“It just hits the soul.”
This is the phrase that launched Chef Tony Watkins’ Soulfully Delicious catering operation over 20 years ago. Like many caterers, it didn’t become a full-time business right away.
“Over the years people would ask me ‘Would you do this function for me?’ It became more of a weekend gig more than anything. I had a career in insurance—25 years of doing that but I always wanted to cater.”
Chef Tony started out with BBQ but he’s never said no to anyone on any kind of food. He prides himself on his flexible menu options and credits his success to strong customer communication efforts.
“I’m really about variety. Being in this business you can really get pigeonholed—this is what he does—and I love what he does, but if they want something else they will start to think of someone else.”
From Cajun to Italian and everything in between, Chef Tony aims to please. This starts with getting as much information as possible about a customer’s likes and dislikes and hearing their stories and food experiences so that he could deliver what they expect.
“I really ask them a lot about their history. What did your mom make that you loved? What about your grandmother? What do you like? Food is about sharing. It really takes you a long way.”
Who Are Soulfully Delicious’ Main Customers?
The bulk, 80%, of his business is from corporate catering. Take for example Gordon Food Service. Their corporate office is based in Grand Rapids, Michigan – close to Chef Tony.
“They have an amazing kitchen but don’t have a chef on board so it allows them to invite their customers, like myself, to come in and provide lunches for training sessions or to come in to prepare foods to show off their products. I do lunches 3 or 4 days a week at Gordon’s.”
Tony has built up such a reputation and trust with his key customers that some tell him: ‘I have a function at 5:30 for 50 people. Bring whatever you want because we know it will be good!’ He also measures success by the ultimate reaction he gets from his customers: ‘It took me right back to my mother’s kitchen!’
Soulfully Delicious Menu Trends
Chef Tony’s menu is slowly transforming into a healthier one – less mayo, more yogurt. “My goal in the 5 years of this first run is to go all natural so I am trying to prepare my clients for this because it will cost more but if they love what I am doing they know they will get better and healthier food.”
He’s also expanding his menu options. His wife’s work with a non-profit, Mission India, is a chance to visit India and learn first-hand the preparation techniques for authentic Indian dishes.
Chef Tony Wins the Cambro Diced Challenge Contest
At Catersource, Chef Tony entered the Cambro Catersource Contest (Diced Challenge) and won a prize package which included a Camshelving unit, food pans, storage containers, temperature maintenance tools and a host of miscellaneous essential supplies for the kitchen work station.
All the winnings came in handy. The new shelving unit was great timing. “Everything fits on the rack in a nice way.”
“Cambro products have made my life easier! I do functions up to 1,000 people and need to make sure to get the food to the right place. If I can cut down on the number of units that go out the door, it saves me time and is just more efficient and that’s what I’m trying to build on. As a new business owner I have to build slowly. First of all, I go to what’s worked. I bought a couple of Cambros and they’ve proven themselves to me and I would purchase them again. I research a lot. Quality is very important to me and I know I’m getting my money’s worth.”
The hot-holding transporters – the 300MPC and others, have made a big impression on Chef Tony.
“I’ve taken pans out at 3:00 and come back at 7:30 and that dish is still warm and I can still eat that food in the Cambro unit. It’s amazing. It’s been holding the heat for over 4 hours and as soon as that dish hits the cool air you can see the steam rise. It’s done well for me.”