In March, Chowgirls “killer catering” celebrated their five-year anniversary — a big deal for a small business. Since 2004, owners Heidi Andermack (left) and Amy Brown (right) have nurtured Chowgirls from a two-woman company working one event per month to one that can support a 20-person staff, an equal number of servers and site managers, and eight events in one day. Last August, they even opened a new, custom-built catering kitchen in Northeast Minneapolis.
Events they have hosted include the Minnesota Monthly awards (from whom they received a “Best Up-and-Coming Caterer award in 2008), Artcrank, and the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild Winterfest. They also have been recognized by Minnesota Bride and Minnesota Monthly for their “green catering” practices.
They’ve taken some of their precious time here to answer a bunch of questions for Heavy Table readers.
How and where did you meet? And what drew both of you to going into business together?
ANDERMACK: We met because I didn’t move to Amy’s hometown of Paducah, KY. In researching an artist housing project there, my husband and I met Amy’s brother. He couldn’t believe that Amy and I both lived in Minneapolis and didn’t know each other. When we finally met [in 2003], we became fast friends and in less than a year we started Chowgirls because of our shared enthusiasm for cooking and entertaining.
How did you run Chowgirls at first when it was just the two of you? And what have you done to grow Chowgirls to a nearly 50-employee business in 5 years?
ANDERMACK: We both did menu planning, cooking, site managing, and marketing. We both have backgrounds in marketing, so we really feed off of each other in that area. We let the business and staff grow organically, i.e. we grew as the demand grew. Both of our kitchens have felt like really big steps, but we didn’t jump into either without being certain that we could sustain our business.
BROWN: Our marketing backgrounds have served our business really well; we’ve done such a nice job growing our brand, which is almost as satisfying as serving really great food. I feel like Heidi and I are constantly networking, whether live or online, and we’re lucky enough to be constantly meeting new people. This is really important in a business that’s so driven by word-of-mouth. Oh, and we’re brave and we weren’t afraid to invest in the business when opportunity has knocked.
What are the most requested plates on your menu?
ANDERMACK: Roasted and Grilled Organic Vegetable Platter, Curry Mango Chicken Salad, Caprese Kabobs (below) [savory wraps made with proscuitto, pepperoni, artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, and pecorino romano cheese].
BROWN: PLT (proscuitto, lettuce, tomato) Sandwiches, Wasabi Crab Cakes, Fancy Deviled Eggs.
Tell us about your experience catering for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart during the Republican National Convention.
ANDERMACK: Actually, for me, catering for the Jim Lehrer News Hour [which Chowgirls also catered during the RNC last year] was more intense because they were located inside the secure area. So it felt like a war zone at times — soldiers and cops with big old guns. We figured out that the Secret Service agents were the top in command, and if we could get their approval, dealing with the rest of the law enforcement was much easier.
BROWN: The Daily Show crew was a pretty fun bunch, but we didn’t see much of the on-air talent. It was great just knowing we were surrounded by such intelligence and great comedy. You can’t beat that, especially if you’re spending time at the Republican National Convention!
How has the recession affected your business?
ANDERMACK: People are still eating and getting married, so that helps. [These days] some are more budget-conscious. The biggest hit came during the 2008 holiday season when a lot of companies didn’t host extravagant parties with decorations, bar, servers, etc. Instead, they opted for more modest celebrations with food delivered.
BROWN: I find that clients are doing a lot more ‘shopping around’ than they used to — comparing prices and going with the bottom-line. Where we used to book nearly every client who came in for a tasting, we now have many who decline, citing a lower-cost proposal from another company.
What is the most unique food request you’ve ever received and how did you go about preparing it?
BROWN: A Native American menu with Wajopi berry pudding and fry bread. It was not difficult, just new to us. Taking special requests gives us lots of opportunities to discover new regional and international food ideas.
How much time do you spend cooking now versus when you started five years ago? What aspect of your job do you love the most?
ANDERMACK: In the beginning, there were Heidi recipes and Amy recipes and we’d each prepare that portion of
the menu. As we grew, we learned each other’s recipes and collaborated on more dishes. We don’t do the day-to-day cooking anymore. We come up with recipes, often cooking them at home in small batches. Or we’ll come up with food concepts and our talented kitchen staff will figure out the execution. We also encourage our cooks to offer up their ideas.
The aspect of my job I love the most is that it’s an outlet for many different kinds of creativity — cooking, event design, menu planning, marketing, writing, graphic design, and gardening. When I get a creative block in one area, I can throw myself into another and count on Amy to cover my ass.
BROWN: My favorite part of the job is creating new menu items, developing recipes with the staff, and trying the finished product with clients. Heidi and I used to cook everything by ourselves in the early days; I miss cooking, but find that when I’m not exhausted from feeding 200 guests, I’m in a much better mood for cooking for the five people in my own family.
How do you prepare for a full-service, 200+ person wedding?
BROWN: At 10 days out, the client provides us with his or her head-count and any last-minute menu changes. A week out, we post the menu for the kitchen and any specialty buying takes place. This is also when we get the schedule firmed up — matching the right personalities to each event is important to us. Each event manager and server has different talents and we try to pair up the right people for each wedding. We have an equipment manager who selects the appropriate serving pieces and packs them up for travel. Our kitchen often starts prep work the day prior to the wedding, continuing up until a couple of hours before its start time. The first round event staff arrives on-site about three hours prior to the wedding’s start, setting tables, organizing the staging area, things like that. Those two hours before a reception’s start time are the most intense, with food assembly, preparation, and garnishing in a staging area that’s often rather small. Efficiency is key.
What is the largest event you’ve ever catered, and what is the record number of events you’ve catered in one week, one month? Which month tends to be the busiest?
ANDERMACK: I believe the largest we’ve catered was the launch party for Carol.com. We were prepared for 900, but were told the final guest count was over 1,000. June and September are huge because of weddings. We’re hoping December this year will be as crazy as some in the past. This summer we have one day during which we’re booked to cater four weddings, but last June we did six weddings and two other events.
How do you manage to throw away only 10 percent of your kitchen waste?
ANDERMACK: We’ve teamed up with Eureka Recycling to compost the majority of our waste. We have a compost dumpster, which takes about 70 percent of our kitchen waste. We recycle cans, glass, and cardboard through Eureka, and all plastics through Eastside Food Co-op’s unique recycling program. After all that we have one little garbage can to handle any styrofoam or non-recyclable plastics.