Caterer Profile: Culinary Creations � by Stacey Ransco

May/June 1999 (pg 35-36)

"The personal touch that Culinary Creations � employees provide sets the company apart." (Stacey Ransco)

    "Unique", "delicious," "great customer service" and "customized menus" are a few sayings one might see when reading a catering advertisement. When catering companies can advertise their services however they choose, how do customers know which ones are telling the truth?

    When Andrew Pantano started his catering company, Culinary Creations �, it was hard to distinguish his business as truly unique from other catering firms. "In the beginning, people think that you're like everyone else," says Pantano, co-owner, executive chef and catering consultant at the Hillsborough, New Jersey based catering company. "You have to show them that you're different, that you take pride in what you do and you're willing to spend that extra time with them to make sure everything is exactly how they want it."

      Stop 'n Sample

    Quite a few things set Culinary Creations � apart from it's competitors. Pantano and his business partner, Antonia Manzi, opened a restaurant and pastry shop where potential customers stop in at any time and sample menu items.

    "Instead of arranging a formal tasting -- which we can do if that's what is best for the customer's schedule -- he or she can stop in during business hours and be assured the quality of the sampling will be the same as the food we would provide for the event," says Pantano.

    Culinary Creations � also offers cooking demonstrations to anyone who wishes to take the classes. "People seem to enjoy the cooking demos and it's a good marketing tool for us," explains Pantano. "It's neat that people are so interested in what I do for a living. We actually teach them how to cook while equipping them with helpful preparation tips. It's one aspect of our operation that I've really come to enjoy." 

    Perhaps the most important difference is the personalized service that Pantano and Manzi provide their clients. "A lot of caterers offer package deals for their clients to choose from," says Pantano. "We try to tailor the menu to the customer's needs instead of trying to see which package we could fit them into. Although we have a standard 15-page menu that changes four times a year, we like to sit down with the customers and go over every aspect of the menu that he or she chooses and customize it down to the ingredients  if needed."

Getting Started

    Pantano founded Culinary Creations � with a previous business partner. After about a year, that partner left and Pantano approached Manzi with the opportunity to be his business partner.

   "We both went to culinary school at the Culinary Institute of America. After working in numerous restaurants, we wound up working together at an inn in New Jersey," says Pantano. The two then joined forces to make Culinary Creations � what it is today, a full service catering company with a restaurant and a pastry shop.

   "We can do everything," says Pantano. "We'll do the rentals, arrange the disc jockey or the band and we'll set clients up with locations that we like to work with. And, if we can't provide a service, we'll give referrals and work closely with the other companies that they have working for them." By being flexible and open to working with other service providers, event production runs much smoother.

    With so much going on, Pantano ad Manzi have had to rely heavily upon their staff. Culinary Creations � employs an on-premise staff of 13 and an on-call catering crew of up to 40.

    "Fortunately, because we've worked in a number of restaurants and kept in touch with so many people, finding a quality group wasn't hard for us," states Pantano. "I've talked to other caterers who struggle to find good temporary staff members but we've been really lucky."

Riding the Wave of Technology

    Culinary Creations � can be found on the internet, a marketing tool that Pantano says has worked well for his business. "The internet has been pretty effective," states Pantano, "People are accessing it more and more these days and it's a great way for people to reach us 24-hours-a-day. The difficult part is keeping it updated."

    Cooking demos, word of mouth and the yellow pages are also in Pantano's marketing plan. Yet he believes that providing good, quality service and food is still the best way to get business.

      "When we first started Culinary Creations �, we tried to compete too much. We were price hungry, trying to out-price the competition, and the quality of our product suffered because of it," explains Pantano. "If you just keep your quality high, give customers that one on one contact and keep everything running smoothly, success will come naturally."

    Pantano warns that although some may say it will be one or two years before a newcomer to catering industry irons out the wrinkles, he thinks it took about three years for his business to get over the hump to the point where he could look back, see that he had been a success, and begin to relax and enjoy.

    It can be hard to get event planners and party throwers to try a new off-premise caterer after they've been using the same one for a long time. Many caterers in the area have been in business for 15 or 20 years.

    The most challenging aspect regarding our competition is that they've been here a lot longer than we have," explains Pantano. "It's difficult to get people to break away from their usual caterer. However, we've found that once people try us, our repeat business is fantastic."  

    Pantano has found that the hardest customers to land are the corporate clients, only because they don't have time to go shopping for a new caterer all the time. "They are the people to whom we direct most of our marketing because they won't be walking into the restaurant and pastry shop or attending our cooking demos like many of our other clients."

    Pantano and Manzi have big plans for Culinary Creations �, starting with an expansion this June. Having outgrown their existing space, they will take over another section of the building that they are in, creating more retail, kitchen, and catering space. The cooking demonstrations have been such a big hit, Pantano and Manzi are also thinking about finding a separate location to use solely for that purpose.

    With all of this growth, some business owners might be tempted to sit back and enjoy the ride while the fruits of their investment work by themselves - not Pantano and Manzi. It's a seven-days-a-week job at times, but they have enjoyed the journey. This is one lesson that can't be taught in a classroom - love what you do and it will inevitably be a success. c/m

Stacey E. Ransco is assistant editor for Catering Magazine.