Becky Ellison catered my wedding in August. Anedotal evidence says she is one of the best caterers in the region. She personally earns “close to” $200,000 annually but she works very long hours. Becky’s food is always tasty, attractively presented, and fresh. Becky spoke to 29 students at Midwest Entrepreneurs today.
She discussed the option of opening a resturant at the Monmouth Country Club (MCC) and firmly stands behind her decision to not go that direction. She works with a small staff of 3-4 employees, but grows much bigger to do weddings for 400. She has had as many as 25 seasonal employees for events. Becky is the caterer of choice at the MCC for their weddings and parties – they recently began advertising together on local radio stations, and she has had a great response. She is completely booked through 2012 on weekends and most of spring, summer, and fall for 2013 weddings. Becky is not known as the caterer with the fanciest food and/or decorations – just tasty food at a reasonable price.
Becky was born and raised in Monmouth. She earned a WIU degree in home economics and minor in marketing. She dreamed about being a fashion designer but fell in love and had kids when she was very young. That dashed her hope of designing the latest fashions on the runway.
She is married and has three kids. Becky has had a few entrepreneurial experiences before getting into catering. She started a day care center in her home to care for her three kids and 15 others. One of them included my former student Alex Morgan who now works in Seattle as a marketing manager at Sonosite.
Becky always loved cooking – it’s her passion – a passion that became a business at the urging of her friends and family.
The story of the first wedding reminds me of how we started Above the Rim–we fell into the opportunity. “My friend’s caterer dropped out 30 days before the wedding – the friend begs me to help her out ; just do this for me”.Becky replied “I don’t know how to do a wedding for 400” — Her friend begs “you can do this; I need you, please” – she commits to cater the wedding and ends up staying up all night before that first wedding working to it get it right – Becky became an immediate success as word spread.
Word of mouth spreads – “please do my wedding” – one wedding is booked after another. Seasonal business, but she is steadily booked on weekends for nine months of the year.
In the early years, Becky was hiring someone to care for the kids in her day care so she could prepare food. Then she went to catering full time over 10 years ago.
How did she decide to start the business? Her decision to start a catering business was subtle– she bought $200 worth of dishes at an auction in Macomb as her first official step. Her business is conducted out of her home – never sought any bank financing to grow.
Becky had struggles too. One big piece of her story – Warren County WAS one of the only counties in Illinois without a health department – so legally she could cook at home and sell serve the food. They changed that law on me and I had invested thousands in my home kitchen, and now I could not legally use it without another kitchen location. The Monmouth Country Club was looking to make money in new ways and the partnership has blossomed.
“I did not choose my business, it chose me” she said.
Becky has catered events from Springfield to Peoria to the Quad Cities – catered events as small as dinner parties for 15 people such as “the class of 1936” to weddings as large as 800. She now does weddings out of state and coordinates weddings for Monmouth College couples who marry in Dahl Chapel and hold thew reception out at the country club.
Marketing-wise she relies on word of mouth advertising – Becky takes the first paid contract on a specific date – if a later bigger offer comes in she honors her commitment and says “sorry I am booked” – its a costly decision to honor every commitment but her reputation is too important to tarnish.
She continues to employs four people in the business – all family members — she was in business with her mother – but health concerns caused her to “slow things down last fall”. Her mother kept track of purchasing and cash flow and turned things over to Becky’s accountant, who does alot for her. She also carries a lot of special insurance and keeps a lawyer on retainer.
Becky meets each client personally, talks thru the event, type of event, number of guests, type of guests (males, females, farmers, business types, high school kids, etc – I have to know who I am serving in order to know what type of food to make, what would be appropriate, and how much to make).
Everything Becky makes is created from scratch, even when making it from scratch costs more – “if you want cheap food, don’t hire me.”
There are no set schedule of prices like most other caterers – Becky prefers to sit down with her clients. “They tell me what they want, and I will buy all the ingredients and cook it and serve it – you pay for the ingredients and then pay me that much and little more for my labor – I like to balance the bill at about 60% labor and 40% food but sometimes it is closer to 50%/50%. When the event is over, I offer all the extra food to client – I have no room or use for leftovers – How can I ever use so many leftovers, anyway?” I usually charge a flat fee of $1000-1500 for wedding and provide all of the receipts for the food I purchase. I don’t mark up the food costs and return all of the uneaten food to her client.
“I decided to not work for anyone that will not sit down with me and talk about what they want and what I can do – that process (step) prevents misunderstanding and unhappy customers – customer service is king for me – Tell me what you want, I will tell you what it costs. Then I will deliver what I promised and it will be excellent.”
One of the headaches of the business is its erratic hours and seasonality. This irregular stream of customers – sometimes 60 straight daysof events and then two weeks of nothing can drive other managers crazy when trying to line up help. It is hard for her to commit to full-time help since she never knows what the next week will bring.
She cooks about 3200 days a year – sometimes three or four different events in one day – she already has booked 14 weddings for 2013 – wow!
Becky felt the effects of the recession last year, but things are picking up. “most people would not have weddings for more than 150 people during the recission. Now people think nothing of 400 people that often costs $3,500 more than the smaller weddings. She noticed when times get tough she still get parties booked but the payers or sponsors skimp on the meals compared to heady days pre-2007. However, she has many steady customers – weekly and monthly such as the Monmouth Rotary, banks, seed corn companies, corporate board meetings, and employee dinners. The changing business conditions has forced her to make some changes to her business model.
Two years ago she served 38,000 meals for Monsanto research farm south of town — That equated to $120,000 of sales. For 2010 Monsanto was down to $17,000 in sales. Becky said “The Monsanto corporate belt-tightening really hurt my business. ”
Two years ago the Warren County health department was established – so she was required to organize a commercial kitchen. She operates it separately from her home business through a leasing/sharing arrangement with Monmouth Country Club – Mike Connell and John Twomey – it is a new business model for both Becky and MCC – customers sign a contract with Becky for food & customers and sign a rental agreement with MCC at the same time – this new joint venture is an evolving business model for both sides – she catered and MCC rented to Monmouth College for the recent meeting for 30 faculty members and administration.
Today you will find becky serving food at MCC and at other venues in Western Illinois with similar arrangements. Becky has no business plan or retirement in mind. She is training new people all of the time and enjoys that part of her business. She learned by doing – followed her passion – but her future is uncertain “I will do the best I can for my customers, and if that leads me down a good path, I will follow it”.