Two Caterers Contemporary Cuisine has occupied a kitchen and offices on Schrock Hill Court in northern Columbus for the last three years, but the company, which caters both corporate and social events, had humble beginnings.
In fact, it was launched in 1997 out of the kitchen of a Brewery District bar.
“I was killing time and considering law school when a friend and I thought catering would be an easy job until we were ready to go back to school,” explains Angela Petro, founder and president of Two Caterers. “So 14 years later, no law school and newsflash: catering is not easy.”
Despite challenges, Petro has grown the company substantially and become a local leader in green business practices.
Recycling, composting, storing foods in reusable containers, partnering with nearby farmers and producers who utilize sustainable practices, carpooling staff to events, and using energy-efficient equipment are just some of the ways Two Caterers works to minimize its impact on the environment.
Read on to learn who Petro continually turns to for business advice, why she didn’t take a paycheck for 18 months, and what she would say to a business owner who doesn’t think being green is important.
Melanie McIntyre: First, what resources did you use to get Two Caterers up and running?
Angela Petro: I started this company so naïve to what it really takes to be successful that I really didn’t have any tangible resources. I was lucky in terms of human resources. I knew someone who owned a bar with a full kitchen and bartered for the space. My partner at the time and I made happy hour food in exchange for full use of the kitchen all day. We were then able to negotiate great terms to take over a lease in Linworth. We found vendors willing to work on terms which would be unheard of these days.
Truly, I don’t believe given the same challenges we faced now that Two Caterers would have ever made it through its first year. I remember running the entire business on a cash basis and using a zippered bank bag to hold all of our cash. When we had enough money to cover our bills, we would split up the rest and that was our payroll method for about the first year.
MM: Did you rely on any local advisers, role models, or mentors for advice and input when starting the company?
AP: I truly started the company on a whim and, because I didn’t really expect to be doing this for very long, I didn’t do the homework that every potential business owner should do before getting started. But once I was in business, I relied heavily on mentors and role models. In fact, those people made all the difference.
One of my very first customers was Rick Smith, a local commercial Realtor. He has been my friend, advisor, mentor, and realtor for 14 years now. He believed in the energy and integrity we were showing every day and saw something in us in those early days. I still pick up the phone and ask his advice.
I also consider Diane Warren of Katzinger’s a role model. I worked at Katzinger’s in the specialty foods department after college and I was impressed with her dedication to bringing an understanding of specialty foods to Columbus. People don’t realize that she was singing the praises of foods 20 years ago that we completely take for granted these days. Foods that are ubiquitous, such as olive oils and balsamic vinegar, were not a part of our pantries even 15 years ago and Diane was sampling varieties from all over the world.
My best local advisor is a man named Bill Wentz. He taught a class called Ohio Foundation for Entrepreneurial Education that I participated in about 10 years ago. It was recommended by Greg Ubert of Crimson Cup Coffee− also a role model, mentor and local advisor. Bill taught me so much about what it really takes to be successful in small business. He helped me understand why the phrase “work on your business, not in it” was absolutely critical for success and has continued to be an inspirational figure for me.
MM: Where did you work before starting Two Caterers and has that work experience affected the way you do business?
AP: Before starting Two Caterers, I was really just punching a clock at a few different odd jobs. I think that my previous work experience had an impact on what I did not want to do. I looked at both negative examples by managers and owners, as well as positive, and strengthened my vision and values for the company based on how I would do things differently.
I also think that my father had a strong impact on my work ethic. He worked full time, then did side jobs as a carpenter evenings and weekends. I learned that you have to be willing to put in the days, hours, and minutes for your clients. He also taught me that if you aren’t willing to do your best job, it isn’t worth doing. He really valued his clients’ trust and would never give less than 100 percent on a job.
MM: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a business owner and how did you overcome it?
AP: It’s hard to pick just one because, as most small business owners know, every day can bring a new challenge. But I think one of my bigger challenges/aha moments came in 2005.
We had a very large account to provide food for a business center as a subcontractor. After two years on the account, I made the decision to “fire” the client. It was a huge account, about $300,000 in annual revenue. The problem was that we had a poor relationship with management, we didn’t have control over how our product was sold, and we had not set solid working boundaries with the client in the beginning so our profits were being whittled away each time we capitulated on something. We gave the client a three-month notice and ended the relationship respectfully. I did not take a paycheck for the next 18 months while we reanalyzed who, what, where, and how we wanted Two Caterers to move forward. I have a perfect analogy for this and as everyone at the office knows, I love analogies!
If you are a gardener, then you have probably had a shrub or a tree that you need to prune to help it bloom or thrive. The way to do that is to prune off the dead branches, the suckers −those shoots that aren’t necessary to the tree and that sap away needed energy from other parts of the shrub. Even healthy branches need to be sacrificed in order to let light into other parts of the plant. Sometimes the plant dies from aggressive pruning but, most likely, it wasn’t healthy enough to survive anyway. But more often, if you prune with care and at the right time, the plant grows back much healthier and with lush new shoots!
After that incident, we came back as a much healthier company and much smarter about how to set good boundaries with large clients. But making the decision to move on and the next 18 months presented a huge challenge.
MM: What’s the most rewarding aspect of being a business owner?
AP: Developing people I work with to be the best they can and creating long-lasting relationships with clients. I have such special relationships with some clients that have lasted for 10 years or more. I feel almost like family sometimes.
For example, I have been working with the Chornyak family in Powell for over 10 years now. I have catered for them during the best times of their lives and the saddest. I have been there for a son’s graduation, wedding anniversaries, children’s marriages, deaths of parents, and landmark birthdays. They welcome me at each event as if they couldn’t imagine me not being there. I cherish that more than anything else.
AP: Yes. It was presented at the Green Gala in November. Our category was for best green jobs and innovation. We weren’t able to accept in person that night, as we had several events to cater, one of them being the Wexner Center’s 21st anniversary party for 650 people. But we are very proud to be recognized!
MM: Why is being green so important to you?
AP: Green is important because my community is important. I think it’s much easier for people to process change on a scale that reflects the size of their individual worlds. We can affect change in our building, in our industry, and in our community, and that isn’t quite as overwhelming of a task as hoping to change the world.
I believe that the role of small business is to create good community partnerships through filling a need. Nonprofits should not be the only way to affect change. Business leaders have so much knowledge and ability to mobilize, so we have an obligation to lead our teams to be responsible community citizens. Living lighter on our little slice of the planet is critical if we want our communities to be a great place to live.
MM: What would you tell a fellow small business owner who doesn’t think being green is important?
AP: I would simply say this: you are out of touch with the general public. People want to do business with companies that share their vision and values. People in our community are putting emphasis on supporting businesses that are good for the community. Also, businesses that fail to innovate suffer.
Innovation doesn’t necessarily mean that you are inventing new products and technology. It means you are continuously changing how you do business based on new technologies, communication techniques, and social mores. Green practices and emphasizing sustainability are innovations that today’s younger demographic expect. Not doing business this way basically says you are obsolete.
MM: Is there anything else I should know?
AP: Our company has taken little green baby steps to get where we are. And the more recognition we get for green practices, the more we shine a light on what we still need to do. We hold ourselves to high standards but, with any business, we ebb and flow in how we execute those daily non-mission essential details.
I threw away a bowl of wilted lettuce today in the trash before I remembered to put it in the compost. Bad choice, but tomorrow I vow to take more little green baby steps and encourage and empower those around me to do the same. I think it’s like a diet. You can’t beat yourself up when you fall off the wagon and eat a piece of cake. You just have start the next day making healthier choices. Uh oh, another analogy…
To learn more about Two Caterers Contemporary Cuisine, visit TwoCaterers.com.