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Judges' Choice Award: Salt & Pepper Catering

“We make and use quality fresh ingredients,” Thomas said. “Nothing is frozen or pre-made from a box, and salads are mixed when we get there. We offer it at a good price and it makes us popular.”

Fresh, hand-made food served with a touch of class has placed Salt & Pepper Catering in high demand.

This relatively new company has the right ingredients for the people of Thunder Bay.

The company’s sales have increased steadily over the last four years, even during the 2008 global financial crisis. The 2010 season is already filled, and catering for wedding celebrations is being reserved for 2012.

“I didn’t think it would take off the way that it did,” said Dave Thomas, a Red Seal chef and the company’s owner.

He employs 25 part-time, seasonal and full-time employees who work out of a fully equipped banquet and kitchen facility. Two catering trucks and a catering trailer help deliver food from the McKellar Street location.

This fast-paced business shows no signs of slowing down, evident with a recent three-year contract to run the food and beverage services at three city-owned golf courses.

“It offers opportunity to cater, and it works well with what I do,” Thomas said. “People have used us quite a bit and they’re quite happy.”

The customers’ needs are the primary focus, and service must be prompt, courteous and efficient. As well, Salt & Pepper customizes client menus, specializes in all types of events from small house parties to large-scale holiday celebrations, works within the client’s budget, and highlights the use of local suppliers on the menus. The food philosophy is “Fresh is best!”

“We make and use quality fresh ingredients,” Thomas said. “Nothing is frozen or pre-made from a box, and salads are mixed when we get there. We offer it at a good price and it makes us popular.”

Thomas said he learned different aspects of running his business from the various restaurants in which he worked during the 15 years prior to Salt & Pepper Catering.

He gained valuable experience in running a business and interacting with people during his 5,000 hours as an apprentice at Timber Creek Lodge in Markham, his hometown. Keeping a fastidiously clean kitchen was replicated from Charlie Trotters in Chicago, Illinois. Skills in finance, food labour and running a large, busy kitchen was acquired from Toronto’s Milestone’s Grill & Bar. Working as a sous chief in Sydney, Australia provided exposure to Australian cuisine and its fresh foods.

One of the main philosophies Thomas instills in his employees is to lead by example.

“Whether it is the way we work, how hard we work, how clean we keep everything or how we deal with customers, I do see them (staff) act and talk the same way,” Thomas said. “I always feel that is a good thing, because it is a reflection on me. People see that it works, they respect it and copy it, which is what I want.”

Creative marketing initiatives like Wednesday Open Kitchen Lunch, Friday Spaghetti Take Out and the use of Facebook have generated interest and patronage.

The Wednesday Open Kitchen Lunch began as a once-a-week buffet lunch served in their kitchen where people sit at the prep tables. It started with 15 guests and mushroomed to 150 people. A new menu is e-mailed each week to participating customers.

“I thought it would be a little lunch with 20 people – cozy and nice,” Thomas said. “It became a really popular event.” He added that they have more than 2,000 e-mail addresses and use the system to push people toward their website.

Thomas uses Facebook to tell people where they are catering each day. He also uses it to run specials for Friday Spaghetti Take Out.

The use of glass plates at no extra charge has been an appealing feature that many people appreciate. Thomas said people like it much better, especially with hot lunches.

“It’s something so simple, but I think it’s pretty important.”

Understanding and paying attention to this type of detail differentiates Salt & Pepper Catering from the rest. Thomas also attributes the growth and success of his business to the support he has received from his wife, as well as hard-working employees who can keep up with the volume and type of work catering requires.