Dan McCall, McCall & Associates | San Francisco, CA

McCall & Associates took on the kind of catering jobs others couldn’t handle, and built the business around large events.

Dan McCall started big and made it work
Dan McCall of McCall & Associates sounds awfully laid back about this business of creating a catering company, as if it just kind of happened.  Maybe that’s a San Francisco attitude. “I was in the hotel business and I wasn’t what you’d call the greatest management trainee,” he says, “so they sent me to catering.”

He was working at the St. Francis Hotel in 1971 when he was moved into the catering department. A year later he was catering manager and a year after that he was catering director. “I was this young thing in a monster hotel,” he says.

Although the St. Francis was a well known, classic San Francisco hotel in the 1970s, McCall says, “it had really crummy catering.” The events were there, but the food wasn’t. “My success was in developing food that matched the parties.”

And successful he was. The catering operation at the St. Francis grew so well that McCall started an off-premise business for the hotel. By the late 1970s, he says, it was the top
off-premise caterer in the city.

“It was all about how to pair a party with food,” McCall says, “you start with a party and the food follows.” It’s a philosophy he holds to this day.

After 10 years of working at the St. Francis, McCall got bored. “It was a fabulous job, fabulous benefits, and I was able to be very independent,” he says. “But there weren’t any other hotels I wanted to go to in the city, I didn’t want to transfer to a place like Seattle or Anchorage, and I didn’t want to be a general manager.”

Instead, McCall started his own event-planning business. “I didn’t start a company, per se,” he says. “I just quit the St. Francis and people started calling me.”

Some people start small. Not Dan McCall. “My first party was a picnic bash, rock ‘n’ roll concert for 10,000 people.”

McCall established a thriving event-planning business quickly, but he says he couldn’t find a catering company that could keep up with the kinds of large-scale parties he was doing. “Hotels can produce the volume, but that was the era when the quality of hotel catering was dropping and the prices were becoming astronomical,” he says.

So McCall started a catering company in order to fill his own needs. By 1984, the catering operation was going well and he started a floral company to handle another aspect of his party planning business. “It’s the volume,” he says. “A 10-foot floral piece is a 10-foot floral piece. You have to have people who understand the logistics.”

The 1970s and early ’80s had been good to McCall and allowed for a lot of creative and financial growth. But in the late ’80s, he says, party planning had changed. “The information age was starting to take off; the fax machine changed my life,” he says. “You had all these people working for companies all over the city saying, ‘Fax me something by 6,’ and it’s already 3 o’clock—and they wanted drawings and photos. The art of being a party planner was being taken away by the need to come up with information the next morning.”

In 1987, McCall decided he had to either retire—he had just turned 40—or make the catering company larger. He bought a catering company that was struggling, so he would have facilities. He started a training program, one person at a time, “to build a core staff that understood the catering and event business together.”

McCall’s catering company started doing only big events, parties and cocktail buffets. “Then we decided to do seated dinners. Then the social market, the symphony and the opera.”

By the mid ‘90s, McCall says, “it had become a very substantial catering company.” He had added a lighting company, expanded the floral operations—and added an equipment arm that could handle a sit-down dinner for up to 5,000 and do another buffet at the same time, without having to rent anything. In fact, he says, there was a day when the company’s 24-foot truck loaded with china and glassware was stolen —“and we still had enough to do a party for 1,600.”

Today, McCall & Associates does between $17 million and $25 million a year in sales; “$20 million is about normal,” McCall says. Facilities include a 12,500-square-foot office with 16 employees and a 10,000-square-foot kitchen with about 40 full-time staff in a building around the corner from the office.

“Our core business is catering,” he says. “What we do is make events work, and the food is part of that.”

McCall says it’s important to figure out what your company does and to focus on that. “We don’t do breakfasts. We don’t do lunch—unless it’s huge. We don’t do picnics for under 1,000,” he says. “We built a company not doing the things that are others’ staple business.”

Right now, in fact, McCall says the company is getting out of some of its secondary businesses, like running restaurants in art institutions.

The company is a success, McCall says, because of the team. “It’s run the way a partnership would be run; profit-sharing is the name of the game,” he says. “It’s not all about Dan McCall; it’s about the people who work here. The members of the firm own their positions.”

Each of the components of the company could be separate companies, he says, and the people heading them are long-time employees. 

At this point, McCall says he only works 30 weeks a year—and he likes it that way. Although he’s had “a good run,” he says, he thinks catering is hard, hard work and he’s happy that his wife and children have not gone into it. “This is definitely not a family business,” he says. “Furthest thing from it.”

One thing hasn’t changed since the young Dan McCall started his catering business more than 20 years ago: “We like parties.”

Dan McCall’s advice to other caterers
“Catering by definition means that you’re catering to someone’s needs, so you need to decide whose needs you want to cater to,” he says. “Decide what your core business is.” Although he has done well with large events, that isn’t for everyone. “It’s comfortable for us and my whole training was that way, but doing large parties is not necessarily a good idea; I’ve seen a whole lot of people go broke trying to do them.”

Catersource magazine
November/December 2004

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