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ISES Master Series: Planning and Preparing for Growth by Debra Lykkemark CEO of Culinary Capers Catering

ISES Master Series – Tuesday September 25, 2012
Debra Lykkemark, CEO

Today I am going to share my TOP TEN TIPS for growing your business through planning, building a great team and taking risks.

Culinary Capers is 26 years old.  I started the business with two partners.  Each of us put in $5000 and then we got a loan for another $15,000.  With $30,000 and big dreams we opened a small 20-seat coffee shop on West Broadway in Vancouver where we did morning coffee,  pastries, sandwiches and hot lunches as well as catering.  The first five years were very tough. Getting a business off the ground usually takes at least five years, so my FIRST TIP for growing a business is perseverance and commitment are essential.

Perseverance in a young business means long hours and wearing many hats. For the first three years I was the Executive Chef, the Event Planner, the Event Supervisor, and often, the dishwasher.

Commitment is when you have put in a long day and you look at that batch of brownies you just made for the event the next day that didn’t turn out as good as usual.  You think “hmmmm, they’re good enough”, and then you stop yourself, “good enough is not good enough, they have to be great”.   So you stay two more hours and make another batch.  It is a slow steady march of delivering what you promise to your clients that builds your reputation, your brand, and in turn, brings new and return customers.

At the five year mark my partners had moved out of Vancouver and were not active in the company.  I decided to buy them out so I could have control of the company’s future. The catering was out performing the sales at the café but the kitchen at the café was not big enough to handle the volume.   The company was not generating enough profit to support a second kitchen.  I decided to sell the café and moved the catering into a large commercial kitchen on the old Expo ‘86 site.

The SECOND TIP for growing a successful company is understanding what you are passionate about and building your business around that passion.   I loved catering and wanted to be the best caterer in the world.  The café was a distraction when I really needed to be focused on growing the catering.

This realization was a major turning point for me and the company. The catering started to take off and the company started to make money. The next five years were a blur. I worked like a maniac but I was also very fortunate to have some incredible mentors to help me.

My THIRD TIP is to find mentors with experience in your industry or in business in general.
I had two mentors who helped me during this time of growth for no compensation except the satisfaction of seeing the business grow.   Michael had just finished managing the launch of a courier company in the US where one of the tasks was to oversee sales and marketing.  He offered to put together a marketing plan for Culinary Capers when he saw my sad dented up delivery van with an old phone number on it.   He fixed up the van and put the right phone number on it.  He then designed a menu package for corporate drop-off catering and went door-to-door introducing the company.

Michael’s friend Bill had extensive experience in food and beverage accounting.  Michael asked him if he would mentor me when I came home one day and said,  “wow I got a cheque today from ABC Company and I didn’t even know they owed us money!”.  Bill taught me how to set-up a proper ledger, accounts receivable and accounts payable.

There are lots of places to find mentors – groups like Forum for Women Entrepreneurs (FWE), form an Advisory Board of colleagues, or find mentors in international groups and associations like ISES.

By the time I was in my 10th year of business I was making enough money to finally be able to hire a really amazing Executive Chef.    I had met Margaret five years earlier when she applied for the Executive Chef position at Culinary Capers.  At that time I knew I couldn’t afford her and even if I could, the job would not be challenging enough.  But I also remember thinking…”I am going to keep this resume and call her when the business is big enough”.

This is my FOURTH TIP – as you grow start building a team around you that can take you to the next level.  
Decide which tasks you are not the best at and hire someone that excels at that task.   Then delegate and let them run with it. 

It was 1996 and I hired Chef Margaret and the food we were producing got better and better and I had more time to focus on sales.  We landed a huge job that year with the NHL All-Star Gala for 4,500 people.  Prior to that the largest job we had done was for 500 people.   This was a big milestone for the company.   The Special Event industry saw what a great job we did with this event and we tapped into doing events for Destination Management Companies, conferences and conventions.

We made our biggest financial commitment in 1999 when we moved into our current building.  We took out a loan for $250,000 for renovations and doubled our rent payment.  This was a calculated risk based on steady growth of 15% to 20% every year.   But there were some big unimaginable surprises coming.  9/11 rocked the world and our industry.   Convention business and the travel industry came to a standstill and that was followed closely by SARS.  Even local events were cancelled for fear of spreading an epidemic.

Karen serving Granville Island Sake Cured Sockeye Salmon Crisps

My FIFTH TIP is know when to react fast and when you react be decisive and focused.
When the unexpected happens reassess and decide if your plans need to change. Then take decisive action.   Within a week of 9/11 we had lowered our forecasts for the year by 30% and done a cash flow projection to see what the impact would be on the business.  We then looked at every line item on our Profit and Loss statement to see where we could trim without affecting the quality of our food and service.  After doing this we realized we would have to make further cuts to keep the business healthy.  We renegotiated every contract – our rent, insurance, bank loan, and salaries.   If we had waited too long there was a good chance we could have gone bankrupt.

It was 2004 and I was beginning to wonder if the event world would ever get back to normal.  The business was growing slowly but I was getting bored and looking for a new challenge.   I decided to join EO the Entrepreneurs’ Organization.  In EO I was challenged to make long term plans for the business.  It was through the support of my peers in this organization and in the International Caterers Association that helped me develop and reach for my next goal.

Vancouver had a good shot at getting the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.   My goal was to position Culinary Capers to get a large share of the sponsor business if Vancouver won the Olympic bid.   Part of the strategy involved getting a contract to cater at BC Canada House in Torino Italy.    What better way to meet the Olympic sponsors and find out what challenges we would face if the Olympics came to Vancouver.

This is my SIXTH TIP for growing your business.   Do your homework.   As Jim Collins says in his book Great by Choice, “shoot bullets before you shoot the cannonball”.   Or in other words, take small risks to test the market before you take the big risk.

Catering in Torino was an amazing experience.  We made great contacts in the Olympic world that would generate more business for us at the Vancouver Olympics and at the Beijing Olympics.  Jim Collins says, “you should shoot more than one bullet before you shoot a cannonball” so our next bullet was catering at the BC Canada Pavilion for five months around the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.   This was by far the scariest catering challenge I had ever faced.   The challenge was two-fold.  I would be catering in a country where I could not understand the language or even read a sign and I would need to be there for five months…which meant leaving the full responsibility of running the Vancouver company to the management team.

Culinary Capers served new fall hors d’oeuvre including Porcini Mushroom Twice Baked Souffle topped with truffle cream and porcini dust with a savoury biscotti stir stick


My SEVENTH TIP for growing a business is to learn how to work more on the business rather than in the business.
To do this well is a balancing act between freeing up more of your time for strategic planning and special projects, but still staying involved enough with the day-to-day that you keep grounded in the business and are in touch with what your clients are wanting and needing.   Working on the business means setting the direction, goals and the structure and then empowering your team to follow through to reach the goals.

Beijing turned out to be the surprise of my life.  I loved the city and the people. The energy there was amazing and the economy was growing incredibly fast.   The Chef from the Canadian Embassy in Beijing, Billy Kawaja, came to work for me at BC Canada Pavilion.  He had been living in Beijing for a few years.    When the contract was over we decided to keep the company going and Billy and I became partners in Asia and Culinary Capers Beijing was born.

These last four years have been a wild ride.  The 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver were amazing and Culinary Capers had three major contracts – Sochi 2014 Olympic House, RBC Royal Bank and Shaw Communications – where we did everyday, all day hospitality.

In addition, we had many events for companies like NBC, Coca Cola, Nike, Teck Cominco and the BC Secretariat.  We had 400 to 500 people working everyday over the 2010 Olympics and in three weeks we did six months worth of business. This massive jump in sales was possible because we committed the time and energy to build a solid plan and an empowered team over the six years leading up to the Vancouver Olympics.

Meanwhile in Beijing, due to their hot economy, we have been growing like a weed.   Today, we have 120 full-time employees and we expect that it will do the same amount of sales as Vancouver in 2013.  We recently moved into our third catering kitchen which we built, we opened our second restaurant and won a two year catering contract to feed 1500 children a day.

Small Plate – White Soy Caramel Sablefish with apple miso glaze, pear and cucumber salad, ginger green onion rice cake

This is my EIGHTH TIP for growing a business.   If you decide to shoot a cannonball like opening a branch in another city or taking on a massive amount of business make sure it is a calculated risk.   

With the Beijing company we set up a separate Asia company to protect Culinary Capers Vancouver in the event there were any legal or financial issues with the company in China. You need to hope for the best but be prepared for the worst – never risk more than you are prepared to lose and protect the mother ship!

Just in time for the holidays a new petite dessert – Irish Cream Cheesecake finished with coffee cream and rich dark chocolate

My NINTH TIP for growing your business is to keep your mind open to new ideas, products and services for your business.
The world economy and the internet are changing our industry whether we like it or not. What can you develop or change within your business to navigate and grow in these challenging times? One of the areas of opportunity we championed over the last year and a half was to organize the caterers and special event industry to lobby to get the antiquated British Columbia liquor laws changed.

We witnessed the government bending the regulations to accommodate the Olympic sponsors and had hoped that those changes would be permanent.  Much to our dismay, after the 2010 Olympics the regulations reverted back to the old rule whereby caterers could not transport liquor or get a license on behalf of their clients.

This issue was a concern for the convention/incentive groups considering BC as a destination.   The caterers worked together putting up the money to hire consultants to help us lobby.   We then worked with the media, Canadian Restaurant & Food Association, Tourism Vancouver, Whistler and Victoria, ISES and MPI to support us and petition the government MLAs for change.   It was a full court press and it worked!   The Legislation was passed, we are just waiting for the regulations to be announced before the end of 2012 and then off premise caterers, hotels and restaurants with catering licenses will be allowed to apply for a liquor license, purchase and transport alcohol.   This change will make our beautiful Province more attractive to out-of-town planners visiting our city.

The other thing that we did was to invite our employees to bringing forward business ideas for the company to consider.   As a result of this, we have just launched XOXO Pet Treats.   My Executive Sous Chef came to me with this idea.  We compost food scraps and he was throwing away salmon skin when the light went on.  He thought “my dog loves barbecued salmon skin why don’t we make a healthy Omega-3 rich treat for dogs from our Ocean Wise wild BC salmon skin?”.  So after five months of testing for shelf life we have launched four salmon treat products which we are selling in pet stores and online.

My FINAL TIP for growing your business…HAVE FUN!  Positive energy is contagious and can open up endless opportunities.

So to recap my top ten tips for growing your business and taking risks:

  • Perseverance and commitment are essential.
  • Understand what you are passionate about and build around that passion.
  • Find mentors with experience in your industry or in business.
  • As you grow build a team made up of people who can take you to the next level.
  • Know when to react fast and then be decisive and focused.
  • Learn how to work more on the business than in the business.
  • Shoot bullets to test your idea before you take the big risk and shoot a cannonball.
  • If you decide to shoot a cannonball – never risk more than you are prepared to lose and protect the mother ship!
  • Keep your mind open to new ideas, products and services for your business.  

HAVE FUN!  Positive energy is contagious and can open up endless opportunities. 
Debra Lykkemark

Petite Dark Chocolate Brownie Bite finished with ganache


Photography credit: Brian Dennehy Photography







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