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Catering to demand from businesses and organizations to provide food for their events, Chloé’s French Café in Santa Rosa plans to open a second location, one focused just on that side of the business.

Targeted for an initial opening in June, the new Windsor site allows owners to expand into a side of the business they have not had the space to fully pursue since the café opened and grew ever busier over the past 11 years, according to Renee Pisan, co-owner. Banquet rooms with total seating of 80 to 100 are eyed to be open there in time for November and December parties.

“That’s what we started out doing here,” she said. Pisan and her two partners — pastry chef and husband, Alain, and brother-in-law Marc, who is a certified wine educator and runs the front of the house — started out catering both fine-dining and casual menus. They operated first from a rented kitchen in Geyserville then from the café, located in a brick office building at 3883 Airway Drive, fronting on Highway 101.

With Sutter Health opening medical offices and good reviews in The Press Democrat increasing the café’s visibility, the catering business gravitated to a casual menu. That includes box lunches, sandwich trays, salad bowls and dessert platters.

Catering currently makes up 30 percent–35 percent of revenue, Renee Pisan said.

“We see a bigger potential, as far as the catering end goes,” she said. “With the new location, I think we’ll have more time, more space to develop new recipes. We’d also like to incorporate more hot food items: coq au vin, beef Burgundy. We started out doing that, but time and space doesn’t allow us to do that [now].”

Current hot catered items are pasta gratin, soup du jour and quiche. Other menu items on the catering idea board are appetizers such as petit fours and other finger pastries. The new commissary kitchen, located in a former restaurant space, also would be geared to the preparing banquet and party food for the forthcoming events center.

Chloé’s leased a 3,600-square-foot space formerly occupied by Flamez Grill in Windsor Palms Plaza at 8499 Old Redwood Highway. New kitchen equipment is going in, and the interior is being reworked to create rooms suitable for business lunches, showers, birthday parties, winemaker dinners and table d’hôte (communal set-menu meals).

“We used to have [table d’hote] once a month, but we stopped because we were too busy,” Pisan said.

Also helping Chloé’s to better-manage the catering business is a new e-commerce system rolled out two months ago at chloescatering.com. Though the café closes at 4 p.m. Monday–Friday, business clients can place orders until midnight for an event the next day, unless the order is sizable.

The plan is to tweak the exterior of the neighborhood shopping center space into a Wine Country look. As the catering and events center operation stabilizes, another goal is to host cooking and other educational programs there in a few years, Pisan said.

CATERING TO PROFITS

Part of the appeal of catering is financial, Pisan said.

“With catering, the profit margin is a little bit more,” she said.

The amount of food wasted can be minimized, and for less-formal catering, staffing can be more efficient, Pisan said.

Restaurateurs often turn to catering to boost revenue and cushion what often is a razor-thin bottom line for Bay Area operators, according to Louise Dawson, a consultant to North Bay restaurants via the Napa-Sonoma Small Business Development Center. She owns San Francisco-based Five Star Restaurant Consultants and is a partner in foodservice-focused business brokerage Vandermade Commercial.

“Ever since I had my restaurants in the 1980s and ’90s, I always had a catering component, because catering is volume, and volume is the cure-all for any business,” Dawson said.

Small Business Administration financing standards say food cost should be kept below 28 percent of revenue, hourly payroll less than 30 percent (plus another 14 percent for taxes and insurance) and rent under 8 percent–10 percent.

“If you have food costs of 35 percent–40 percent, you either have a portion problem, a pricing problem, a waste problem or a theft problem,” Dawson said.

In addition to employees’ literally nibbling away the profits, another big theft issue is stolen time, in which workers clock in but don’t start tasks immediately, she said.

As it is, Bay Area restaurants typically have a profit margin of a mere 3 percent, which can be erased by out-of-control food and labor costs.

“That’s why catering is such a big thing,” Dawson said. “The more volume you have, the more it masks indiscrepancies.”

A step beyond catering for foodservice businesses is food trucks, Dawson said. Some of these rolling restaurants are mobile-only operations, but some are extensions of brick-and-mortar eateries that want to have their own kitchens when working onsite events.

While Chloé’s is contemplating additional “express” pickup locations, those likely would be brick-and-mortar venues, rather than trucks, Pisan said. The business currently has two catering vans and is considering a third.

Challenges for getting into food trucks include the cost of outfitting it, insuring that operation and getting pushback from municipalities concerned about the impact on brick-and-mortar businesses, Dawson said. While some consider getting a used truck to lower the initial outlay to $20,000–$30,000, rather than $100,000 new, the unexpected costs to fix issues couldn’t send the total bill skyrocketing.

Until recently, operators of food trucks had to piece together several insurance policies to cover the vehicle, liability, labor and other items, but truck-specific policies are becoming available, Dawson said.

In the Windsor location lease deal, inked Feb. 21, Rhonda Deringer of Keegan & Coppin Co. Inc./ONCOR International represented Chloe’s and property owner Windsor Palms I.

Jeff Quackenbush (jquackenbush@busjrnl.com, 707-521-4256) covers construction, commercial real estate and wine.