Quality ingredients and cooking style created growth
It took almost 10 years before Jean True realized that she didn’t have to do everything by herself. After being the one full-time staff person for her catering business, “about 16 years ago I decided I just could not cook one more chicken breast and I hired my first chef,” she says. “Now I have three. I say that I book ‘em and they cook ‘em.”
True, who has a masters degree in home economics, started teaching cooking classes in her home during the 1970s, so she could be with her three little boys during the day. She also took every class she could find, including some taught by Paula Wolfert. “I would come home from classes and cook until 3 in the morning.”
She and her family moved to a house that had two kitchens, so they gutted the kitchen on the lower level and got it approved by the local health department for catering use. She and some friends who liked to cook began providing the food for events. “We would do a wedding reception and make some extra food, so all of our families would have dinner, too.”
Other than a brief excursion into owning a bistro in the 1990s (“It didn’t work out.”), True has been catering ever since. The company does weddings and parties, as well as corporate drop-off and dinner meetings. “Corporate is more of our focus right now,” she says. “I’ve just hired two more corporate consultants.” Many of the social events come from corporate clients.
The key to her success, True says, is the quality of the food. “We make everything except our breads—we’ve even been known to make our own ice cream and sorbet,” she says. “Our food has that really homemade, made-from-scratch flavor. We stuff our own chicken breasts, skin and poach our own salmon.”
True Cuisine does full-service catering, but also has drop-off and delivery and set-up options for social as well as corporate events.
True Cuisine operates in the western Chicago suburbs. True says there are three or four catering companies that bid for the same jobs. “Our strength is in our quality of food and service,” she says. “People know that if they hire True Cuisine, they get the best.” A suburban magazine has ranked True Cuisine as the best in the area. True says the suburbs are growing to the west, and her business is following.
True Cuisine has seven full-time staff and about 50 servers and bartenders she can use for events. In the summer, college students are available for events. Staff at events are paid $10-$20 an hour. True doesn’t put gratuities on the invoice, but says that most clients give 18-20 percent.
True Cuisine moved into its current location about seven years ago. It has a 2,000 square foot kitchen, and office space for True and her sales consultants.
Riding the normal ups and downs of the business is challenging, True says, but she has big plans beyond keeping the business afloat. “I just want to double our volume in corporate catering,” she says. “We have a system down, everything is in place. After hiring two more people, we want to expand our boundaries to the northern suburbs.” That means she won’t be looking at retirement any time soon: “I’m 61 now; I’ll be doing this when I’m 80.”
She says getting the public to understand how user-friendly catering can be is an important challenge for her growth. “They can pick up dinner for two or a dinner for a family reunion. People are starting to think about not having to do it all, all of the time.”
The growing trend for healthy food works well for True, she says, because her catering is all freshly made, with no preservatives.
Glen Ellyn, IL
• Strictly off-premise catering
• $1.6 million annual sales