Special Events

CARL ON CATERING

WHILE THE DINING public recognizes Wolfgang Puck for his high-profile restaurants and TV appearances, the event industry also recognizes the high profile of his partner, Carl Schuster, president and CEO of Wolfgang Puck Catering. From its headquarters in Los Angeles, the company operates regional bases in Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Seattle, Las Vegas, Dallas, Minneapolis, Boston, Dallas and San Francisco. Here, Schuster chats with Special Events contributing editor Natasha Garber.

Special Events Magazine: How did you get into this business?

Carl Schuster: I grew up in Minnesota. My father was in the hotel business, so I grew up in that business. Then I started working for the {San Francisco-based} Kimpton Group. Once I got to California, it was a whole new world, especially with food, from where I had come from. At the Kimpton Group, I got into free-standing restaurants in hotels. That was the biggest steppingstone for me. {New York-based} Restaurant Associates was the next stop, and they were fantastic. It was like going to the major leagues. Through that job, I met Wolfgang. We started with the Academy Awards. For the first few years, Restaurant Associates did the service, and Wolfgang did the food. Eventually, Wolfgang said, “Let's do a business plan.” We did, and the business was decided by a handshake on a Saturday.

SE: What types of events is Wolfgang Puck Catering most likely to handle?

Schuster: What we've done is two businesses, really. One is trying to be the leader in premier museums, performance sites and cultural arts centers. We've grown business by partnering with some of the best venues in the country. As we went into Minneapolis, for example, it was into the Walker Art Center, which has become one of the top modern art museums in the U.S.

When we go into a new market, we lead with getting a catering venue. Then, over time, we will start off-premise catering in that market. We like to get our focus first. And to go into a market, it's got to be substantial enough to get us there. Then, we focus for a year or whatever, before we grow our second business.

Sometimes we're limited by facilities. For example, we could definitely do off-premise {catering} out of the kitchen at the Walker. But sometimes, the kitchen won't let us. For instance, the Gleacher Center in Chicago {at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business}, where we do catering, won't let us use the kitchen to do outside business. But for many other clients, it's OK. It's a good revenue source. For these museums and cultural centers, money is hard to come by. So they're loving the rental income.

SE: Why start out with the venue relationship?

Schuster: When Wolfgang and I co-founded the business seven years ago, we started with that model. That's how Restaurant Associates' business is set up. But they were not big on the West Coast. We followed their model with celebrity chefs, etc. Restaurant Associates does a great job at what they do, and we wanted to do that, but maybe on even more of a premium level.

SE: From your perspective, what qualities set Wolfgang Puck Catering apart from its competition?

Schuster: I think quality, in a bunch of ways. Integrity of product, how it's prepared, how it's served. When we do an event, we cook the food on site to order for guests, versus loading it into a hotbox. Also, service — the ratio of server to guest. When you cook to order, you have to get it out quickly, so the quality of service is important. I think we have a certain esprit de corps.

We try to understand, “What does the customer want?” We anticipate needs. That's how Wolfgang is, customer-driven, customer-friendly. Our whole theme is to over-deliver. And we try really hard to do that. Once we get a customer, we have them for life.

SE: Is there a signature quality or defining element to a Wolfgang Puck-catered menu?

Schuster: Wolfgang is not into pretentious food, stacked food. It's about the freshest and best ingredients prepared simply. And good-sized portions. This is not delicate architectural food. It's very ample.

SE: Is demand for specialized menus — vegan, low-carbohydrate, cruelty-free, low-fat, for instance — affecting what you do?

Schuster: We've always been really into whatever the customer wants, so we've been into all the different things that people are going through at any given time. When we cater, we always have salmon and chicken, we always bring a vegetarian alternative. And we're always prepared to take care of requests. We're prepared for up to 10 percent special requests. For larger events, we actually have a request line in our kitchens. The wait staff knows to go there and ask for what they need. When we're off site, we also try to accommodate requests. At the Governors Ball at the Academy Awards one year, for instance, {child actor} Haley Joel Osment from “The Sixth Sense” wanted a cheeseburger. We got him a cheeseburger.

All our catering chefs have come from fine dining. We're essentially a restaurant doing catering. We use principles and theories from our restaurants.

SE: With so many locations and such high volume, how does Wolfgang Puck Catering maintain the consistency and quality of its product from market to market?

Schuster: Our chefs really control things. They've all worked for Wolfgang on the culinary side, and they're really doing Wolfgang's food. {Executive chef partner} Lee Hefter and {chef partner} Matt Bencivenga give the catering chefs recipes and pictures, they help pick the china. When we go into a new market, we start {the chefs} pretty narrow in terms of what they can do, what they can offer. As they can handle it, we add more items. Every market will buy locally. It's the same items we do everywhere, but bought in that market. And Matt travels nonstop. There has to be a traveling quality control team, and that's something we're putting in place as we grow.

SE: What do you count as the company's major achievements?

Schuster: This year marks the 12th straight that we've done the Academy Awards. We did the Millennium Park opening in Chicago, serving thousands of guests la minute in a park — that was a spectacular event to pull off. There's also the fact that we sold 49 percent of our company to Compass Group — having a company like that respect us enough to see us grow.

SE: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing Wolfgang Puck Catering in the next 12 months?

Schuster: To keep finding the right people. To work in this company, you have to be willing to change. We're about innovation, imagination. We change our path constantly. Wolfgang wants to be ahead of the pack.




Wolfgang Puck Catering Hollywood & Highland, 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Suite 513 Hollywood, CA 90028; 323/491-1250; www.wolfgangpuckcatering.com. For an interview with Wolfgang Puck, turn to page 58.

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