This guest post comes to us from Matt Phelan, President and Co-Owner of Simply Fresh Events.
Simply Fresh Events has been catering outdoor events in the Washington, DC area since 2015, but my background in the industry goes back much further than that — more than 20 years, in fact. I’ve spent nearly my entire career figuring out how to get delicious, simple, and fresh meals to hundreds of people in far-flung parks, barns, quarries, and wherever else people want to gather. I’ve learned a ton, and when Nowsta approached me about sharing my expertise with the rest of the catering world, I jumped at the opportunity.
Over a three-part article series, I’m going to share with you some of my strategies for building an outdoor catering company, finding new customers, and making an outdoor event run smoothly. I’ll start with my background and a few things I’ve learned about what makes for a well-run catering company.
Getting an early start
I got my first catering job at a local family owned barbecue style caterer when I was 14. At the time, I just needed a summer job, but it ended up being a blast! We were a young staff — the average manager was probably about 19 — but the owner trusted us enough to give us real responsibility and even hire the friends and family we referred. I’ve had great luck taking a similar approach to hiring at my company.
I loved the work so much I ended up growing there for 20 years. During that time, I saw the business change substantially. I was there when we bought our first commissary, a barn with a walk-in freezer but not much other than that — no ovens, no cook top, and certainly no air conditioning. We cooked everything on charcoal, and it was delicious, but time-consuming, of course. Eventually, we bought a picnic facility 12 miles away where we could run our own events, and I must’ve made the drive between there and that commissary thousands of times. I’ve done every job that exists at an outdoor catering company, from loading trucks to sewing up a torn wedding dress minutes before the ceremony. I’ve got a lot of experience in this industry. And all of it has proven invaluable in building Simply Fresh to what it is today.
Striking out on my own
I didn’t go straight from my first gig to building my own company, however. After 12 years of general managing with my first employer, I actually left to be the general manager of a port-a-john and restroom trailer business. My experience with events made for an easy transition, but let me tell you — and perhaps this should’ve been obvious — it’s not nearly as fun a business to be in. I found that it lacked the collaborative, positive, “get it done with a smile” attitude of catering, and after five years, I’d had enough of portable bathrooms.
Luckily, an old colleague of mine, Geoff Barker and his wife Jocelyn, left their respective full and part time positions at a catering company around the same time. We’d talked before about running our own company, and now seemed like the moment. Geoff would handle sales and I’d take care of operations. My thinking was that we’d focus on corporate picnics — I didn’t give much thought at all to weddings at the time! They hadn’t been a big part of our business in the past, but from the wedding experience I did have, I knew it could be extremely difficult to meet client expectations and figured we’d have better luck on the corporate side.
Things don’t always go according to plan. And in this case, I couldn’t be happier they didn’t. It turns out that Geoff and Jocelyn had gained a ton of experience in weddings during my time away from catering, and he convinced me that we could leverage his connections with popular outdoor venues and her history of glowing client reviews to win wedding business right away.
They were absolutely right. We did 15 weddings in total during our first year in business in 2015 and haven’t looked back. Over the course of 2015, we had established our kitchen in space rented from a nearby firehouse, bought our own trucks and the equipment we needed to cook anywhere on site, and expanded our team, starting with a terrific office manager who is now our executive chef — her culinary degree turned out to be an incredible asset!
Moving forward to 2018, we did 250 total events, only about a quarter of which were weddings. However, those weddings made up nearly 40% of our revenue, and we already have more than 40 booked this year. The rest of our events are a mix of other social gatherings, corporate events, and disaster catering, which is when we feed emergency crews during power outages and the like. Our next step is to take on galas and other higher-end events. As of now, I’m extremely proud of all that we’ve accomplished in the last four years.
How do we do it?
If I had to boil Simply Fresh’s strategy down to one phrase, it would be “Going above and beyond.” Unlike many caterers, we have full-time wedding coordinators on staff whose services come standard with any catering contract. By providing experts who can go beyond just the food and help our couples with seating charts, guest management, and all the other moving parts of their big day, we’re able to add extra value that differentiates us from the competition — and it comes through in our reviews.
We also show up prepared for any situation. Our team always has a wedding emergency kit at the ready with phone chargers, batteries, needles and thread, nail polish, glue, aspirin — anything you could possibly need at a wedding. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been able to swoop in and save the day when something has gone wrong. It’s something couples never forget.
But the most important part of the equation is our staff. We staff all of our shifts with our own people and rarely have to rely on staffing agencies. It’s not that agencies don’t have great event pros, but we want to make sure anyone interacting with clients and guests is steeped in the Simply Fresh culture. We do our best to build a workplace people are excited to be a part of, and people can sense that positivity at our events. Not only that, but we go out of our way to educate our staff on industry best practices and get them certified in areas like ServSafe food safety and Allertraining. Simply put, our staff are our biggest advantage as a business.
See behind the curtain
Now that you know a bit about who I am and where I’m coming from, I’d like to tell you more about how we’ve been able to build our business at Simply Fresh. Next time, I’m going to break down our sales process for you and tell you how we’ve been able to win customers. After that, I’ll move on to our event processes and tell you everything you need to know to run your own outdoor events. Be sure to check it out!