These caterers are satisfying consumers’ increasingly adventurous palates by specializing in ethnic cuisines
By Sara Perez Webber
When it comes to cuisine choices, the world is increasingly at your fingertips. Whatever type of cuisine across the globe that you’re craving, chances are you can find someone in your area serving it—perhaps, even, one of the caterers profiled here. These three catering companies have each carved out a niche in a specific type of ethnic cuisine, successfully bringing home the flavors of far-off places to consumers who are more and more interested in broadening their culinary horizons.
Alexandria, Va. • indaroma.com
Abhishek Handa, who has a background in computer engineering, remembers the first time his family’s business, IndAroma, catered a wedding. It was the night before his birthday, and at midnight he had a piece of cake while cleaning the floor. While not very glamorous, the hard work paid off. With that wedding, “we realized we were really onto something different, and we took it from there,” says Handa, who owns the business along with his father and brother-in-law.
IndAroma, based in Alexandria, Va., opened in June 2009, starting as an Indian restaurant before branching out into catering. Today the catering side accounts for about half of IndAroma’s business, and the company also operates an Indian market and a satellite location in the food court at George Mason University.
“We carved out a niche for ourselves—fusion—and that’s been our strategy,” says Handa. As the company’s website explains, IndAroma’s take on Indian fusion cuisine keeps “the flavors of India intact and complemented through different foods. …. You can expect to see your favorite Indian flavors infused in nontraditional food choices.” IndAroma’s tandoori shrimp with mango salsa is one example, as are its paneer wontons, which were invented when a wedding client wanted wontons and her traditional Indian mother nixed the idea because they aren’t Indian. IndAroma found a way to please both of them with their creative cuisine. “The chefs we have are truly amazing,” says Handa.
Not only does IndAroma specialize in Indian fusion cuisine, about half of the company’s wedding clients are “fusion couples,” as Handa describes them—one of Indian (or Pakistani or Bangladeshi) heritage, and the other not. “Our first wedding was for a fusion couple—Indian and Jewish—and they’re still some of our best friends,” he says, adding that IndAroma’s wedding business is growing even among couples in which both partners are non-Indian.
In fact, the catering business overall is booming for IndAroma, and 95 percent of it is wedding business. Its live chaat stations are particularly popular, as are its live Indo-Chinese stations, with options such as gobhi Manchurian and chili paneer. “In Indian culture, food is huge, and the whole reputation [of the wedding] will ride on whether the food is good or not,” says Handa. “The food has to be amazing and plentiful.”
There’s no doubt IndAroma’s reputation is strong; it’s turning away business as it searches for a larger catering kitchen. “It needs to be at least three to five times larger,” says Handa. “My journey has changed from, ‘This is great, this is happy,’ to ‘How do you keep people happy?’ How do we set up this business in a way to keep it growing?”
As Handa considers whether to build a new kitchen from the ground up, the orders keep coming in. When Catering Magazine spoke to him in June, IndAroma was getting ready to cater a 500-person dinner for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce where the guest of honor was the prime minister of India.
Kiss My Seoul
Burlingame, Calif. • kissmyseoul.com
When Alex Hwang was in grad school in San Francisco, he missed the Korean food of his native Los Angeles. “Until I left I didn’t realize how spoiled we were,” says Hwang, who had worked in restaurants in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. “My parents are from South Korea, and [my family members] all agree that the Korean food in Los Angeles is better than the Korean food in Korea, mainly due to the high quality of ingredients.”
So, while still in school earning his MBA, Hwang decided to remedy the situation by opening his own Korean catering company—even though he didn’t know how to cook Korean food. His mother then taught him the recipes that he loved growing up, including the marinades and pickling techniques. When Kiss My Seoul got its first order, Hwang flew his mom up from Los Angeles to help him fill it.
Now Kiss My Seoul has a staff of five and does a brisk business, primarily in drop-off catering for Bay Area tech companies that order in meals for their employees. From the beginning, Kiss My Seoul has worked with ZeroCater, which enables companies to order in from a multitude of restaurants and caterers through one central source. “It was perfect for me because it required no marketing, and it was a way to get my foot in the door,” says Hwang. A blog post on ZeroCater’s website reports that Kiss My Seoul is a consistent top-performing vendor for the company, and that ZeroCater’s clients “sing praises of the delicious, light Korean fare.”
Hwang says bulgogi—thinly sliced beef marinated and cooked over the grill—and kimchi are customer favorites. He attributes the growing popularity of Korean food to Roy Choi, who created the Korean taco truck Kogi in L.A. While Hwang has considered going the food truck route himself, he’s sticking to catering, though he’s now deciding whether to add more full-service catering to the mix.
“I’ve gotten a lot of inquiries about rehearsal dinners, anniversary parties and weddings, and I’m taking it step by step,” he says. “The overall per-person amount is a lot more, but at the same time, it’s a lot more work. I’m just trying to keep up with demand right now as it is.”
Hwang points to one of the benefits of his current business model—his kitchen is busiest during the week, leaving weekends relatively relaxed. “I’m a little hesitant to go too much into full-service, because I have somewhat of a work-life balance right now,” he says. “It’s pretty valuable for my health and my sanity.”
The Rice Table
Chicago • thericetable.com
Chris Reed, owner and chef of The Rice Table in Chicago, dreamed up a way to educate people about Indonesian food while growing the customer base for his catering company—he organized a small Indonesian buffet at the coffee shop where he worked as a barista, after hours, and invited friends and co-workers to try it for free. The buffet dinners grew more and more popular, prompting Reed to expand their scope. Today The Rice Table hosts once-a-month rijsttafel pop-up dinners at a larger venue with a full kitchen, where—for $40 to $50 per person—diners can partake in a Dutch-Indonesian feast of 11 to 15 dishes plus dessert. (Rijsttafel, a Dutch word that translates to “rice table,” is an elaborate dinner that originated among 18th-century Dutch colonials, consisting of many side dishes prepared in small portions and accompanied by rice prepared in several different ways.)
“Having the pop-up dinners is great, because not only are people there eating and trying the food, they’re recommending it to friends,” says Reed.
The rijstaffel dinners have helped Reed grow The Rice Table, which he launched in 2008 with his mother, co-owner Priscilla-Jane Reed, who was born in Indonesia and grew up in the Netherlands. They originally started out with the idea of serving Indonesian food as vendors at festivals.
“My brother puts on a music festival, and he would tell my mother how the food vendors there would do very well,” says Reed. “She grew up cooking, and taught us three boys how to cook. So she was really interested in going to the festival. We also realized there wasn’t really anywhere you could get Indonesian food in Chicago.” Reed, who had attended culinary school and worked at restaurants across Chicago, saw the venture as an opportunity to realize the dream of owning a business.
One festival led to another, and “we started to see there was a good amount of interest in Indonesian food, so at that point the catering aspect grew,” says Reed. “We started out doing a lot of in-home dinner parties for groups of 20 or less; now it’s much larger events, and we’re catering more business lunches.” In fact, drop-off catering for business lunches is an area of the business that Reed is trying to grow.
Among The Rice Table’s most popular dishes are its nasi goring ati ayem (fried rice with onions, garlic, chilies and minced chicken liver); sateh (with a choice of chicken, pork or goat skewers, with peanut sauce); and rendang daging (spicy coconut curry beef). “Rendang is one of the dishes Indonesia is known for, but Indonesia has thousands of islands, so it’s prepared differently depending on the region,” says Reed. “Our style is from the central Java area, which is spicier and hotter [than others].”
Among The Rice Table’s fans are people of Indonesian and Dutch heritage, as well as people who’ve traveled to Indonesia and developed an affinity for the cuisine. “People will say, ‘We were just in Indonesia and thought the food was so great,’” says Reed. Indonesian food’s popularity—as well as The Rice Table’s—is also growing due to consumers’ increasingly adventurous palates.
“In the last decade or so, people are more interested in trying new stuff,” says Reed. “They want to try the next big thing.”