Simon Powles’ love for food began humbly while working in his aunt and uncle’s pub in the United Kingdom. From there he emigrated to the United States in the late 1980s which led to a surprise job as the Director of Operations for a catering company in Atlanta, Georgia.
Over the next few decades Powles established himself as one of the premier figures in the industry, a journey that culminated in him and Stephen Starr founding Starr Catering Group. After the group was sold to TrustHouse Services Group, Simon remained as President and CEO of Starr.
Starr was the exclusive caterer of the Democratic National Convention this past July where they fed around 15,000 people over the course of the four-day event. It is the latest in a long list of impressive venues and events for Simon and Starr including Carnegie Hall and the New York Historical Society. We spoke with Simon on the recent sale of Starr Catering Group, how they secured the contract with the DNC and what makes Starr so successful.
How did Starr Catering get started?
When I first met Stephen Starr I had been part of the team that took Wolfgang Puck into the catering world. I worked for them as Vice President of Operations and vice President of US Development for almost four years. Puck then decided to become a part of Compass Group and although I have a lot of respect for them I decided I wanted to do something different.
Stephen interviewed me to be the COO of his restaurant group but my background is more in catering. Then he said to me, “what do you think about starting a catering company”? That is how we got started.
How has Starr Catering evolved since its inception?
On April 1st of 2008 there was just myself, a junior operations guy, a gal who helped me with sales and administration and a chef. Between April and December of the first year we only did about thirty-five events. We might have done a million dollars in business. By 2010 we were fortunate enough to pick up contracts for some cultural institutions like the Perez Art Museum in Miami, Carnegie Hall in New York and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. That year we were up to twenty-six million. By 2014 it was forty million and we will finish up 2016 with about fifty-nine million and a seventy-three million dollar budget for next year.
Where are you based out of?
We do customized proposals out of Philadelphia, where we have a 10,000 square foot commissary that produces food for all of our events, as well as out of New York City. We also have drop off catering operations in Miami and The Berkshires.
You cater for quite a few cultural institutions. What is your favorite?
I have to say the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is the fourth largest museum in the country and it is right in our backyard. It is near and dear to my heart because we opened it in August of 2010.
What makes for a successful operation on such a large-scale?
It starts first and foremost with great people. Once you have great people you need to train them well. We have an orientation program that really explains the culture we stand for and looks for people who will fit well.
After that it comes down to planning, execution and honesty. Don’t sell your client something you can produce for five people but will be of lower quality for five-hundred. Focus on the details you need like the level of staffing, the steps of service and how to keep your staff up to speed.
Are there any ways of planning unique to Starr Catering?
At Starr Catering we like to break down and isolate certain portions of the event. It means that every detail of the event is delivered at an optimal level because no one is being overloaded with what they have to manage.
How do you build your menus and to what level can you customize for your clients?
We custom build almost everything. We have core menus that we update a few times a year to ensure it is seasonal but most of what we do is custom outfitted. Our staff knows what works for smaller events versus larger ones and we use a database that we can get menu items from dependent on what the client wants and then deliver them a personalized proposal.
We just created a new proposal template and our clients have been telling us it is the best looking catering proposal they have ever seen.
How did you secure your contract with the Democratic National Convention?
It all started off with Philadelphia and other cities vying to be the location for the convention. We work with the City Convention Bureau whose job it is to sell Philadelphia as a location. We help with the sales process and we do most of that work pro-bono because we are supportive of Philadelphia and had an interest in getting the convention to Philly. We hosted the selection committee for the DNC in Philadelphia and did smaller events around the city as a way to support the Bureau. In terms of outreach we still rely on guerrilla marketing and the grass-roots philosophy that got us started. We work through different connections and reach out to people who we have mutual friends with. We created some great customized proposals for the DNC and the host committee loved them. We also hosted the opening night convention party for about six thousand people the Sunday night before the convention.
In addition to the DNC you are operating the CNN Grill. Could you talk about that as well?
Sure, we also did the CNN Grill at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland before the DNC. Our team catered an event at the Perez Art Museum in Miami last year and they had such a great experience that they reached out to us for more events. After we worked with them on a holiday party for a private client in New York City and a few other events, they reached out to us about submitting a proposal for the CNN Grill in both Cleveland and Philadelphia.
Can you explain more about what operating the CNN Grill entails?
The CNN Grill operates just like a restaurant where there is a regular menu that CNN people and their guests can order from for breakfast, dinner or late night offerings. For the RNC it was operated out of Harry Buffalo Restaurant in Cleveland right by Quicken Loans Arena. We designed the menu and carried out all of the service and training programs. We also had twenty-five management and culinary staff working with the staff of the restaurant cover the course of the convention. It was the same process at the DNC. We operated out of Victory Brewing Company’s Beer Hall at XFINITY Live!