San Diego Business Journal

The holidays are just around the corner, and caterers are definitely cooking up something for the season.

The San Diego Business Journal's List of the Largest Independent Caterers is ranked by the gross catering sales for 1999 in San Diego County. In 1999, the combined gross catering sales for the top 15 caterers amounted to $37.8 million, an increase of 10 percent from the previous year.

Finances notwithstanding, Larry Rinehart, owner and executive chef of TK & A; Rinehart Customer Catering, Inc., No. 10 on The List, said corporate catering appears to be leveling off.

"The industry is currently in a quiet state," Rinehart said.

He said business is still very good, but believed spending on corporate events is slower than what it was three to five years ago.

- Half The Clients Are Commercial Accounts

Commercial catering accounts make up approximately half of Rinehart's business. His catering business' gross catering sales are $1.34 million.

"It's very difficult to gauge on what's going to happen from time to time," Rinehart said. "The market may be active, but it's also volatile."

Despite economic signs pointing to a boom period, Rinehart believes many corporations want to be careful with their budgets.

"They usually say, 'I want to impress these people, but I don't want to spend that much.'"

Kathleen Doeller, director of sales and marketing for Culinary Concepts, No. 9 on The List, disagreed and said the catering business is definitely booming.

"The economy is a contributing factor," Doeller said. "Everybody's budget is healthier and they have the ability to spend more money on their events."

- Gross Revenues Continue to Climb

Culinary Concepts' gross catering revenues are at $1.4 million. It is an increase of 44 percent above two years ago when annual gross catering revenues were $975,000.

Doeller said her business is diversifying its business operations, which has already evolved into three categories: convention market, corporate events and weddings.

"In this business, you have to always be strategizing and looking for new, creative ways for marketing and customer retention," she said.

For the past year or so, Culinary Concepts experimented by offering wedding packages as a service, which includes coordination of audio/video equipment, floral arrangements and limousine services.

"It's trying to be that one-stop shop," she said.

The year-long trial has been successful so far, she said. Wedding events now make up approximately one-third of the company's business.

- Quality Counts In Catering Business

Rinehart said quality is very important in the catering business. TK & A; Caterers can prepare any style of cooking for custom-designed menus, from Asian to French cuisines.

As one of TK & A; Caterer's specialties, the company offers the "California Coastal Tour" for any event. It is a buffet-style dinner with different stations of dishes from different California cities.

"Corporations often enjoy this because it impresses many out-of-town visitors," he said.

"You're only as good as your last event," Doeller said.

A specific quality standard must be at least maintained from one event to the next event and sometimes needs to exceed the quality standard, she maintained.

She said caterers receive lots of referral business from other people, who have attended a party with a specific caterer or was recommended by word-of-mouth.

Many people do not randomly flip through the Yellow Pages and choose a caterer.

"Not all caterers operate the same with the same quality level," she said.

Every detail at catered events, from quality of food to service efficiency, count in leaving a good impression about the catering company.

Culinary Concepts received the San Diego's 2000 Finest Service Award For Group Services presented by the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau this year.

"It's like being on Broadway for a live and in-person act," she said. "We're not going to get a second chance to perform."