For over 20 years, Emelle’s Catering has been a culinary fixture in Vancouver’s bustling Mount Pleasant neighbourhood. In that time, Director of Catering Sales, Nicole Burke, has seen the business go from strength to strength, navigating a constantly shifting culinary scene while staying true to the business’ roots. As a testament to their success, earlier this year, Emelle’s Catering became the first ever business to scoop two Small Business BC Awards in one night, winning the Best Marketer and Best Employer Award.
We sat down with Nicole to discover the keys to Emelle’s long-standing success.
“We Cater to You”
A guiding principle through the journey has been adaptability inherent in Emelle’s Catering. While other catering businesses offer set menus, Emelle’s have adopted a different strategy, focusing on accommodating client requests to make their events extra special.
“Being customizable has been a real strength for us and sets us apart from competitors,” says Nicole.
“We are the caterer who will take Grandma’s cabbage roll recipe and put it on a wedding menu. I always go back to our tagline, which is ‘we cater to you,’ and that means we are looking for your input, we welcome it. As it relates to our brand, we market ourselves as being approachable and not pretentious.
“I’m not going to discount anybody as a client because you want meatballs at your wedding. Good for you! If that’s what you really love and it’s your big day you’re going to remember for the rest of your life, I’m going to serve meatballs. It’s not about me, it’s about you. What we do to accommodate this from an operational standpoint is to recognize we’ll have cabbage rolls coming up for a client on say, July 15th. We’ve also got another client looking for us to cater a separate event on the same day. Now, we can offer them some extra special items that might not typically be on our menu.
“Now, it doesn’t always necessarily work or fit with everyone’s perspective, but it allows us to provide better volume discounts for people, a wider selection and it keeps us more current. It can even become a talking point for people that we were so accommodating. So, I actually think it does better things for our brand.
“That’s just how we’ve always worked. We want to make people feel at home, like they’re a guest of ours. Say you’re hosting people at home and you know someone is coming who is a vegan. You wouldn’t serve them roast beef. That’s just being a gracious host. So, if a bride and groom are telling us their grandma is coming and they’ve had cabbage rolls at every event their entire lives, it’s important for them to be there. Don’t have grandma cook them. Give us the recipe and let us do it. Now Grandma can have an extra special day when she sees them on the buffet and to us that’s amazing.”
Finding Repeat Business
The food business is a cyclical one. Summers are a busy time, with outdoor events and weddings quickly filling up the calendar. For Emelle’s, the key to lasting success has been building longer-term relationships that help them weather the industry’s quieter times of year.
“Like any other food business, social media is definitely a big deal for us but what remains even more valuable is our tried and true relationships and partnerships with venues and other locations,” says Nicole.
“We’re the preferred partner for Bard on the Beach and have worked with them for years. That gives us access to their corporate sponsors and their guests. These partnerships help us to establish credibility. We also provide sponsorship for big events. One example is how we cater the VGH Hospital Foundation’s events. We call it ‘food and mouth advertising.’ It gives us an opportunity to meet the right people and we’ve noticed businesses like to do business with people who are aligned with their same values and goals.
“Vancouver Rowing Club is another one of our exclusive partners and we’ve worked for 12 years in Science World. Creating and establishing those relationships has been huge for us and allows us to have steady and reliable income through the traditional ‘off-season’ for our industry.
“It means we don’t have the same seasonal challenges other hospitality suppliers face, who are hot and heavy in the summer and quiet outside of that. We’ve mitigated that situation because we have a steady stream of corporate clients who come to us during the off-season.”
Learning on the Job
Running a business offers a daily education. Each day brings new things to learn and skills to master. Nicole learned quickly the value of staying true to who you are, and the power of saying no.
“More than anything else, I’ve learned that you can’t be everything to everybody. You need to be true to your own values and vision. When I read our reviews we typically have really excellent reviews. The reason for this is because we focus on fit. If there’s a problem at one of our events I genuinely feel sick to my stomach.
“How I avoid this scenario developing is to really be honest and open in our initial consult with a client. If they aren’t 100% happy with what we’re doing, or you get the wrong vibe, I know my own market well enough to say, ‘you know what, I think you’d be a really great fit for Culinary Capers, they’re going to do better for you for what you’re asking for and what you want.
“It’s so vital to learn how to say no, and say no with confidence. Otherwise, you’re at a much bigger risk of letting down a client and that can be really damaging to a business in our industry.”
Advice for Future Food Business Owners
With over two decades of experience under her belt, Nicole has seen first-hand how quickly the food business can change. Her advice? Keep it simple, and stick to your passions.
“My biggest piece of advice I can give is to choose the thing you’re best at. Choose what makes you happiest, the thing you’re most passionate about, because that’s what’s going to sustain you during the start-up phase when you’re going flat out 24/7 and you don’t know where the end is. It allows you to be confident in what you’re selling and to deliver a product that you yourself are happy with.
“Also, resist the temptation to try and do everything. You’ll have people telling you to diversify but you have to have a solid foundation. Take Emelle’s, we don’t profess to be the hot and trendy caterer in town but that’s not who we want to be. We’ve never felt the need to try and be that. Can we compete in the market? Absolutely. And we do. Appeal to your target demographic and really nail that.
“Sometimes, as business owners, it’s easy to forget this. You are frantically trying to say yes to everything and you get caught with your pants down not being able to meet your deliverables. You’ve either got too much on the go, or you miss a step somewhere because you’re scattered and you have things all over the place. That’s when you leave yourself most vulnerable to mistakes.”