At MenuCalc, we have a special opportunity to work with foodservice professionals from all sides of the industry: restaurant owners, manufacturers, caterers, hospitality groups — you name it. We have a unique vantage point from which we observe these innovators create new products and bring them to market. And though we’re a mere pit-stop on their way to retail or their dining-room tables, we get to observe these new products grow from an exciting idea to a fruitful success. It’s part of why we do what we do. Sometimes, in this great food-circle of recipe to retail, we come across a foodservice professional who is brave enough to try something new. And that’s the case with one of our newest clients, Darlene Ritter. While assisting her in choosing the best plan for her products, we were thrilled to find out that she’s creating quite a stir in vegan catering. Coupled with new services provided by DoorDash, Darlene has begun to provide her delicious catered meals to a higher volume of hungry event-attenders through, wait for it, drop-ship catering.
This past week on behalf of MenuCalc, I sat down with Darlene for a virtual interview to discover how this business idea came to be, and what else she’s up to in the industry (it’s pretty exciting). So if you’re a caterer wanting to reach a larger crowd, or maybe you’re just thinking of breaking into catering, Darlene has some priceless insight for you. Without further adieu, let’s jump in.
How it All Began
Although Darlene is now a caterer that provides delicious vegan food via drop-shipping (Drop shipping in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania & Maryland) it wasn’t always this way. Actually, her story doesn’t even begin with catering. Ritter started this journey as a baker, making desserts for friends and family. The more people tried her desserts, the more the demand for them grew and eventually, this very naturally blossomed into adding food to her repertoire. It was then that “Harvest Caterers” was born! But Darlene wasn’t always known for the vegan foods that she provides today.
Darlene says: “When it all started about 30 years ago, I had no idea how to cook vegan food. It all began with desserts and then grew into entrees. Barbecue was my specialty. And I was really picky about the ingredients I used. Before farm-to-table was ever a thing, I sourced my ingredients locally. I didn’t just want my food to taste good, I wanted it to be high-quality. As my business began to grow, I learned a valuable lesson about the clientele I chose to cook for — they’re just as important as the ingredients that you choose! I began to be selective about who I catered to so that I could provide an excellent experience. There’s nothing more important that your client list as a new business owner.”
Making the Switch to Vegan
Eventually, Darlene’s catering business grew so substantially, that she stopped making desserts altogether and simply focused on providing an first-rate, farm-to-table experience for everyone who hired her. In 2018, while using a platform called “Bark”, Darlene was connected with an organization that wanted to provide a vegan-experience for their attendees at an upcoming event. Although Ritter had never cooked vegan meals in the past, she was confident in her understanding of flavors and the use of quality ingredients. After this organization was initially swindled by another caterer, they were under a time crunch to cater their vegan event. And boy did Darlene step up to the plate.
” I never made anything vegan before, and I had to learn really fast. At that time, vegan meat substitutes didn’t exist, so I relied heavily on tofu to provide that hearty experience I was known for through my traditional barbecued food. It was a hit! We served mock crab cakes, vegan stuffed shells (vegan parmesan, tofu, and spinach for the filling) , BBQ tofu, and grilled asian tofu w/ asparagus. And it was such a great experience, I began to transition into catering vegan full-time, and I went back to creating deserts!”
Dinner Isn’t Complete without Dessert
Darlene lives by the firm belief that no dining experience is complete without desert. So, she began to experiment with desert recipes, transitioning them into delicious Vegan options to compliment her vegan catering.
“It just so happened that a lot of my established clients had food sensitivities. So when I began adding in Vegan desserts to my menu, they were excited. But the best part of it all was, no one could tell the difference! I spent the time making sure that the quality of my desserts were not just as good as traditional desserts, but better. Every meal should have a dessert to complete it. Vegan meals shouldn’t be any different.”
As a result of the success of her desserts, Ritter has been able to procure an investor and has begun the process of bringing her vegan desserts to retail. That’s actually how I had the pleasure of meeting her. She came to MenuCalc via our sister-site, LabelCalc, in order to get retail ready FDA-approved nutrition labels for her vegan desserts headed into grocery retail.
“I won him over with my pumpkin pie! He couldn’t believe that it was Vegan!” laughs Darlene. “Our goal is to bring desserts to retail and then expand to full vegan entrees complete with dessert. Oh, and pumpkin pies year round! Pumpkin pies in July!”
Advice for the Newbie
Every time we interview a foodservice/industry veteran, we make sure to gather their tips and tricks for anyone who is just beginning their food industry journey, and Darlene is no exception. Here’s what she had to say about ingredient sourcing:
“Make sure to have a vendor list quality ingredients that are affordable. Your success or failure all hinges on your supplier. Source locally to keep your inventory costs low. Start with small orders and build as you grow. There’s a big misconception that you need to buy in bulk to save money, you don’t. Buy what you need for the freshest result each time that you cater. You can always move into bulk ordering as your demand increases. Begin with places like Restaurant Depot and small grocery stores in addition to local farms during warmer months. It’s truly all you need.”
But that’s not all. The second part to successful catering is an excellent client list. According to Darlene:
“When you first begin, you naturally want to fulfill every request. But you will come across people who expect something for nothing. Be selective with who you choose to work with and do not cheapen yourself. It’s hard but it’s the best thing to do to create a great experience for both yourself and your client. You can’t grow if you are under-selling yourself.”
And we couldn’t agree more. Keep your standards high and don’t forget, sweet potato pies in July!
To be featured in one of our Client highlights, contact Chantelle Pape @ firstname.lastname@example.org