 

Another free ( or cheap) way of reaching new customers is joining some or the business organizations---


I do hate the damn salesmen that attach themselves to you at those meetings--so I always showed up late and sat next to someone I knew at the last second----


I was asked to be a guest speaker at a number of these meeting--Explaining how to throw a successful open house--or company picnic---


That worked---I'm kind of a quiet guy, but my talks were well received ---and helped to establish us as an authority on corporate work.

post #20 of 27
Thread Starter 

Some one here asked about catering disasters----Honestly we never had one---a few close calls,for sure---but never a complete derailment---


Here is one close call----


We serviced Continental Cable---They had the usual meetings and an annual company picnic--Young group of employees and heavy drinkers---

A fun group--a little on the rough side but a good bunch---


The time had come for a fancy 25th anniversary party----this would be formal---the company was paying for Tuxedo rental for the men--a photographer was to set up a studio---


Party in the Field Museum in Chicago--- Full boat---2200 guests----5 bars---7 different international buffets----and we got the decorating package----


I figured the Field Museum would remember this one---- 2000 drunk 20 somethings----all dress like they were at a prom---


I'll finish this later----work awaits-----Mike----

post #21 of 27
Thread Starter 

Sorry for the delay---I'm on a rough job this week and have not had the time or energy ---I'll be back soon--Mike---

post #22 of 27
Just curious.....are you 'catersource' mike?


food is like should be entered into with abandon or not at all        Harriet Van Horne


food is like should be entered into with abandon or not at all        Harriet Van Horne

post #23 of 27

@durangojo - unfortunately you probably haven't heard the news but Michael Roman, founder of Catersource, passed away unexpectedly this past June.  Besides which Mike Roman hasn't been in the physical end of the catering biz for many many years.


so this is another Michael who has been involved in the catering world in Chicago but not THE MIKE ROMAN.  




Often quoted, loved by many, friend to our industry,  RIP Catering Guru, Mike Roman


- yesterday was his birthday.  Here was my facebook tribute to him in honor of his birthday.


"so have you had a chance to hang with Escoffier and Julia - and Robert Owens (the "father" of industrial catering) and compare notes - you will always be in our hearts as one of THE greats of the catering industry and thus the culinary world!! Happy Birthday in Heaven Michael Guru aka Michael Roman, founder of Catersource, husband to Bernice, and my friend and mentor  — with Michael Guru "




BTW, sorry to hijack your thread,  this is a GREAT Story Mikeswoods.  Glad I stopped by to listen.  Come and visit us at the blog and gateway for our  private catering group sometime soon.

Chef Tigerwoman

Stop Tofu Abuse...Eat Foie Gras...
Chef Tigerwoman

Stop Tofu Abuse...Eat Foie Gras...
post #24 of 27

This is great stuff! Hope Mike comes back to finish the story. 

post #25 of 27
tigerwoman, no hijacking done nor apologies necessary. Thank you for the news albeit sad.
I had not heard of mike's passing. He certainly was a guru and just an all around nice guy....RIP
soo....will the real mikeswoods please stand up? We're all parched here waiting for your next chapter.....please???
tigerwoman, we don't get to see you and shrooomgirl around these parts very often, so howdy!
again, thanks,


food is like should be entered into with abandon or not at all        Harriet Van Horne


food is like should be entered into with abandon or not at all        Harriet Van Horne

post #26 of 27
Thread Starter 
Originally Posted by durangojo View Post

Just curious.....are you 'catersource' mike?


Joey, I met Mike Roman a couple of times---He was a guy that made you glad to have met him--


I'm not sure I was in his league---but he made me feel like I was.---Mike----

post #27 of 27
Thread Starter 

Hi gang--sorry I have been gone for so long---


I remodel homes now--The recession has ended in my little world and I've been hustling to refill the piggy bank---


I will return soon and start this thread going again---Mean while---Here is a link to a fun story I told at another site that I help at.

Story Time---1952 Dodge School Bus - Off Topic - DIY Chatroom - DIY Home Improvement Forum


I'll be back--thanks for waiting.---Mike---

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