Let Them Eat Cake

While opening a restaurant may be one of the most exciting and glamorous options in the culinary industry, it’s hardly the only one. Beyond restaurants lies a whole range of culinary professionals, such as caterers and food shop proprietors. It’s not every day that you find these two culinary avenues in the same person—or rather, in two people from a catering background who also happen to be partners in a retail food shop. Damon Wallace and Sevada Markosyan are exactly such a pair.

Both work for Anoush Catering and L.A. Banquets, a 38-year-old veteran of the catering business based in Glendale, California. Damon, a longtime chef, is the company’s director of operations, and Sevada leads its sales department. In the fall of 2014, the duo partnered to launch La Fleur, a delightful European-style bakery shop in the Montrose suburb of Glendale in Los Angeles county. Damon and Sevada talk about a wide range of catering and entrepreneurial issues in this interview.

Damon, tell us a bit about your career as a chef.

I did my apprenticeship for about 10 years and then opened MGM, the world’s biggest hotel, in Las Vegas. I worked there for two years before I got an offer to work overseas—at a private company in Egypt on the Red Sea coast. When I arrived in Egypt I didn’t speak the language. Most of the employees didn’t speak English, but they had a willingness and a need to learn and be better than their colleagues in the industry there so that they could get higher positions and make more money. I taught a lot of people, both talented and otherwise. A few them had passion and a clear grasp of what it takes to be successful. They progressed quite rapidly. When I left Egypt, 90 percent of the five-star hotels in the region where I had worked were all my guys. All of them had worked for me and had come up through the ranks of my operations.

That’s a huge accomplishment.

I think so, especially if you talk about the fact that many of these people did not knowing anything starting out. They didn’t know about personal hygiene, for example. They lived in homes that had dirt floors. So the perception of things such as bacteria and microbes was just not there. They would look at a table and say it’s clean, but in actuality it was not, when it comes to food preparation. They had to be trained in all of these basic things—and Egypt was a great place for the development of my teaching and mentoring. We take a lot for granted in the West, where there’s already a lot of knowledge ingrained in us from how we grow up. We know to be careful when dealing with eggs, chicken or poultry, things like that. Over there, in Egypt, when I arrived the butcher’s area was right next to the pastry area. Raw meat was hanging down, dropping blood, and splashing blood onto the cakes. And these cakes were going directly out to the guests to eat, with frosting on them. When I saw this I nearly had a heart attack.

Sevada, how did Damon and you first meet?

We met as co-workers at Anoush Catering three years ago (around 2011). I was the director of sales. The advantage we have is that most people try to become business partners when they’re close friends. Ours was the opposite situation. We were co-workers before we were even friends. And after being co-workers for a long time, we eventually became friends. And when we became friends our families became friends. And then we became an actual family. From that point forward— opening a business and becoming partners—things became a lot easier because we already knew each other’s work ethic. Before we were friends, we knew each other from our working environment. I think that if you can become friends with the people you work with, you can do business with those people as well.

Why is it so important to get the bread—the crust—right in pastries and cakes?

Damon Wallace: The crust or the sponge is the foundation on which everything’s built. In the [confectionary] industry, what I’ve been seeing over the past three and a half years since coming back to America is that everything is really sweet. Maybe it was always that way. There are really no nuances of flavor. It’s just in-your-face sugar, sweet, thick. People really focus on appearance much more than taste. We want to change that. We want cakes to taste great. And if we’re talking about the crust—the foundation of what you eat—if a cake or pastry is not good from that standpoint it’s never going to be good as a finished product when it’s all decorated and beautiful. Unless something tastes good from the foundation it’s never going to be acceptable.

What’s the secret to a great business collaboration?

Damon: Honesty. And knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses. I’m not a guy who comes out with his emotions much. When something’s bothering me, I normally don’t open up much. I’m very cerebral, and I like to think over every possible combination of a conversation as it comes up so that I don’t take my frustrations out on my partner or whoever I’m speaking with.

Sevada is more of a guy who comes in and says, “Come on, let’s talk, let’s get it out.” A business partnership involves two personalities that have to be blended in a way that makes it successful. It’s almost like a marriage.

Sevada: I haven’t gotten a ring yet, but I agree. There are a lot of failed partnerships. My brother opened up a business with two partners and they were all very good friends in the beginning. The business was doing well but it failed because of the relationships. The problem was that they were friends who had never been in business together. And when they did, there’s always that little bit of bickering and uncertainty about things like what the other person said or meant when he said something. And that’s why I think it’s important to be honest with each other—if something’s bothering you, you should talk about it. When you talk about things you usually discover that whatever was bothering you is not that important as you thought in the beginning. Most of the time it’s a misunderstanding that wrecks a partnership.

Damon: Setting priorities is also important. I’ve always believed that family comes first. We both have our families, which are also intertwined. When it comes to business decisions, there have been several instances where we’ve had to subordinate the business interests to that of the family. If we’re not happy in our families we can never be successful in a business. Because you’ll keep undercutting what’s important only to go after more business. And you know where that’s going to end—you’re going to be alone. You’ll have more money but you’ll be alone. And that’s not success by any measure.

Do you get a lot of requests from people that have special diet needs—vegan, gluten-free etc.? And how do you see your industry’s future in terms of healthier foods? 

Damon: Yes, we have had requests like that. Gluten-free, for example, is more of a lifestyle choice than a diet for a lot of people. But if you want to make gluten-free products you would have to completely empty your kitchen of all gluten products. Otherwise you could conceivably have a customer who’s allergic to gluten come in and get sick after consuming one of your products because you don’t have a completely gluten-free kitchen. And I don’t want that. So we’ve gone a different route. We don’t put chemicals, stabilizers—the kind of stuff you find in many stores and which are meant to make products last longer. I don’t want to pretend that our products are gluten-free or low fat. They’re not. Our products are made from fresh ingredients every day, and whatever doesn’t sell goes into the garbage.

How do you expect customers to know that you don’t add chemicals and preservatives to your products? Do you have to mention that in a mission statement or through advertising or social media?

Damon: They taste it. Food is memories. I don’t want to go and give everybody a long spiel about our products. As soon as customers taste our products they’re going to realize that they’re different from anything else they’ve had—or they think that they’ve been to Paris or Austria and tasted something like that once. That’s what we want.

But if you were making and selling organic products or something vegan or vegetarian you would have to advertise or announce that, right? Otherwise how would people know what they’re buying and eating?

Damon: I think “organic” is more of a marketing position. Our marketing position is that we wanted to open a shop that offers European pastries unavailable anywhere in the vicinity. What we got was a lot of people who were reading about us on Yelp and coming in and tasting our products and going, Oh, wow! This is just like Europe! I  have extensive experience throughout Europe and so we know what European pastry is supposed to taste like.

What are the three most important ingredients for an awesome wedding cake?

Damon: Great customers. Because if customers know what they want—they gave a great vision or an idea—we try to take that vision out of their mind and make it a reality.

Sevada: Obviously, for the quality of the cake it’s important to make sure you’re not cutting corners. A lot of the time people are focused on design—making sure the cake looks pretty—and they compromise on taste and quality. Especially at Armenian weddings, bakers know that guests are going to be eating the cake late in the night after dinner, some guests will have left, and many won’t be able to taste the cake as well after a lot of drinks.

Damon: The third ingredient, I think, is integrity. When we were talking about opening our bakery, we really wanted to be clear about what our identity was. And me, as a chef, I wanted to be clear about what was acceptable and not acceptable regarding what we put in our cakes. And I was fortunate that Sevada was exactly on the same track as I was. In our business and a lot of other businesses we eat cake all the time. All of our suppliers are constantly bringing in cake. And we both realized that there were really not that many good cakes. So behind our business concept and what we want to deliver to customers lies the integrity to say that we’re not going to put out something that’s cheap or affordable and has a good design if there’s nothing inside of it.

How does a catering customer determine how to order the right amount of food—to strike the right balance between having enough on the table and saturate it with dishes?

Damon: Well, above all else, you don’t want to run out of food. It takes years of experience to know what people are going to eat. If you’re putting lamb chops and chicken and beef lula kebab on the table, you can guarantee that guests are going to massacre the lamb chops, because almost everybody loves lamb chops. So when you’re calculating how much to order, it’s a good idea to order more lamb chops and a bit less of other competing items, such as the chicken and lula kebabs. We have a team of professionals, including highly experienced chefs, that helps customers make such decisions, and 99.9 percent of the time they do it very well. On the whole, I always like to see a little bit of food left over instead of telling a customer that we’re sorry we don’t have any more.

A restaurant can always say that it ran out of something, but there’s really no excuse for a catering business to say that it ran out of an item because there are guests waiting to be fed, right?

Damon: That’s right. But even in a restaurant, mind you, from a business standpoint, it’s never a good thing to run out of something on the menu—because there are customers waiting to pay for it. So let’s say that when you run out of $30 lamb chops, maybe customers are going to order an $8 salad. You’ve lost an opportunity to increase your revenues.

Why is it important to position yourself—La Fleur, for example—as unique in the marketplace?

Sevada: One thing we noticed was that there weren’t a lot of stores that provide all the ingredients needed for a successful bakery. When I was looking for a wedding cake, when our friends are looking for a wedding cake, when anybody’s looking for even a pastry shop to go to, there’s never really that place you can go to that has a great environment, good quality food, good customer service. Sometimes there isn’t really a trick or secret to being unique. It’s just about getting the fundamentals right consistently every single time. When we were building this business we thought about everything from the design to what we were going to serve and how we were going to present it.

We wanted to make sure that before anything else the customer experience was thought about—that from the second customers walks in, everything they see, smell and taste is of a very high experience. And then when people walked in we wanted to make sure that experience was consistent every single time. We’ve had repeat customers who came in and who told us that they didn’t want to say anything about our place after their first experience because they didn’t know what it would be like the second or third time. So if anything makes us unique it’s that we do pay attention to those little details that other companies may not.

Damon: Well, we do have an advantage in that we’re both from the hospitality industry and we do have a different perspective on what it takes to be really successful in this industry. If I were just the guy who baked as a hobby and we decided to open this store—maybe I was a car mechanic and Sevada was working at Radio Shack—we wouldn’t have the same perception.

What are your three takeaways—the three most important things you have learned in the bakery or catering business?

Damon: First of all, I think that the reason we’ve been successful in what we’ve done is that the timing has been just right. Everything fit together like a puzzle. So my first takeaway is planning. Plan for every contingency—whatever you’re budgeting, add money to it because it’s never going to be enough. And you’re really not going to be able to plan well until you’ve opened one business already. The next one is easier and the next one is easier still because it’s all about experience. Experience is what you get when things don’t go right.

Sevada: Staying positive and always maintaining integrity. Whenever you get into a very high pressure, high stress situation, regardless of how close you may be to your partner and how well you get along, it’s very easy to look at things in a negative way—to look at the problems and what’s not going the right way. There are always going to be a lot of days when everything is going completely wrong. And it’s easy to not be positive and, because of the time limitations and all the stress, not do things with integrity. That’s when I think it’s important to ask yourself why you decided to open a business, what your plan was and what you always wanted your business to be like.

Damon: Starting a business is not about money. It’s not about getting rich. It’s about doing something you want to do with passion. The money will come. Success will come. If you open a business only thinking about how much money you’re going to make, you’re going to hate every single day of it. Because you don’t start making money from the first day in every business. It takes a lot of hard work to make money. And if you don’t have a passion for what you’re doing you will never be able to sustain what you’re doing and won’t be successful.

You’re obviously speaking from experience, Damon. But just how did you come to know all of what you’re advising aspiring entrepreneurs to do?

Early on I started looking around at rich people whom I knew or had met. There weren’t many of them who were happy. From everybody else’s eyes they looked like they were successful. But I didn’t see success. And I don’t think they felt successful. That’s because they were so focused on chasing after money that they lost focus on everything else. I had a lot of opportunities in the past to open a business with partners but I never did it because I wanted to find the right partner who was on the same track as I was. Someone who was focused on the same things as me. Because I knew that if we started the right way we would continue on the right way. And not chasing after money is, I think, one of the best pieces of advice I could give anybody.

What kind of catering does Anoush do? Is it full service, partial service, no service or what?

Damon: It’s full service, but with the options of whatever the client wants. We have two different divisions—a catering division and a brick-and-mortar space [for dining]. So we could very well have outside caterers come in and cater their food in our locations.

So is it mainly social catering, such as weddings, graduations and banquets?

Damon: Yes. Sevada: We do quite a lot of other types of catering as well. We do fundraisers, proms for schools, Christmas parties, corporate events, meetings, conferences. Damon: We can go to any location, build a kitchen, build a restaurant, serve the guests, and then clean it all up and leave like we were never there.

What’s the importance of having a partner in the catering business?

Damon: From my standpoint, creativity. If your business is a one-person show, you’re only as good as that one person. But when you have people with a multitude of ideas, experiences and outlooks, you become so much stronger. You need to find someone who will complement your skills. None of us is good at everything.

How do you plan a catering menu—and how does that differ from planning a restaurant menu?

Sevada: Planning a catering menu has a lot of different considerations than a restaurant menu. A catering menu has to take into account what all the guests are going to want and enjoy. A lot of times, depending on how the food is served, you have to pre-select the food for everybody and make sure they’re going to enjoy it. And then, depending on where the event is hosted, a lot of things can change. So you always have to be cautious about what you’re selecting and how it’s going to be served.

Are there dishes that you prepare ahead of time and other dishes that you absolutely have to make on the day of the event?

Sevada: Yes, certain things that don’t necessarily go bad can be prepared in advance. And there are certain things that you have to make right before the event in order for them to be fresh.

What shopping tips can you offer to a caterer or aspiring caterer?

Damon: As far as Mediterranean food goes, keep it fresh. There’s not much being pulled out of boxes or freezers. And while there may be meats that are cut several days in advance, that’s not meant to save time but only because they take two days to marinate, to get the flavors into the meat and to break down some of the proteins so that the meat is more tender. So everything is timed in a way that on the final day your product tastes the way it is supposed to.

My advice to any potential caterer: Find your suppliers who give you fresh and good products consistently at a fair price. Once you find these suppliers, don’t change them—because there will be a hundred other suppliers who will give you products that are cheaper and lost longer. But you’re never going to get that authentic flavor from something that will stay for a week. Remember, grandma never made something for a week and let it sit around. She made it and put it on your table. And grandma always had the best food.

Are there caterers you know of who specialize only in bakery products?

Damon: There are industrial companies that a lot of hotels use. Their products come in boxes, which are opened up and put down on trays and sent out. We, at La Fleur, have catered [baked goods] to golf courses and hotels. It’s not the same—truly not the same. I was a chef of the biggest hotel in the world [MGM in Las Vegas]. When you’re working at that volume it’s very difficult to stay true to a great product. As the chef I was not able to put my hands into anything personally. It was an administrative job—payroll, ordering, things like that. It felt like being in a factory. And I didn’t want to be the chef of a factory. I wanted to be a chef in order to make great food.

What do you like about catering for weddings, graduations and other social events?

Sevada: You get a chance to work with people who are usually having the most important day of their lives. At the end, when everything goes exactly right, that gives you gratification bigger than any amount of money you can ever make.

Damon: There’s a touch of humanity to it. We touch a lot of lives in our jobs. Every day is different, every customer is different. We work really hard with our teams to make things happen, and when clients write a little note or send us a gift—or they don’t send anything but all of a sudden you find a beautiful Yelp review—that’s a great feeling. That’s why we do it. We want to be part of the important moments in people’s lives, whether it be in their business or personal lives.

What’s the most important factor in being a successful caterer?

Damon: Listening. Listening to what a customer wants. In the [chef] courses that I took, one instruction stood out: “Close you mouth and open your ears, and you will be able fulfill every customer’s need.” If you think you know it all and that you will be able to fulfill every need before you’ve ever listened, you’re wasting time and money and you’ll never have a happy client. There are certain things that are truly important to every client sitting in front of you.

The client who was sitting before you an hour before, there was something really important for him. And if you don’t catch those nuances, you’ll never do a good job. That said, everyone makes mistakes. It’s how you recover from mistakes that sets you apart. To say that we catch every nuance of every conversation would be disingenuous. But making a true effort on fulfilling clients’ needs is the basis of it.

How important is it to network with other caterers?

Sevada: It’s probably one of the most important things. If you don’t know your competition or the people who can help you, it’s very difficult to be able to compete, especially in today’s market. We have to have partnerships with other caterers and we also have to know what our competitors are offering.

For example, if our price is much higher than our competitors’ that doesn’t really help us. And if we don’t have vendors, coordinators and rental companies assisting us, then we don’t really have the ability to gain business in keeping with our potential.

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