Successful off-premise strategies helped these four caterers boost business and raise their profiles
By Sara Perez Webber
Often, it pays to take a leap of faith. Just ask the four companies profiled here. All branched out from the norm to build their businesses and establish their reputations—from serving dinners outside on area farms to buying a food truck or a food cart to leading companies’ employees through “Chopped”-style cooking competitions. In each case, the risk paid off, leading to satisfied customers and healthy, thriving businesses.
Left: Spice of Life’s lobster ravioli with mushrooms, zucchini and tomato coulis at a Plated Landscape Dinner at the Killbuck Valley Mushrooms farm in Burbank, Ohio. Right: A Spice of Life staff member sets a table adorned with newly picked wildflowers at a Plated Landscape Dinner at Muddy Fork Farm in Wooster, Ohio.
Spice of Life Catering Co.
Ben Bebenroth, chef, founder and farmer at Spice of Life Catering Co. in Cleveland, came up with the idea for Plated Landscape Dinners while out on a foraging trip in Australia with his wife Jackie.
“We were with a couple of Aboriginal women who had a catering company,” recalls Bebenroth. “We were around Alice Springs, which is also
known as the ‘Red Centre’ of the country cause it’s just all desert, and they were finding all this amazing product out there. And as we sat in this river bed and ate roasted kangaroo tail, Jackie and I looked at each other and said, ‘Man, if there’s this much to eat in the desert, imagine what we could do up in Ohio.’”
So Bebenroth—who had won the five-week tour of Australia through a cooking competition at his alma mater, Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, S.C.—returned to his native Ohio, founded Spice of Life Catering Co. and launched the traveling restaurant concept of Plated Landscape Dinners eight years ago.
“We wanted to get people out to the farms, so they could have dinner with the farmers and forge a little bit of a relationship with them,” explains Bebenroth.
Held every summer and fall, the dinners take place outdoors on area farms, with guests buying tickets in advance. “Upon guests’ arrival, we do a cocktail hour with a signature cocktail and passed hors d’oeuvres, and then once everyone arrives, Ben welcomes them and introduces the farmer,” says Jess Edmonds, Spice of Life’s executive event planner. “Then we hand the group off to the farmer, and they do a tour of the farm and of the land, and do a harvest or a forage, depending on what type of farm it is. The farmer sits down for dinner with the group as well, so the farmer is very integral throughout the whole evening.”
The dinners have grown in popularity every year—“mostly by word of mouth,” says Edmonds. “We’ll do anywhere from 50 seats to 80 seats for dinner, depending on the farm and how big their space is.” Although the company has planned as many as 12 in one year, this year six are being offered, from June to October. Only the last event still had seats available as of early July.
“We have tons of regulars,” says Edmonds. “I feel like supper clubs are a popular thing, popping up all over, and this is a little bit different. People aren’t going to restaurants but are going out to these farms, and it’s not only an exquisite dinner, but it’s such an experience in that atmosphere. It’s pretty unforgettable.”
That’s not to say it’s not without its challenges, which include “errant chickens just running around, and farm dogs setting up permanent shop in the kitchen spaces you just built,” says Bebenroth. “The weather is a big factor, so we’re always looking for any sheltered area where the guest can still experience what we’re doing.”
The menus highlight what’s grown on the farm, but out of necessity also include food sourced elsewhere (Killbuck Valley Mushrooms, one farm location, only grows mushroom varieties, for example). Yet Bebenroth is committed to locally sourced ingredients. During the growing season, Spice of Life Catering Co. and Spice Kitchen + Bar, its sister restaurant, source up to 80 percent of products from within a 150-mile radius. During the winter, it’s closer to 50 percent.
Last summer, the Bebenroth family purchased a 13-acre farm, now called Spice Acres. The farm’s harvest also appears on Spice catering and restaurant menus. This year, three of the dinners will take place at Spice Acres.
“We were able to plan strategically for that,” says Bebenroth. “We’re doing a little bit more of the roaming dinners, not as much seated and plated. It will be more interactive.” For example, explains the chef, instead of eating a plated salad, guests might be given a ramekin of vinaigrette and then let loose to explore the fields.
“So it will be more like a harvest-and-dip-and-eat type of a thing,” he says. “You could pick a leaf of lettuce, a turnip, a piece of carrot, a spinach leaf, a kale leaf, and you could taste the different flavors with a same vinaigrette.”
For the first Spice Acres dinner, a hog roast, the hog and most of the vegetables will come from the farm. The second one, in the middle of chanterelle season, will be a vegetarian dinner, with the majority of products coming from the farm. “And the last one on our farm is a goat roast, and we’re raising that goat as well,” says Bebenroth.
Spice of Life will continue to offer the Plated Landscape Dinners at other area farms as well. “We don’t want to stop highlighting these farmers and what they do,” says Edmonds.
Bebenroth says there’s no doubt that Spice of Life has grown its catering business and its name recognition by offering the dinners. “We don’t really make a lot of money doing this because it’s so labor-intensive, but we’ve become known for these outside-of-the-box experiences,” says Bebenroth.
Edmonds adds that the company has planned about 10 private landscape dinners for groups, since demand often outpaces supply.
“I’ve never seen anyone leave unsatisfied,” she says. “There’s a sense of community at the table. You’re breaking bread with people you’re just meeting, but for the most part you’re all there because you’re like-minded—you like to support small family farms. People love the whole experience, and I think that’s why it keeps growing every year.”
A dinner at Killbuck Valley Mushrooms featured organic mushrooms from the farm (opposite top right). Produce from Muddy Fork Farm took center stage at a Plated Landscape Dinner in 2013 (all other photos), though food from other local sources also appears on all the dinners’ menus.
In a city crawling with food carts and food trucks, Crave Catering has carved out a niche. The Portland, Ore.-based company not only offers both mobile options to its clients, it offers them the peace of mind of working with an established caterer.
“People are now looking for quality,” says Mark Lopez, Crave Catering’s CFO (which in Crave’s case stands for “chef/farmer/owner”). “They want the kitschiness of a food cart or food truck, but they also want the know-how of a caterer. That’s why we’re getting so many calls for ours, because they understand, ‘These guys are caterers, first and foremost.’”
While Lopez had lots of food cart experience—launching his first one in 1998 when he owned a taqueria—he put the concept on hold after he established Crave Catering in 2006. “In the beginning, we were distancing ourselves from Mexican/Southwestern cuisine, because we didn’t want to be known just for that,” he explains. So the Baja-themed cart with the thatched roof and surfboard décor sat unused in Lopez’s barn.
In the meantime, while its reputation as an award-winning caterer grew, Crave Catering purchased a manufactured mobile kitchen designed for film production catering in 2009. Film catering accounts for about 10 percent of the company’s business, and the vehicle gives Crave a food truck option when it needs one—like when catering a large company picnic on a farm last year.
Lopez also deployed his newly revitalized food cart—enhanced and remodeled last year—at the event. Guests at the picnic could sample small bites from five themed stations—the “Taste of India” food truck; the “Porklandia” food cart (featuring bacon-wrapped tofu); and three farmers’ market-style booths (“Asian Invasion,” “Dia de Los Tacos” and “Dessertlandia”).
While those five concepts are popular for Crave Catering events, the company will create customized food truck or food cart concepts for a client—including farm-to-table themes, as Crave Catering operates its own farm and is known for its fresh produce and herbs. And the company’s website stresses that it provides full service for its cart and truck—including the concept, menu-planning, staffing, bar, rentals, set-up and clean-up.
“Food carts aren’t used to bussing tables and keeping things nice and having beverage stations or a liquor license,” says Lopez. “They’re just used to selling their food one item at a time. As a caterer, that gives us a really big advantage, because we have all those licenses and we have the structure in place. So for us, the cart or the truck can become another piece of equipment in our wheelhouse.”
Typically, a Crave Catering event with a food truck or cart will be a “hybrid,” explains Lopez. “We’ll do passed hors d’oeuvres, set up a bar, and then dinner is either off the food truck—where guests come up and we do plate-ups and send the guests off with their meals—or there’s a food station with side dishes, and they come to the food truck for their entrees,” he says. “The other cool thing about the food cart is we refabricated it with a stainless-steel table, so we can add a grill component to it or burners or turn it into a bar.”
What’s more, Crave’s food truck has been a “huge asset” when catering off-premise events at sites without kitchen facilities. “It has a full range in there, two ovens, four-burner stoves, a 48-inch flat grill, a four-door refrigerator and freezer, and two 10-gallon coffeemakers,” says Lopez. Crave Catering’s cart and truck also show up at various festivals around the city, such as Portland’s Pride Festival and Bite of Oregon.
“We’ve seen an increase in people wanting it,” notes Lopez of Crave Catering’s truck and cart options. “We think the demand will continue. It’s not going anywhere.”
Lopez renovated his original food cart (above) last year. Crave Catering’s food truck and cart concepts include Dessertlandia (opposite top); A Taste of India (opposite middle, left); Porklandia (opposite middle, right); and Dia de Los Tacos (opposite bottom).
Wine and food bring people together in unimaginable ways,” says Maria Kopsidas, founder and owner of Cookology in Sterling, Va. She should know. Kopsidas has successfully tapped into food’s social power through cooking classes and team-building exercises at her growing business outside of Washington, D.C.
Opened in 2009 in a mall location, Cookology occupies 2,000 square feet of retail and kitchen space in Dulles Town Center. It offers seven to 12 scheduled healthy cooking classes each week for children and adults, as well as summer cooking camps and birthday parties. It also conducts about 18 to 30 team-building events for companies each month, including off-site, for groups of up to 250.
The popular team-building sessions are modeled after “Chopped” on the Food Network, with employees pitted against each other in a cooking competition. “Once we layout the rules and safety guidelines, we’ll divide the client’s employees up into teams and charge them with making one portion of a meal (meat, two sides and a dessert),” explains Kopsidas. “The main ingredient, generally a protein, is chosen prior to the event, and mystery ingredients coincide with the selected protein. We then give each team a bottle of wine to keep things interesting and let them go for it! Our professional chefs who lead the events remain on hand to assist throughout the process.”
A recent winning team, for example, chose chicken as their protein and had Brussels sprouts as the mystery ingredient. The meal they came up with was marinated grilled chicken, roasted garlic Brussels sprouts and pasta primavera, with molten lava cakes for dessert. “We always get excellent feedback and, as a result, continue to have repeat customers,” says Kopsidas. “ExxonMobil came once a month for several years until relocating to Houston. In fact, they recently had a group of board supervisors meet in the area and brought us back on board for that as well. The feedback always yields glowing reviews and recurring customers. It’s almost always named by the client as the favorite of every corporate conference we’ve done.”
While sometimes the exercises take place in the Cookology kitchen, “we can literally pull this off anywhere,” says Kopsidas. Her team has conducted the exercise at clients’ offices and at hotels. “Most offices don’t have kitchen facilities or stoves on-site, so we bring in everything from refrigeration to hand sinks and water coolers,” she says. “We’ll sometimes do menu suggestions to accommodate for oven/baking/roasting limitations, but the only real requirement is space.”
The team-building exercises are so popular that they resulted in Cookology opening a catering division. Though just launched within the last two years, catering now accounts for 20 to 25 percent of Cookology’s sales.
“Before each [team-building] event, we serve appetizers, and our clients really liked our food, so they began requesting we do catered lunches and other events for them,” says Kopsidas. “We started small with some on-site luncheons, then we began to take on larger projects, and it grew from there.”
The team-building sessions are such a hit, says Kopsidas, because they encourage co-workers to communicate and interact with each other in a fun, informal setting. “Our clients hope that in some way they can make their teams closer and more cohesive,” says Kopsidas. “People leave loving the fact that they’ve had a better time with their colleagues than they could ever have imagined.”
Competitors in a Cookology
team-building session enjoy their meal (top) after preparing an entree and dessert (above, opposite top and opposite middle). Cookology sets the table for the event (opposite middle), providing attendees with everything they need (opposite bottom).
Eight years ago, Maria Salazar bought a food truck so she could raise the profile of her one-year-old catering business by participating in the farmers’ market in Winter Park, Fla. “Back then, it was just a way to showcase a little bit of what I do,” says Salazar, owner of Tastebuds Catering in Orlando.
She still serves brunch every Saturday at the Winter Park Farmers’ Market, where Tastebuds Catering attracts devoted fans to its brunch menu of omelets, breakfast quesadillas, breakfast sandwiches and Venezuelen arepas. Many of Salazar’s farmers’ market customers have become catering customers. And now food truck events make up half of her company’s business.
“It’s been growing every year,” says Salazar. “We do four or five events a week. A lot of corporate clients request the food truck for employee appreciation events, themed events like carnivals and barbecues. And some clients also want the food truck for outdoor parties or at their house.”
The food truck’s specialty is Latin American cuisine—or “Latin Flare,” as Salazar has branded it—including quesadillas, arepas, rice and bean bowls, ropa vieja and tostones. Certified in plant-based nutrition, Salazar makes sure she has vegetarian as well as gluten-free options on the menu.
Salazar employs the truck for a variety of events and purposes—for weddings, where some couples ask that their guests come to the truck for their food while others request a buffet; at food truck bazaars in the area, often organized by a city’s parks and rec department in conjunction with outdoor movies or art shows; at sporting events such as triathlons and Orlando City Soccer Club games; and as one of a rotating group of trucks that visit a large business park that lacks nearby restaurants.
She also uses the truck to help her with traditional off-premise catered events, when much of the food prep takes place in the commissary. “It helps me to finish my food and to cook fresh,” she says.
Salazar’s foundation in catering gives her an edge over other food truck owners who’ve never catered. She recalls a recent conversation with a food truck colleague who told her he often gets catering leads but doesn’t pursue them because he doesn’t have the know-how or equipment for catering a large event. “A lot of the trucks say they do catering, but a lot of them don’t know what it entails,” says Salazar. “The truck has helped me showcase my catering and my culinary background.”
In fact, Salazar has considered buying another food truck, using one for food truck events and one to help with traditional catered events. “For a caterer, it’s a great tool to have, especially when you do off-site catering,” says Salazar. “It gives me the choice of catering any type of event.” l
Salazar (above) serves brunch from her truck every Saturday (opposite, top left) at the Winter Park Farmers’ Market. Her specialties include Latin American cuisine, such as tostones (opposite bottom) and quesadillas (opposite, middle right), as well as plant-based cuisine, including burritos with a vegan filling (opposite, middle left) and black bean and sweet potato burgers (opposite, top right). Traditional off-premise catering makes up about half of her business (top).