Selling Big

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August 31, 2010

Smaller companies win major events with strategy

It€™s no surprise when big catering companies win the contracts for big events.
They€™ve got the staff, the resources and the experience to do everything from put together impressive proposals to serving up food to thousands of attendees.

But not every big event goes to a catering company with hundreds of employees.
Two recent events€”one in Los Angeles and one in Chicago€”went to companies with about 20 full-time employees each. The two, Erhart€™s Catering and Behind the Scenes Catering, used different tactics to sell themselves.

Relying on expertise and local experience
Erhart€™s Catering in Los Angeles was competing not just against other U.S. catering companies, but against international companies when it bid on the catering contract for the X Games, extreme sports contests held July 29 through August 1. The company hadn€™t really thought about bidding on something so big. €œWhat it boiled down to was that we have worked with the director of food and beverage at the Los Angeles Coliseum (the venue for many of the X Games contests) in the past,€ says Alan Scott, general manager.

Erhart€™s is launching a tailgating division and the company had been talking to the staff at the Coliseum about tailgating there. The director of food and beverage called Erhart€™s and asked if the company was interested in bidding on the X Games contract. €œWe didn€™t even know what it was,€ Scott says.

The relationship with the Coliseum let Erhart€™s get its foot in the door and then, €œWe put together a great proposal,€ Scott says. One of Erhart€™s advantages was that its smaller size meant a more personal touch. €œThings don€™t have to go to a corporate office somewhere,€
he says. €œWe were able to make decisions on the spot.€

The contract included catering meals for all of the corporate suites and meals for 50-300 staff, special guests, VIPs, the media and 50-200 athletes (depending on the day). Scott says this contract alone will be responsible for 15 to 18 percent of Erhart€™s catering income for the year€”and just before the event, he was hoping to get it to 20 percent.

The X Games is the biggest event Scott has worked on since coming to Erhart€™s eight years ago. €œWe are what we call a boutique caterer,€ he says. €œEvents like this don€™t come along every week; they don€™t come along every year.€

Cutting out bureaucracy and guesswork
Behind the Scenes Catering in San Diego and Chicago is a small catering company€”a dozen staff in San Diego and six in Chicago€”that routinely does large events, everything from the America€™s Cup yacht races to the Olympics in Beijing. The company started 20 years ago doing backstage catering for rock concerts.

The most recent major event the company handled was Lollapalooza, a huge outdoor music festival in downtown Chicago, August 6€“8.

David Danielson, executive chef of Behind the Scenes, says the company wins contracts for large-scale events because of its size, not in spite of it. €œWith the major national companies, there are so many layers of management and infrastructure that it€™s hard to find the right people to talk to to make things happen,€ he says. €œWhen you call our company, you either get my partner or me. My partner is the money guy and I am the culinary creative person.€

Another key selling point, Danielson says, is that Behind the Scenes does many of the major events on a management fee basis, with the client paying the direct costs of labor, equipment rentals, food and everything else. €œThey can decide what€™s important to them,€ he says. €œIt eliminates risk for us and saves them money.€

Behind the Scenes determines the fee it will charge based on the logistics of planning and executing the event. After having managed a number of large events, it can do that well. €œWe figure the fee on the time we think we need to put into the event,€ he says. €œWe figure out what we need, then work backwards. Something like Lollapalooza is a couple of months€™ work for two people. The Olympics is two years of work.€

€œAt the end of the day, we are extremely quality-oriented,€ Danielson says. €œWe look like a big guy, but we€™re a little guy. I show up at the parties. I cook. John Crisafulli (his partner) is on site and we€™re loading trucks if we need to.€

How did the latest major events for these caterers turn out? Watch for the September Get Fresh e-newsletter from Catersource for the details. If you don€™t already receive Get Fresh, sign up at  

Catersource magazine
September/October 2010

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