Seeds to Success

What does it take to be named Greenest Caterer in the nation? We find out from Heidi Moorman Coudal, owner of Big Delicious Planet in Chicago

Diners flock to Big Delicious Planet’s popular Urban Farm Dinners.

By Sara Perez Webber

Photos by Sarah Crowley

In October, Big Delicous Planet—a Chicago-based catering company founded in 1994—earned the Greenest Caterer in the nation award from the Green Restaurant Association (GRA). It’s an impressive feat, reflecting the sustainable practices the company has increasingly incorporated into its day-to-day operations.

Big Delicious Planet (BDP)—which started out as a backstage caterer and evolved into a full-service catering company that has served such notables as Barack Obama (when he was the U.S. Senator from Illinois), Sting and Elton John—earned the most “GreenPoints” of any caterer in the nation from the GRA, a national non-profit organization that pioneered the Green Restaurant movement. In fact, BDP has earned the most GreenPoints of any caterer since 2013. The caterer’s eco-friendly moves include using recycled and compostable disposables, onsite renewable energy and Energy Star equipment, as well as—perhaps most impressively—sourcing vegetables and herbs from its own onsite urban farm.

Catering Magazine caught up recently with Heidi Moorman Coudal, the owner and culinary director of Big Delicious Planet. Coudal explained the company’s green initiatives, how drop-off catering and an on-site café enhances her business, and how the band Phish raised her environmental consciousness.

Heidi Moorman Coudal, owner of Big Delicious Planet in Chicago

CM: What has been the process for earning the Greenest Caterer designation from the GRA, and what does the award mean to you?

Coudal: When we had our first environmental assessment with the Green Restaurant Association in 2013, we received a 4 Star Certified Green rating, which is their highest rating. Every other year we go through a recertification process to see how we’re doing and improvements we’ve made. Thankfully, we’ve been able to maintain the 4 Star rating and win the award in October for Greenest Caterer. It’s a pretty detailed process of submitting months of invoices and documentation, and taking a GRA consultant on a video tour of our operation, where we show them every appliance and model number in the kitchen. Being the Greenest Caterer and the only 4 Star Certified Green Restaurant in Illinois is a proud accomplishment for my entire staff and me.

CM: When did you transition from backstage catering to full-service catering? Did you endeavor to focus on green initiatives from the beginning?

Coudal: We began catering backstage for concerts in 1994, and for 19 years we worked at venues all over Chicago and one in Wisconsin. Concert caterers are usually the first ones to arrive to the venue and the last ones to leave long after the band has left, so it’s more than full-service. They are all-day events, starting with breakfast for the road crew, followed by lunch, band dressing rooms, dinner for artists and crew, after-show food and bus stock.

The band Phish was one of my inspirations for buying locally sourced food. They always wanted to know the source of their food and how many miles away from the venue the food came, which wasn’t as easy to do back when we were catering for them and other bands. The challenge of sourcing meat and produce as close to the venue as possible made me think more about the products we were using and how BDP could become a more environmentally sustainable business. Three years before I began our green certification with the GRA, I moved into a new geothermal building and made some significant changes to the way we were doing business and the waste we were creating. Eventually we transitioned out of backstage catering in order to focus on our growing wedding division.

CM: What are some examples of the recycled and compostable disposables that you use at BDP, and how do you use onsite renewable energy?

Coudal: The majority of our disposable products are either recyclable aluminum pans or made from natural and sustainable resources, such as sugarcane or cornstarch. For instance, we’ve been using compostable to-go boxes, deli containers, cups and straws for our cafe carry-out customers for eight years. As far as onsite renewable energy, our building’s HVAC and water heaters are powered by a geothermal heat pump system.

CM: How much of the produce and herbs used in BDP’s cuisine come from the urban farm?

Coudal: Our urban farm, which is next to our kitchen, has 64 raised beds on three city lots, and although we grow quite a bit for a small operation, it only makes up a fraction of what we need for the number of people we feed. We harvested close to 4,000 pounds of vegetables and herbs in 2017, but not as much in 2018. In the summer, we might go weeks without buying cucumbers, eggplant, tomatoes and herbs, but we feed a lot of people so we definitely need to supplement from other sources. Also, because we’re in Chicago, we have a shorter growing season. We usually begin growing from organic seed indoors in March or April, and then transplant into the garden beds when we know we’re past the point of a freeze. Our last harvest usually ends around Thanksgiving.

CM: Do you plan to grow the farm even more?

Coudal: We don’t have any adjacent land to expand the farm, so we’re doing some strategic planning with our new farm manager in order to increase our harvest this year. Space is an issue in the city, so we’re planning to do more vertical planting and underplanting around taller crops, like kale.

CM: How much drop-off catering do you do, and how did you grow that part of the business?

Coudal: Drop-off catering is a large part of our business. Before I started BDP, I worked as a film production coordinator, so we’ve been catering film and photo shoots from the beginning. We cater to companies all over the city and have a few daily clients. One of them is a fun meeting space, Catalyst Ranch, which we have been working with on a daily basis for 15 years. The majority of our business has been word-of-mouth or through Google searches. We’ve done very little advertising.

CM: What about the Canteen—have you expanded that over the years, and how does it help balance the catering part of the business to have a restaurant that’s open on weekdays?

Coudal: The Canteen is our cafe in the front of our kitchen. When I opened it in 2011, the concept was whatever we’re making for a catering client that’s leaving out the backdoor, we would make more and sell it out the front door. Over time we learned that we needed to satisfy the customers and expand the menu and extend the hours a little. The Canteen is a great spot to get counter-service coffee, breakfast and lunch. We have a rotating hot lunch menu, with only three hot specials, two soups and paninis, which is why a lot of our customers love it. Unless they read our Instagram or sign up for our email list, they don’t know what they are going to get when they come in.

CM: Could you explain how your Urban Farm Dinners work, and what’s been the reaction to them?

Coudal: Our ticketed Urban Farm Dinner Series is our pride and joy because we can truly showcase the day’s harvest with a fun, creative family-style menu in a very unique urban setting [the onsite farm]. Our guests absolutely love them. Our attendees include groups of friends, couples and even singles. I’m always pleasantly surprised by how far some people come to attend them. The evenings begin with cocktails and appetizers. For an hour, guests mingle and are free to roam around the garden, check out our three beehives, and ask us questions about the garden. Then everyone sits down to a plated salad course, followed by a delicious, beautiful family-style dinner with two or three entrees and a couple of sides. It ends with one of our incredible desserts. In addition to ticketed dinners that are open to the public, we have a lot of private farm dinners for corporate outings, rehearsal dinners and birthday parties. When the weather is perfect, it truly makes for a magical evening.

Ingredients harvested from the on-site garden enhance such dishes as the green and wax bean salad with golden nugget tomatoes, micros and dill vinaigrette.

CM: Have you seen your customers place more importance on environmentally friendly catering over the years, and how do you think catering and foodservice will evolve in the future as businesses work to be greener?

Coudal: Yes, our green practices are what many customers appreciate about BDP. Consumers are more conscious than ever about where their food is sourced, what is happening to any leftovers, what is being done to reduce waste and pollution, and the overall social practices of a company. There is so much potential for waste in the food industry. We receive truckloads of deliveries every day, and we try to divert as much as possible from going to landfills.

In addition to composting and recycling, we donate all of our used cooking oil to a service that recycles it into biofuel, which is then used to power shuttle buses and make hand soap for Loyola University. That is pretty cool! Take the ban-on-plastic-straw movement that we’ve seen in the last year. While I completely agree with banning plastic straws, why wasn’t there an emphasis on banning plastic cups or demanding a more sustainable product? We have been using compostable cups and straws for our Canteen carry-out customers for years. I don’t understand why companies like Starbucks or McDonald’s haven’t switched to compostable products, but when consumers begin demanding change, it’s more likely to happen.

For more information on Big Delicious Planet, visit bigdeliciousplanet.com.