By Sara Perez Webber
A look inside the heart of the business, where one size doesn’t fit all
Do you and your kitchen have a happy relationship? For many, the heart of the business is fraught with growing pains. Start out with one too big, and your expenses may outweigh your profits. Work out of one too small, and you may have to decline business because you can’t keep up with production. The companies profiled here are proactively tackling the kitchen matter—a large catering company building a commissary that can handle future growth, a food truck that’s designing its dream vehicle for large events, and an innovative shared kitchen facility that allows a catering company to utilize more space and services as it grows.
Puff ’n Stuff
After Orlando, Fla.-based Puff ’n Stuff Catering expanded to Tampa six years ago, “growth was massive and very, very fast,” says Warren Dietel, president and owner. In fact, in its sixth year of operation, Tampa represents 40 percent of gross revenue for the company, while Orlando—founded 36 years ago—represents 60 percent.
Dietel attributes the company’s success in Tampa to several factors. “We’re doing great work—that’s the first thing,” he says. Furthermore, while Orlando boasts many high-end hotels that capture a lot of catering business, “a lot of the big corporate business [in Tampa] has to rely on offsite venues,” says Dietel.
When Puff ’n Stuff first entered the Tampa market, the company worked out of TPepin Hospitality Centre, for which it’s the exclusive caterer. “They’re an amazing partner for us, and they helped us to incubate the business,” says Dietel. The space wasn’t big enough for a $6 million catering operation, however, and in 2013 Puff ’n Stuff acquired a centrally located building—a former tortilla factory on East Columbus Drive—to house its new Tampa commissary. “I see Tampa representing at least 50 percent of our business, if not more, in 2017 and 2018,” says Dietel. “This was a bet on the future of the business and the market.”
Although the building wasn’t completed until three years later—opening late last year—that gave Puff ’n Stuff plenty of time to design a dream kitchen. “The only thing that we left were the exterior walls,” says Dietel. “We used the same kitchen designer that we did in Orlando, so they were very familiar with how our business operates.” They took the lessons learned in Orlando—a bottleneck in the loading area, for example, and a too-small bakery—and used them to create a smarter design in Tampa.
“Everything’s about one-and-a-half times bigger,” says Dietel, noting that the kitchen production facilities are over 10,000 square feet. “Our bakery and chocolate room in Tampa are about the size of our kitchen in Orlando.” While there’s just one loading area in Orlando, with everything making its way into the kitchen to reach the storage area beyond it, “in Tampa the flow comes from five loading bays with multiple doors, and the product as it comes in goes directly to storage,” he says. “It’s faster and easier.”
The state-of-the-art kitchen also features a Chef’s Table with seating for 12—which will host such food-centric events as rehearsal dinners and private dinners that the company can offer as prizes at charity auctions—as well as a Chef’s Bar with induction burners, where clients can watch demos. The PVC polymer floors have a cushiony feel and were imported from Holland, while the walls are brushed aluminum. “Clients are blown away,” says Dietel. “The equipment is completely state-of-the-art, it’s beautiful, it flows nicely, and to our corporate friends, it shows our commitment to food safety and safe food handling.”
Executive Chef Sean Holden raves about the floors, his favorite part of the kitchen. “The floors here alone make this location a unique and favorable workspace,” he says, noting the floors are made of “a non-porous material with a slight give that is completely non-slip and easy on the back. It is level from wall to wall even across floor drains for trams to move with ease and, with all of the floor drains and mobile equipment, it’s an easy clean. We simply move the tables aside, sweep, scrub and squeegee to a drain.”
The building also houses many offices, conference rooms with built-in video conferencing and a design center housing all of Puff ’n Stuff’s event equipment. In December, on the company’s busiest days, up to 40 chefs were working in the kitchen, producing up to 30 events daily. “We could have done twice that; the limitation at this point is having the service staff to be able to that,” says Dietel, who built the space to accommodate steady growth of 25 percent to 30 percent per year. “The idea is, within the next five years, to take this from a $6 million catering operation to a $15 million to $20 million catering operation, just out of Tampa.” puffnstuff.com
As Hungry Nomad has grown from one food truck in Los Angeles to four since 2010, it’s discovered what works and doesn’t work in its mobile kitchens.
“We started off with a used truck that didn’t have a drink station, because we didn’t like how it looked,” says owner Mike Mikhail. “As we started to grow, we realized that we were missing out on drink sales, so we added one on. We also originally started out with a longer truck that had an exposition-style kitchen, only to find that this was not the most efficient style of kitchen to serve people quickly. Now our trucks are completely different from what we started with.”
The company—which specializes in fresh, healthy menu items that combine California cuisine with the family’s own Mediterranean recipes, such as fattoush salad and blue cheese steak sandwiches—is now in the enviable position of designing what it calls the “Ultimate Kitchen.”
“We took everything we liked from each one of our trucks and made a kitchen that has everything we’ve ever wanted in it,” says Mikhail. “This will be the truck we use to cater private events and large festivals.”
The 18-foot, extra-wide truck—larger than the rest of the fleet’s vehicles, which range from 14 feet to 16 feet—will feature larger equipment and more power to run such appliances as food processors, hand blenders and a convection oven. “It will also have custom refrigeration for baking sheets, [and it’s a] wider truck for a speed rack, which makes a huge difference in workflow,” says Mikhail. To make the truck more efficient for large events, it’s organized so that two to three people can work in each station.
As for Mikhail’s kitchen favorites, “the tool I can’t live without is the salad station/prep fridge, because that’s where all the fresh ingredients are kept,” he says. “Without these fresh ingredients we wouldn’t be able to create our unique and delicious healthy dishes.”
He’s also a big fan of the griddle. “You can do so many things with it—everything from heating up bread on it to making a steam table out of it, and, of course, using it to cook all of your meats on.” The only drawback to the new truck is its size, says Mikhail, which makes it hard to drive. But, says Mikhail, “we need the bigger kitchen, so the truck has to be large.” hungrynomadtruck.com
Twelve catering companies work out of PREP Cook-Create-Connect, a commercial shared kitchen space in Atlanta, which opened in June 2014. “We felt Atlanta was ready for a unique, or non-traditional, shared kitchen concept,” explains Michele Jaffe, who’s one of PREP’s owners and heads up sales and marketing.
Jaffe explains that PREP is ideal for a caterer just starting out who may not have the business or the resources to open his or her own kitchen. Partnering with PREP allows a caterer to operate legally without the immense outlay required to establish a freestanding facility, in a kitchen approved by the Georgia Department of Health.
“PREP Shared Kitchen and Studio Kitchen memberships are based on the number of hours a member needs over the course of a month,” says Jaffe. “Catering memberships begin at 20 hours per month and go up in 20-hour increments. Once you hit 80 hours, we’ll customize a package for you. It gives businesses an opportunity to grow organically, and as you move up, your membership classification will allot you additional amenities.”
For example, a 20-hour membership includes one dry storage locker, while an 80-hour membership includes three dry storage lockers. Members also have access to a conference room and a studio production kitchen, “so caterers can do tastings and meet with clients in a nice professional environment,” adds Jaffe.
For Gloriosa Signature Events, a catering company that joined PREP in July 2014, the set-up has been ideal. The company had intended to use the PREP kitchen for just a few months while it secured a new permanent location. “We didn’t really think PREP would be a long-term solution for us, but since settling in there, we have realized that it works for us very well,” says Paul Conway, executive chef. “We are putting together a plan to build our own building, but that is taking some time. Fortunately, we are able to proceed with business as usual while we work it out without feeling rushed.”
The PREP shared kitchen—which is divided into 10 stations—features a wide range of food prep equipment, including five ranges, eight convection ovens, an 18-inch grill char countertop, an 18-inch char flat-top counter, reach-in coolers, a blast chiller, a meat grinder, a portable induction cooker and much more. The lockable dry storage cabinets, and cooler and freezer lockers prevent theft and cross-contamination.
PREP’s members also include specialty food producers, bakers and—most significantly—mobile foodservice operators, including food trucks, carts and trailers. In fact, PREP is the largest commissary of food trucks in the Southeastern U.S., with 27 trucks operating from there currently. Legally, all mobile foodservice operators and vendors in Georgia must have a base of operations to be permitted. Prior to PREP opening, to meet that requirement, many trucks banded together to share a base of operations and a permit, leaving them vulnerable if the truck holding the permit was cited for violations or received a failing score.
“We felt it was important to give food trucks the ability to operate off of their own permits,” says Jaffe. Each of PREP’s 36 dedicated food truck commissaries is completely self-contained and fully customizable to the truck’s needs. Not only do food truck customers receive access to truck parking with generator hook-ups, a grey water dumping station, a water refill station, and pushcarts for loading and unloading, they’re represented by PREP’S street food booking agents, so membership results in gigs.
Both food trucks and caterers also benefit from PREP’s wholesale food and supply procurement. The food procurement manager buys in bulk, only using food sources approved by the Department of Health. Members can order food and supplies online, and PREP will stock the purchased ingredients in the members’ lockers.
Conway works closely with PREP’s procurement department, which he says has “bent over backwards” to meet Gloriosa’s needs. The catering company has held many successful meetings and tastings at PREP, and Conway appreciates the help he’s received from management in learning how to accommodate the county’s health department rules, which are different from the rules in the company’s previous home county. And there’s been another unexpected benefit to joining PREP, says Conway.
“I have been most pleasantly surprised to discover the amazing networking and comradery we have experienced working alongside the other members,” he says. “While I suppose some of them are our competitors, we have found the vast majority of our co-members to be amazingly kind and supportive. We share ideas and recipes, and have even occasionally shared employees. And it’s really nice to have neighbors who can loan you a cup of Himalayan pink salt or imported smoked paprika when you find yourself in a pinch!”
All the benefits set the stage for members’ success, according to Jaffe. “PREP is not an incubator, but we have incubator-like resources,” she says. “It’s a really creative environment, with natural light, music, artwork and a host of resources to assist our members in accelerating their businesses. We felt it was important to give creative people a creative environment to work out of.” prepatl.com