The Great Recession has been hard on local caterers, but there are signs of life, according to the principal owner of the top-ranked company on the San Diego Business Journal’s list of Independent Caterers.

“It started to pick up again in 2011; clients such as Qualcomm and Life Technologies are adding people and are coming up with new ideas for the kitchen and other events,” said Behind The Scenes Inc.’s president, John Crisafulli. “Everyone loves to eat and drink.”

The 15 companies on the Business Journal’s list of Independent Caterers are serving up a wide variety of fine food, including French gourmet, organic and barbecue fare, in addition to event planning and cooking classes.

The companies reported total gross catering sales of nearly $32.7 million for 2010, employing 1,460 full-time and part-time people.

The criterion used to rank the list is gross catering sales for fiscal 2010, the most recent data available. The growth for the group compared to 2009 was essentially flat at 0.4 percent.

Mirroring the overall list performance at less than 1 percent growth from 2009 to 2010, Behind The Scenes reported 2010 gross catering sales of $7.2 million. Based in San Diego, BTS provides catering services to a broad range of clients locally and nationally.

Gold Medal Service

Notably, BTS is entering its seventh year of a long-term contract to provide catering and hospitality services for NBC’s Olympics crew, staff and on-air talent. BTS is now in preparation for the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

“We spend 12-18 months preparing for each Olympic Game, which include site surveys, local vendor interviews and hiring, menu planning, build out of venue locations and kitchens,” Crisafulli said. “Meanwhile, our San Diego office is fully staffed to service our local clientele.”

A venue as large as the Olympics requires streamlined logistics. This was particularly important for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Crisafulli said.

“It was right after 9/11 and we were required to do extensive background checks on all the people working for us, as well as all of the vendors providing the food,” Crisafulli said. “We had to know where the food was grown, by whom, where it was warehoused, full backgrounds on the trucking companies and their staff — it was quite an intricate tracking system.”

Crisafulli added that his company continues to use the system on a daily basis in San Diego.

“This system has resulted in tremendous efficiencies and cost savings to the client,” Crisafulli said. “We can get better deals on equipment and suppliers and we pass this along to our clients.”

BTS has moved into new offices in Sorrento Mesa that include a 3,000-square-foot demo kitchen. The chef holds cooking classes for adults and children, and clients can rent it for competitive events and parties.

A Full Plate

Picnic People/Festivities Catering & Special Events, No. 2 on the list with $4.4 million in gross catering sales for 2010, has a lot on its plate, with three additional brands and a hotel concession. The companies are owned by founder and CEO Lisa Richards.

Picnic People is a picnic planner and caterer in addition to providing games and activities for the picnic attendees, Richards said.

“Festivities is a full-service catering and special events company providing a range of services from private parties to complicated affairs on the USS Midway,” Richards said. “We also own The Village Grille in Balboa Park, a self-serve caterer Be Delish Express! and TK&A Custom Catering (No. 12 on the list).”

If that isn’t enough to keep the company busy, Richards said that in 2011, The Bristol Hotel in San Diego contracted with Festivities to provide all of the food services, including breakfast, lunch, dinner, room service, bar and catering, to its guests. All of the food services staff is employed by Festivities.

“This is a different business model from most hotels,” Richards said. “It’s not typical for a hotel to sublease food services.”

In 2003, Richards and Frank Christian, president, formed another company, Picnic People Services Inc., to sell franchises of the picnic event concept.

“We have seven locations,” Christian said. “Right now most of the franchisees are doing well, in spite of an ongoing conservatism to invest and grow the business.”

Christian added that the local catering and picnic business is trending up. While not quite at pre-recession levels, it has improved.

“There are more parties and a lot more events, just less money to spend,” Christian said.