By Sara Perez Webber
If you’d like to hear a good story, ask John Crisafulli about the time all the food in his kitchen in Turin, Italy, was almost confiscated by a corrupt official. Or the time a company in Beijing tried to deliver him rotten produce. Or how he figured out in Russia to place cheap cuts of meat near the back of the containers delivering his food, to minimize the losses if any product happened to “disappear” at checkpoints.
Crisafulli, president of Behind the Scenes Catering & Events in San Diego, could entertain for days with his tales of catering exploits from around the globe, as he’s had a hand in catering the last eight Olympic Games. Behind the Scenes (BTS) first secured the contract to cater for NBC, which holds the American broadcasting rights to the Games, for the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. The company had won over some of the network’s employees after catering for the international broadcast compound at the America’s Cup competition in San Diego in 1995 for six months.
“One day someone came in and said, ‘You haven’t repeated a menu in four or five months, and the food’s been great. You should come cater at the Olympic Games with us,’” says Crisafulli. That night, he came up with a budget, and after much persistence was eventually invited to join NBC representatives on a survey trip to Australia. “They said, ‘If you want to pay your own way you can come down and see what you think of it,’” says Crisafulli. “They were thinking I’d say no. But I bought a ticket and went down, and they realized, ‘This guy’s not letting go!’”
BTS eventually got the job to cater for NBC in Sydney, and two weeks before the Games took over catering for the entire broadcast center. “At the end of it we were like $300,000 under budget,” says Crisafulli. “So it just started a good relationship with NBC, because we did a great job. It was exactly what they wanted—it was customized, and we were flexible.”
Soon BTS will cater its ninth Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, taking place Aug. 5-21. Crisafulli’s been preparing for over two years for the Games, when BTS is expected to serve more than 950,000 meals as the caterer for NBC, and all the international broadcast and media groups covering the Olympics (more than 18,000 journalists), as well as additional clients. BTS is the only U.S.-based company catering the Games—and its job won’t be over until Sept. 18, as it’s staying on in Rio to cater the Paralympic Games.
Catering Magazine spoke with Crisfulli in May, when he was in the midst of overseeing the building of 14 kitchens in and around the competition venues and the media center, and gearing up to start full-time catering in Rio on July 5.
CM: How many times have you been to Rio, preparing for the Games?
CRISAFULLI: I’ve probably been back and forth to Rio at least 15 times in the last two years. I’m down there usually for a week or two at a time, and we have a project manager that we’ve hired that works for us down there. She’s bilingual, thankfully, and she keeps the project moving forward. We have another project manager here that is kind of our key player in our office that helps manage it from San Diego as well. We’re juggling a lot of clients.
CM: Who are your clients in Rio?
CRISAFULLI: NBC, the Olympics’ U.S. broadcaster, has always been a client of ours; this will be our 9th Olympic Games with them. Each Games we take on additional clients—sometimes sponsors, sometimes organizing committees, sometimes other broadcast groups. This time, in addition to NBC, we are working directly with the Rio 2016 organizing committee to provide all the foodservices at the international broadcast center and media press center, which is between 8,000 and 10,000 people a day. There’s a restaurant in there, there’s work force and volunteer dining, there are coffee concession carts; it’s like running a shopping mall of food in the broadcast center. In addition to that, we have 10 kitchens for NBC, [including] three kitchens on Copacabana Beach. The Omega watch company is one of our clients; we are managing all the foodservice and catering for their hospitality house, which is going to be at Ipanema Beach.
Golf is coming back to the Games this year, so we’re not only doing NBC’s catering but we’re doing the catering for the host broadcast, which is basically all the other world broadcasters. There will be about 400 people at that venue. We’ll probably be doing some stuff for the Golf Federation as well at that venue, and Coca-Cola; we’ll feed all of their crew and staff at all the venues. The Canadian broadcasters are eating with us, and there are a few others. So it’s a full plate.
CM: It sure is. How do you prepare for it?
CRISAFULLI: We go in and we install quite a bit of infrastructure. Our central warehouse is a secure warehouse with full screening capabilities of all our products. We have secured trucks and vehicles; the trucks are cleaned and have sanitary certificates, and the drivers are background-checked and so forth. All of the products that come in to that warehouse and all of our venues get screened and sealed, and then sent to the venues. So we have complete control from a security standpoint of everything going in and out of venues.
To build that infrastructure, there’s obviously some cost to it. What we try to do is leverage that with other clients, so everyone pays a little less than they would if they did it on their own, and we’re able to centrally manage the logistics of the foodservice operation. So we’re basically becoming our own “Sysco,” because in most of these foreign countries there is no such thing as a broad mainline supplier, like a Sysco or a US Foods, so we have to create it from all these small vendors in our own way. It’s a challenge, but the good thing about it is you wind up controlling your own destiny; we make sure there are no gaps in our supply chain while we’re operating.
I was just in Brazil a couple of weeks ago, up in the mountains where they grow almost 90 percent of the lettuce for the Rio de Janeiro area. I’ve locked up six or eight different farms in the area, and they’re committed to just growing for us during the Olympic period. [In the U.S.], you call a produce supplier, and they bring it to you. There, they have that but on a very small scale, so you have to go the extra step, and sometimes you’re going to the actual grower. It’s the same with the meats. The meats we’re using are all sustainable, all grass-fed and following all the guidelines of not only the Rio committee but our standards. So we can literally track where the cow was raised, what it was fed, how it was butchered, when it was butchered, all the way up to when we get it.
CM: Have you encountered any challenges that have been unique to Rio?
CRISAFULLI: Yes and no; we thought at the beginning, a couple of years ago, that our biggest challenge was going to be finding a proper labor pool, because the Brazilian market was going gangbusters. But they’ve gone through a recession, so it’s becoming one of the easier hurdles to get over. What we’re finding most challenging in Rio—I won’t say it’s different than other countries but to a different degree probably—is the bureaucracy. Certain things don’t happen very fast, and there’s an expectation there’s going to be some type of graft to help move the system along to get your permit or whatever it is. We sometimes have to be a little more creative in trying to get things through their system; creative in a positive way, in that we have some people that will talk their ear off and eventually they just go, “OK, here’s your permit, don’t come back.”
The organizing committee is challenged from a budget standpoint, [and] the Brazilian government is in so much unrest right now with the impeachment process and the economy not doing well. There’s a lot of pressure from all sides to get this thing pulled together, and, like every Games, they will. The Games will look spectacular on television, I can promise everybody that. It just may be for those of us on the ground a huge challenge to get it over the finish line, but it will be there.
CM: Has the Zika virus had an impact?
CRISAFULLI: From a labor standpoint, yes; we had two young ladies who were supposed to come work with us who decided they didn’t want to come, and I know some of our other clients have had the same kind of thing happen.…. We have safety precautions; we have online videos we’ve done for all of our staff that tell them how to avoid areas with standing water, to wear mosquito repellant, and to wear longer sleeves in all areas where water and mosquitoes are prevalent. It’s common safety tips.
CM: Have you done all of your hiring?
CRISAFULLI: Yes, we’ve hired about 80 travelers from all over the globe that have worked previous Olympics for us or other large events, and then we’ve hired about 760 locals. The locals are doing everything from front-of-house servers to bartenders to warehouse workers to kitchen prep—the whole gamut.
Of those 760, about 50 of them are from a nonprofit group we’ve partnered with in Brazil called Gastromotiva. They take underprivileged kids and train them for about four months on hospitality and culinary skills and front-of-house service, giving them skills that they can get a job with. If the students graduate, they’re given help with placement in hotels, restaurants and other locations throughout Brazil. So we took on the cost of sponsoring a whole class of 50 students. Those students are going to come work with us during the Games. They’ll get paid, and after that they’ll get placed into the local community. The last two weeks of their sessions, our chefs will do a whole training session with them. It’s very organized, and the kids are so excited to be a part of it. And then they have the opportunity to work at the Olympic Games on top of what the normal program offers them.
CM: Have you done something like that at other Olympics?
CRISAFULLI: Yes. In Italy in 2006, there was a culinary school that we hired some of the students from. We ended up buying all of this brand-new Italian kitchen equipment, because it was cheaper to do that than rent it, and then when we were done with the Games we installed all that equipment in the culinary school. In Sochi, Russia, in 2014, we had excess stock, so we did a similar set-up with two of the local orphanages, so they were basically stocked with kitchen equipment and lots of supplies that would last them months and months.
We want to try to integrate into the community. For one thing, we’re hiring a lot of local people, so that our guests—whether they’re Westerners or non-Westerners—get a feel for the people and the culture that they’re in. A lot of people we serve are working at the Games, and they don’t get the opportunity sometimes to get a flavor for the community that they’re in. So it’s our way of bringing some of the local culture in. So when we do menus they’re very diverse menus; we will have burgers, fries and that kind of thing, but then there’s always the local flair, so they can see what some of the food is like. And some of the younger people working with us, they’ll play language games and teach each other words. It’s fun. For those who haven’t been to the Olympic Games, it’s a pretty dynamic environment. People are there for a common purpose, and there’s no animosity toward other countries. It’s kind of like the one respite from politics that goes on. I think that’s why we have so many staff that like to come back and work Games after Games.
CM: So a lot of the international staffers you hire have worked with you before?
CRISAFULLI: Yes, we have eight or so who have worked every Games with us; this will be their ninth. But there’s a pretty sizeable group that’s worked four or five Olympics, and then maybe some additional larger events that we work on. We do the Rose Bowl game in Los Angeles; we do the Susan G. Komen three-day walk around the United States, in all seven cities; we do the AIDS/LifeCycle bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and some golf tournaments, so a lot of them have worked on those events with us in the past.
CM: What are some examples of how you’re going to incorporate Brazilian food into the menus?
CRISAFULLI: There’s a very traditional dish there called feijoada, which is a black bean stew with sausage, and we’re doing different takes on it; we’re doing one with chicken in it, which is not typical. We’re doing escondidinho, which is basically a shepherd’s pie kind of thing, but they use seasoned jerked beef and what looks like mashed potatoes but is actually mashed manioc, which is way more popular than potatoes down there. We’ll make manioc fries, but we’ll put a little twist on it to get people to try it; we’ll do things like poutine with manioc.
CM: How many of your 35-person staff in San Diego will be going to Rio for the Games?
CRISAFULLI: Not that many. We’re busy while that’s going on, so only four people will be going, including myself. The rest of the team will stay [in San Diego], because we have three summer concert venues we operate. We also have the MLB All-Star game in San Diego this year, and there are lots of other corporate events that we have booked and planned.
CM: How important is it for you to travel to the host city so frequently before the Games start?
CRISAFULLI: It’s important, because a lot of what we’re doing when we travel there is building relationships. Just as if someone came into the U.S. and said, “Oh, I want to buy $3 million of product from you,” you wouldn’t trust them, or you’d be like, “Sure you’re going to use $3 million in product,” because that’s unheard of in a lot of these locations. So a lot of it is making relationships and building those friendships with a lot of our vendors.