Profile – The Art of Catering

Simon Powles, CEO of Starr Catering Group

Simon Powles, CEO of Starr Catering Group

By Sara Perez Webber

As CEO, Simon Powles orchestrates the success of Starr Catering Group, which serves customers at iconic cultural centers and beyond

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Well, you could practice, practice, practice, as the old saying goes. Or you could hold a wedding or function there—an increasingly popular option at the iconic New York concert hall, where Starr Catering Group is the exclusive caterer, orchestrating a thriving special event business.

“Over the last 12 months, the event spaces in the new education center that sits above Carnegie Hall have been extremely popular,” says Simon Powles, CEO of Starr Catering Group (starrevents.com). “The spaces, including a rooftop terrace, boast stunning views of Central Park and the surrounding city skyline.” The “grandeur of hosting your event at the world’s most famous theater” adds to the venue’s allure, says Powles.

Starr Catering Group has carved out a niche serving clients at premier arts venues. It’s the exclusive caterer for 16 additional locations in five cities, including such impressive cultural centers as the New York Botanical Garden; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; and the Pérez Art Museum Miami.

In addition, about 25 percent of the Philadelphia-based company’s business is off-premise catering, and its corporate drop-off catering division—Prandeó—has been growing steadily since debuting last year.

Starr Catering Group was launched in April 2008 by Stephen Starr—whose restaurant group includes 33 restaurants in Philadelphia (home to 20 Starr eateries), New York, Miami, Washington and Atlantic City, N.J.—and Powles. “We launched the company at the start of the financial crash, but my small team and I were not going to let that stop us,” says Powles. “We believed that we had something unique to offer, and we forged ahead. The company launched on April 1, 2008, and by April 16, 2016, we were trending at $58 million in annual revenues.” In August 2015, Starr Catering Group was acquired by Paris-based Elior Group—a large multinational commercial catering and foodservice company.

The May Dining Room at Carnegie Hall in New York.

The May Dining Room at Carnegie Hall in New York.

In a recent interview with Catering Magazine, Powles explained how Elior has helped Starr Catering Group grow, discussed the trends being reflected at Starr weddings and described the hallmarks of a Starr Catering Group event.

CM: How did you begin your career in catering and special events, and what led you to this industry?

Powles: I emigrated to the United States from the U.K. when I was 21 years old. Most of my experience at that time had been in hotel management, having completed a hotel management training program and then working as an assistant food-and-beverage manager. When I started applying for similar positions in the U.S., I found that I did not have the depth of experience they were looking for. By happenstance, I submitted my resume for the position of director of operations with a leading Atlanta caterer, Proof of the Pudding, and they hired me.

I got such a thrill out of the catering and special events business that I have spent the majority of my career in this field, and although it can be a grueling business, it’s one that I feel passionate about and fortunate to be a part of.

CM: How has being a part of Paris-based Elior Group benefited the company?

Powles: Becoming part of Elior’s North American group has helped us achieve phenomenal results in our first year with them. They have delivered on funding the company with the capital resources we had requested, which has allowed us to invest in our current and new client businesses, build internal infrastructure and develop some complementary new lines of business. As a result, our business has grown, providing better opportunities for our talented people. We have been able to promote great internal talent (many hourly associates to managers and chefs) to carry our deep culture forward and to offer them enhanced benefits as a result of being part of a larger organization. The shared services provided by Elior have helped us respond more efficiently and timely to requests from our clients, and gave us the management tools to manage our business more closely.

CM: What are the biggest trends happening in wedding catering today, and how many weddings does Starr Catering Group cater in a year?

Powles: We see a keen attention to detail in sourcing and sustainability in our wedding clients, and view this not only as a trend but as a responsibility to our profession. Our wedding clients are interested to know where we source our food and what farms we patronize, and want to see a thoughtful approach to catering. In addition, we continue to see a focus on boutique spirits and craft cocktails for our bars, and a focus on furniture pieces in lieu of standard rental tables and linens, when budgets permit. We have also seen a return to the classic seated dinner format instead of the “cocktail party” trend that we were seeing for the last two years. SCG caters more than 150 weddings per year throughout our portfolio of signature exclusive venues.

CM: Is the company looking to expand the number of cultural centers in your catering portfolio, or expand to new cities?

Powles: We are looking to continue partnering with cultural centers in the Northeast region and are looking forward to future opportunities. We recently opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. We now work in six markets in the U.S.—Philadelphia (our hometown); New York; Miami; The Berkshires, Mass.; Hamilton, N.J.; and Washington, D.C.

CM: At the cultural centers where you’re the caterer, how do you tailor the food to reflect the location?

Powles: Our philosophy related to menu development is about serving our clients good food and menu items that reflect their vision for the event. We do develop menus for major exhibitions to create an experience for the visitor in every aspect of their visit. For example, when the New York Botanical Garden hosted the “Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life” show in 2015, we introduced a “Frida’s Kitchen” prix-fixe menu in our restaurant, Hudson Garden Grill, featuring dishes from Frida’s cookbook. We also developed and opened a taco truck called La Casa Azul. The taco truck served many visitors by day and was also used for catered events during the run of the show.

CM: When did you launch Prandeó, and how much have you seen drop-off catering grow? What kind of cuisine does Prandeó serve?

Powles: We launched Prandeó in 2015 and have seen a steady increase in business in this model since the launch. We offer good food that is good for you through Prandeó and have seen a great response to that healthy catering mentality. Prandeó’s menu is comprised of continental breakfast options featuring house-made pastries, breakfast “pots”—quinoa, oatmeal and chia puddings—and fresh fruit, plus Parliament coffee; sandwiches and salads for lunch; and cocktail platters (local cheese and charcuterie, mezze and the like) for receptions.

CM: How much of your special event catering is in venues outside of your exclusive venues?

Powles: About 30 percent.

CM: What advantages can Starr Catering Group bring to a customer as a large catering company with many locations?

Powles: Knowledge and experience. We have a team of true professionals and have a support system and resources that truly make a difference in the careers of our sales professionals and in every event that they sell and plan. We also understand the competitive marketplace at a level not possible with a smaller company.

CM: What are the hallmarks of a Starr Catering Group special event?

Powles: Keen attention to detail and a level of customer service that feels like a planning company and a caterer all wrapped up in one; a true sense of style in everything we do, from the bar set-up to the food display to the table settings; and stellar restaurant-quality food and service.