The Better to Serve
For every hole in the plastic grid of a milk crate, there is a catering niche. But even when you’ve found yours, you’ll need to bring in-depth knowledge of cuisines, excellent cooking skills, solid business chops, and social connections to your enterprise. And to do more than survive, you’ll need all these ingredients plus something extra.
In the case of Neal Green, the secret sauce that has kept his East Tennessee event catering business on a steady growth trend for more than 15 years is his commitment to civic engagement. Green took us through the recipe.
Green began his 30-year foodservice career not in restaurants or hotels but as a Knoxville, Tennessee, teenager working in grocery stores. That led to several years in the meatpacking industry. In the mid-1990s, he and his wife, Susan, began preparing meals to meet a need at their church and in 2001, bought a 10-year-old business called All Occasion Catering from Green’s godfather.
“You would be answering the phone in one hand and flipping a steak in the other,” Green recalled in a interview with the local newspaper. Days off were rare then for the Greens—and have been since. As of 2014, the average business owner in the catering industry worked 59 hours per week; that would be a light week indeed at All Occasion Catering.
Some 50 percent of caterers in business today own their own kitchen facilities, according to industry reports, but in 2008, buying a commissary space entailed an all-but-unimaginable financial risk. That was the year the Greens decided to double their square footprint. They chose a former restaurant supply store property closer to downtown that was part of a city redevelopment project and, using green materials, began to turn it into a kitchen and small banquet hall with an in-house staff of 20 and 50 more on call. In May 2009, they opened their doors–onto the Great Recession.
“Change can be good and bad, but regardless, it is going to happen. It is what we do mentally to adapt to change and try to excel that makes the difference.”
Measure twice, allow to rise
During the recession, Green was asked how his business was adapting. His answer at that time: “We have to use good business sense and make sure we are doing our logistics correctly, making the fewest trips we can, and being good stewards of our resources.”
Stewardship in general seems to be a pillar of the Greens’ business. All Occasion donates an average 7 percent of sales in the form of catering for nonprofits, local government officials, and charities. Neal and Susan are committed mentors and active supporters of some highly focused education initiatives. In 2012, for example, Green joined a council of 100 professionals advising educators and adopting classes of career-and-technical-track high-school students, and hired a junior and a senior student interested in the culinary arts as a direct result.
“In our culture, we ask all our staff, ‘Why do we exist as a company?’ The answer is simple but very important: we exist to serve people.”
Also in 2012, Green was appointed to the board of directors of the International Caterers Association, and named to Top Gun, a division of the industry organization Catersource that was created to bring together the top caterers in America. An active member of the local chamber of commerce, Green began a two-year term on the Mayor’s Business Advisory Council that year as well.
These days, corporate profits are at an all-time high and both business and consumer spending continue to creep upward. Catering-industry revenues are expected to grow by 2.5 percent this year, gaining for the third in a row. But All Occasion Catering has advanced faster than that. The company did not merely weather the economic crisis; it grew at a rate of at least 15 percent each year since 2008, and by now has doubled its business. Over one week during peak season, Green says, they’ll cater 45 to 50 events—as small as 30 guests or as many as 2000.
Green says they’re taking the increases in stride. “Back in 2007 customers would plan corporate events 6 to 9 months in advance, but now since the recession that time has been cut down to weeks or just days,” he says. “It is not unusual in our world to see 30 to 40 percent of sales come in each month on short notice.”
Mise en place
Green has never stopped planning for the next stage. He had witnessed an urban renaissance changing their own town and the country’s largest cities. Now, he says, “what we wanted to do was create a special urban but also historic space where customers could hold weddings, corporate events, social gatherings, artists and concerts.”
In September 2015 All Occasion Catering opened that second venue: 10,000 square feet of event space in an exciting reclaimed property downtown, a set of loading docks originally constructed for the East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia Railroad in the late 1880s.
“We looked at over 12 venue opportunities before settling on [this one],” Green recalls. “The deal has to be right to be successful and in today’s time with margins always tight there is not much room for error.”
Cash flows and critical path became top-of-mind. Before signing the new long-term lease, Green had to build out the existing commissary to accommodate the increased volume of work from new venue. “Most people starting out in the catering business do not realize the amount of time it takes to run the business,” he says, “and the importance of having a great accountant to help guide you through all the red tape.”
A great sense of purpose doesn’t hurt, either.