John Svensson, managing director of Regency Caterers by Hyatt in Chicago, says catering has changed dramatically since he started in the business almost 30 years ago.
"It used to be people would just come in and say, 'Can you plan this for me?' because they felt out of their element," he explains. "Today, people are more educated about cuisine and have specific knowledge of what they are looking for. They don't necessarily have to go to outside firms to come up with ideas as much as they will hire event planners to carry out their desire for a more sophisticated look."
He credits the evolution of restaurant menus for his clients' more adventurous palates. "Thirty years ago, it was not uncommon to serve prime rib and a twice-baked potato," he says. "Now, I can't remember the last time I served prime rib."
Though his years of experience are quite impressive, even more notable is that Svensson has worked for the same corporation-Hyatt Hotels-since graduating from the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., in 1973.
The Corning, N.Y., native says, "By the time I was a sophomore in high school, I knew that I wanted to be in the hospitality industry. I've always had an interest in cooking and in entertaining people."
His first job out of college was as coffee shop manager for a Hyatt in Oak Brook, Ill., near Chicago. From there, he was promoted to executive steward, followed by catering positions in Monterey, Calif., Dallas and Washington. "I have had a great opportunity to see the country," he says.
Oddly, he says he wanted to be in Hyatt's rooms division when he started. "I have not worked one day in the rooms division," he says. "I just got bitten by the catering bug."
The hotel tour came full circle in 1988 when Svensson went back to the Chicago area to work as the director of catering for the Hyatt Regency Chicago. That same year, the hotel launched a pilot program for the catering department to produce off-premise catering functions. "We were looking for additional sources of revenue," he explains, "and many people were interested in doing non-ballroom-type events."
Hyatt named its new off-premise catering division Regency Caterers and assigned marketing functions to Svensson, who supervises a staff of 12. "Our specialty is groups of 1,000 people or more," he says.
Regency plans 300 to 350 events each year. "Off-premise catering makes up 15 percent to 20 percent of our total catering revenue," he adds.
Longevity has its perks, according to Svensson. "I've catered for every U.S. president since Carter except Clinton." He recently catered a reception for first lady Hillary Clinton, sans the President. "It was a fund-raiser for her Senate campaign."
Svensson did take one sabbatical from Hyatt. In 1983, he attended La Varenne Culinary Institute in Paris for six months. "I needed a spark to get my creative juices flowing."
He says the most important thing he learned is that many of the classic cooking techniques have not changed over the centuries. "The basics don't change. You just add in your own creativity, color and ingredients."
John Svensson Regency Caterers by Hyatt 151 E. Wacker Drive, Chicago, IL 60601 312/616-6854 Web site: www.chicago.hyatt.com